Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing Tools Part 2: Giving verbs and nouns a workout.

So, effective tools for writing. In part one of our tool talk, we covered two tools, hammers and duct tape... I mean, vocabulary and grammar. In this segment, we'll cover a couple of other tools and in our third installment (if there is a third) we might cover some things that shouldn't be in your toolbox.

Muscular verbs and nouns

The strength of your writing is directly related to how hard you work your nouns and verbs. Verbs and nouns that haven't been eating their Wheaties will be beaten to a pulp by an agent or publisher who reads your manuscript. Pity the day when you go to your mailbox and find that sad little self-addressed, stamped envelope carousing with the electric bill and the grocery ads. Picture it if you will. Your address has been smudged and glazed donut fingerprints have collected dirt from miles traveled. You carefully slip your finger under the ripped flap and tug. Once open, you find the pink rejection slip along with your manuscript. As you pull it from the dusty interior of the envelope, you see the red swaths of an editor's Sharpie like a blood pattern on a wall at a crime scene. You turn each page and find the same words written over and over: STRONGER VERBS AND NOUNS! Your jaw goes slack, a tear works its way from the corner of your eye. Your precious manuscript has been... murdered!

Okay, perhaps it isn't quite as melodramatic as all that. In fact, neither an agent nor an editor will take the time to go through each page of your MS and mark it up. It's more likely that they'll look at the first paragraph and make a decision based on that. Not a how-do-you-do, not a smile or tease or even tube of lube, but you'll still feel like you've been screwed.

But I digress.

My point is that without strong verbs and nouns, your writing will be like your first attempt at a soufflé: bland and flat.

The recipe for divining weak verbs and nouns and driving them out like an exorcist is as follows. One portion constant reader, several dollops of revision, a plethora of editing, let the mixture sit for a few months, repeat as necessary.

Your constant reader should be someone who will tell you the truth. Too many people give their manuscripts to their moms who in turn tell them how amazing and wonderful it is. Here's the deal, if your mom isn't brutal in her critique of your work, don't let her read it. The key to finding out whether or not you have buff nouns and verbs is to give the MS to someone who has a good grasp of the English language and who understands what constitutes a strong verb or noun. I'm lucky in that my wife taught language arts for over 14-years. She has a clue and she's brutally honest with me.

Dollops of revision means that you simply aren't satisfied with your first draft. Or your second, third or fourth. Revision is the process of tightening your sentences up until they scream. During the process of revision, you'll take your constant reader's advice and you'll be changing words like "poop" into words like "excrement."

Editing is different from revising. They can work together, but editing is the part where you make sure commas and apostrophes are in the right places, phonetically challenged words like "whine" are changed to "wine" because no one wants to read a book about whining, but everyone loves books about drinking, right? Editing is a pain in the ass, however, so are tetanus shots. Both are necessary.

Finally, let the MS rest for awhile. Push it back into a dark drawer for three months and leave it alone. Don't look at it, don't touch it and for God's sake, don't read it! Once you've allowed it to "season" for awhile, take it out and read it as if it were a book you were opening for the first time. I guarantee you'll find new things to change and make better decisions about the work.

Once you've done this, you'll probably have to repeat the process. Maybe even twice. Whatever it takes to tighten that baby down.

I'm going to go ahead and finish this post. I had thought I would be able to cover at least two more tools for your tool box, but alas, I'll have to save Passive and Active voice and Show, Don't Tell, for another post. But I won't leave you without some examples.

Instead of "Jimmy ate his scrambled eggs in big bites" you might say, "Jimmy shoveled his scrambled eggs into his mouth."

Instead of "Anna ran to the school bus stop" you might say, "Anna raced to the school bus stop."

I think you get the point. I'm simply substituting words that seem to have more of what my Grandpa called gumption. They're vigorous and active.

Now for a couple of nouns then we're done.

Instead of "Joey was a strong-willed boy" you might say, "Joey was a whippersnapper."

Instead of "John drives a crappy car" you might say, "John drives a jalopy."

In many cases, when you have a weak noun, it'll be preceded by an adjective. We'll talk about those pesky bastards in another post, but if you read the sentence about John's car, you'll notice that I replaced "crappy car" (crappy being the adjective), I was able to get rid of a word, which editors love and replace "car" with something more descriptive.

Writers, this is what you love and this is what you'll learn to hate, but if you use these tools, your stories will rock, editors will rejoice and books will sell.

That's all for now.

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