Five Scribe Readers: Today I’m excited to bring you one of the most talented women I know. As former Overall Coordinator of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, I saw today’s guest rise to the rank of Overall Winner of “The Daphne” for RWA’s Kiss of Death Chapter. Few rise to this level, but many aspire to earn the coveted title. Today, Jo has her educator hat on and she’s here to teach us a thing or two … or several. Please welcome Award-Winning Jo Robertson, Author of THE WATCHER.
One of the greatest tools in the author's arsenal of revision and rewrites is working with language. Once you've got your plot and pacing well defined, what can you do to elevate your book above the common fray? What sets your story apart from the myriads available to readers?
You've written the draft, tightened the plot, and strengthened the pacing. What's next? We talk a lot about an author's voice, but often writers fail to understand the concept. Voice is the unique tone of your writing; if your voice is strong, it's as distinguishable from another writer as fingerprints. It's your writing DNA and arises from two strong writing elements many authors pay little attention to: diction and syntax.
Diction is word choice and includes tone, which is the attitude of the writer toward her subject, characters, or writing. Diction is the foundation of voice. Effective writers use words that are clear, concrete, and precise. Largely this can be done by skillful understanding of words' denotation (the literal, dictionary definition of the word) and connotation (the implied or suggested meaning of a word, the emotional tag).
Consider the words "gaunt" and "slim." Both have the same denotations – both mean extremely thin.
Example: Your character hasn't seen her friend since last Christmas and she's lost a lot of weight. When Sara first sees Jane, she exclaims, "Oh, my gosh, you've lost weight! You look so ______." Consider the words you could use and how they convey the precise meaning you want.
skinny, thin, slender, gaunt, slim, trim, tiny, petite, svelte
Connotatively "gaunt" evokes memory of a concentration camp survivor or a cadaver. "Skinny" suggests too thin, perhaps even anorexic.
If you want your character to be a bit snarky, you will show her character by using "skinny," which has a negative connotation (not as negative as "gaunt," but that'd be going too far). If you want to convey sincere congratulations, your character might use "slender" or "slim."
Diction, then, is word choice, a powerful tool.
As a writer, you have great power over diction and an entire world of words to use. I advise my student never to use a thesaurus. If you don't know a word already, you're likely to misuse it in context.
If you need a word bank, start one of your own. When you read or hear interesting or evocative words, type them into your word bank and note how they're used. Play attention to their connotations as well as their denotation. Study their rhythm. Or you might consider investing in a good synonym dictionary. The difference between this kind of dictionary and a thesaurus is that the synonym dictionary will jog your memory for words you (hopefully) already have in your mental lexicon.
Another example: "Plump" and "obese" are denotatively the same – they mean overweight – but "plump" has a more positive connotation (pleasingly plump) suggesting a well-rounded or over-endowed person, while "obese" is a clinical term and suggests being grossly overweight.
Consider what the writer does connotatively with the underlined words in the following sentence:
The finalist surveyed the audience, clutching the RITA statue and congratulating herself for snatching the highest honor in the profession's contest.
All four words suggest that the finalist stole the honor from the other contestants, rather than achieved it fairly. The tone is gloating; the finalist surveys her fellow contenders as one looking down upon the audience.
Choose words that fit the tone of the passage or character. Don't overreach for these words, but do consider how tone is conveyed through your word choice. Your voice is closely connected to your diction.
The second tool we rarely talk about is syntax. Syntax is the arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence or passage. It involves a number of devices like sentence structure and phrasing.
Attention to syntax is more useful in your narration than your dialogue, but is important.
A. Sentence structure includes different kinds and types of sentences, rhetorical question, specific punctuation, and specific patterns of phrases and sentences within a passage.
Let's look at this periodic sentence:
The man died because the ambulance arrived late.
Because the ambulance arrived late, the man died.
The second sentence is arranged so that tension is built as the reader waits to find out what happened; the first one tells you up front. Which is better for your writing purpose?
An example from Jane Austen: "The garden sloping to the road, the houses standing in it, the green pales and the laurel hedge, everything declared they were arriving."
The periodic sentence delays the important message (they were arriving); plus Austen has this lovely layering of phrases as she builds toward the final clause.
B. Phrasing refers to the placement and variation of phrases in sentences, parallel structure, and purposeful repetition.
Caveat! The point of understanding and using these syntactical devices is to underscore or enhance your content. Not for showing off! Whatever syntactical devices you use should (a) mirror the content and (b) not detract from the story.
Look at this passage from Patrick Henry's Speech to the Virginia Convention:
"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price or chains and slavery?"
Rhetorical question – no answer expected or needed. Also notice the nice alliteration of the letter "p."
Another syntactical device is varying sentence structure in a passage. Simple sentences, compound sentences, complex, compound-complex sentences – all can be controlled by the writer to deliver a desired effect.
Note in the example below how J.D. Robb (Naked in Death) has wedged the complex sentence between two simple sentences. Consider the effect on the reader.
"She woke in the dark. Through the slats on the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell."
Also from the same book:
"He had a vision of himself dragging her to the floor, pounding himself into her until her screams echoed like gunshots, and his release erupted like blood."
Note the parallelism in the two participles (dragging and pounding) and the parallel similes ("like gunshots" and "like blood"). This is particularly evocative because in this scene Roarke and Eve are in the gun collection room, surrounded by the implements of death and blood. The primitive sexual feelings he has are underscored by the environment.
Parallel structure from Sherry Thomas' Private Arrangements:
"His kiss was as light as meringue, as gentle as the opening notes of Moonlight Sonata, and as nourishing as the first rain of spring after an endless winter drought."
Not only does she maintain the parallelism with the "as – as" construction, but each subsequent phrase is longer than the one before it. If she'd put the last phrase in the middle of the sentence, the meter and continuity and smoothness of the sentence would be lost.
Note: Good writers may do this kind of construction subconsciously (leaving the analysis to us English teachers) or deliberately, but they never allow the syntax to drive them. They drive their syntax.
Diction and syntax also account for rhythm. The English language is a series of accented and unaccented syllables that can be arranged to be very pleasant or very jarring to the ear.
During revision or rewrites consider where you've placed words, phrases, and sentences for maximum effect. Choose words that convey the tone you've intended. A strong use of these devices enhances your voice. For example, we could read passages by Hemingway and Faulkner and easily distinguish between them. Their voices are that distinctive.
Revision is not editing. Editing attends to the mechanics of the language. Manipulating the language to a specific purpose – that's revision!
As a writer what do you consider the most effective tool in your arsenal? Any pet peeves or pitfalls? Share! Inquiring minds want to know.
Questions? Comments? For those who do, you'll be entered in a drawing to win THE WATCHER either in print or digital format. Sorry, U.S. residents only. The overseas postage is prohibitive. Check back on Friday evening September 2nd when Jo will announce the winner. And to learn more about Jo, check out her website: http://www.jorobertson.com/