Saturday, April 18, 2009

Just the Right Word

Yesterday, Charles challenged us to come up with a billboard idea for our current project.  I find this most intriguing, because my current project was inspired by a billboard! 

Well, it’s inspired by a World War I propaganda poster. Tomayto, tomahto.  Large, muscular young woman dressed in long, filmy, gown, glares face-on at the viewer.  In one hand she holds an American flag, and the other hand points Uncle-Sam-like before her.  She is wearing a brimless cap with the words “Public Opinion” stitched across the front.  The caption reads : All Men Fear Me.

Which, handily enough, is the title of my book.

Anyone who is enamored of words, which most writers are, knows what it’s like to try and find that perfect word to convey the subtle shade of meaning you want.  My first drafts are filled with blank spaces, which I leave because even though I can think of one hundred nouns/verbs/descriptors that would be perfectly adequate in that place, I know the Absolutely Perfect Word exists, and I can’t quite come up with it.  However, I can’t afford to spend fifteen minutes wracking my brain for it, so I leave a blank and torture myself with it on the rewrites.Sometimes I do end up having to use one of those one hundred almost-right words, but when I do, I feel a sense of failure for not having adequately communicated with the reader. 

Subtle meaning is only part of what a writer strives for with the perfect word.  Sometimes the poetry of the sentence, the way it sounds, can only be served by a particular word.  In my current manuscript, I originally wrote a narrative in the voice of one character, but decided later that it would be better to have a different character experience this event and tell us about it.  Changing the point of view necessitated a major change in language, even though the gist of the scene was the same.

I read that if you ask an author why he writes, the better and probably more successful writers will answer that it’s because they love language.  I think that learning how to manipulate language is like* learning to manipulate the keys of a piano.  Language is our instrument, and if we don’t practice, study, experiment, and play with it, we might end up writing “Chopstick” instead of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.

Don’t fail to tune in tomorrow right here on Type M For Murder, when our guest blogger will be New York literary agent Don Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook


* Example : I almost wrote the word “analogous”, here, instead of “like”, but decided that “analogous” is too high-falutin’.

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