Monday, November 4, 2013

Strong words sell your story

Writers trying to get read by new readers have a responsibility to make their words “attractive.” That’s why we use explosive imagery and compelling descriptive verbs to captivate them. For instance, any lightning can streak the sky. Don’t hesitate to shatter or crack the sky with lightning.

“Her gown followed her every move.” (Readers see a diaphanous material and visualize her floating across the floor.)

“The rhythm of her slippers scuffed under her departing feet like drummer’s brushing symbols.” (We know she’s leaving, wearing house shoes—with a diaphanous gown. Why? Peaks one’s curiosity.)

“Belinda stood in an open field and drank the rain, while shattering thunder exploded in a roiling sky. Her words rang like clapper bells across the cornstalks and dead tomatoes. (We know its early fall, but this is not a sane or happy woman.)

“The metallic clatter of stainless steel trays loading and unloading echo in the hallway outside her locked door.” (Nursing home? Hospital? Funny farm?)

What about other parts of speech? Most adverbs are handwringing stumbling blocks, especially in promotions and excerpts. On the other hand, well placed adjectives can be as effective as the nouns they modify.

Don’t dilute adjectives with hyperbole. It’s easy to fall in love with an image and describe it to death. Our best writers are sparing in their description, only employing exaggeration where it is affective, as in humor—always over the top—and poetry which runs on rhythm.

Proper and descriptive nouns are among the most important word choices. A car can be a vehicle (formal), the mister’s machine (old-fashioned turn-of-the-century), a horseless carriage (1900’s), or a sports car, coop, (fifties), van, Moke/Jeep, flat bed, truck, wagon, and so on…

Point of view and sense of place can be enriched by proper name choices and strong verbs:

Belinda backed away from the mirror watching her gown follow her every move.
“Misses Van Cleef, your ride is here.”
“You’re a peach, James. That will be all.”
The gardener withdrew, shaking his head.

Note choice of proper names: POV character, Belinda is weak and vulnerable—not like someone named “Olga or Maxine,” which hint of strength. Why does Belinda’s servant withdraw in front of her eyes as if she were royalty? Is she high class, or delusional?

James is a cliché name for servants such as chauffeurs and butlers. Belinda sees James as a servant to “Lady Van Cleef.”) But, James is the lawn boy, not even a real gardener or landscape architect. In choosing descriptive nouns, POV characters reveal themselves by their perceptions and prejudices. Belinda Van Cleef is obviously insecure, trying to live up to her husband’s name. She’s heading for a breakdown, and you are there.)

It’s difficult to think up punchy gems on the spur of a storytelling moment. Staying in the scene emotionally facilitates that skill. When we do our subsequent drafts, the weaker images can be brought to life by a verb transplant. (No waiting.)

The second draft is the least stressful and the most fun, adding life and focus to your story. It grieves me to see some of our newer writers balking at doing more than two or three drafts before the editors come on board. Be a pro; play fair with the editor. The editor is not the janitor. (What would Lady Van Cleef call her editor? “Girl”? Perhaps. But we know better.)

Julie Eberhart Painter is the Champagne Books author of Mortal Coil, Tangled Web, and the 2011 Book of the Year, Kill Fee with its sequel, Medium Rare. Daughters of the Sea is available from MuseItUp Publishing in paperback in November. Visit Julie’s Web site at


Unknown said...

Good reminders, Julie!

Anonymous said...

Indeed, word flow and rhythm are critical to reader enjoyment. Its what makes one author's voice absorbing and another boring.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Liz Fountain said...

This is why I love taking poetry writing workshops - poets really spend time selecting just the right word for imagery and for how the words sound, separately and together. And since I'm doing a revision right now for POV, this is quite timely. Thanks!