Actual Writing Advice: Word Choice

My Actual Writing Advice blogs seem to be garnering me positive attention, so I’ll keep posting them sporadically. Thanks for the encouragement!

When my son was born, my mom discovered Rosemary Wells and her wonderful world of Max and Ruby. She liked two things about the stories: the grandma is cool and the names of the toys are awesome. I was just starting to write full stories instead of half-baked ideas, and it struck me that word choice made a difference. I had heard the adage to never use a five dollar word when a five cent word would do, but this was different. Rosemary Well’s word choices make her stories pop like no other children’s books.

Take, for example, the beginning of Bunny Cakes when Ruby is telling Max they’re not giving Grandma an earthworm birthday cake. Ruby could just say, “We’re making an angel food cake with raspberry frosting.” But instead she says, “We’re going to make Grandma and angel surprise cake with raspberry-fluff icing.” Which sounds more exciting to you?

Of course, Max is persistent in his desire to give Grandma an earthworm cake, and he knows she’ll like it with a very special topping. Rosemary Wells could’ve just used red hots or marshmallows or any number of ordinary candies, but Max wants Red-Hot Marshmallow Squirters. Even I might give an earthworm cake a try with Red-Hot Marshmallow Squirters on top.

After the epiphany with Rosemary Wells’ books, I’ve looked for interesting word choices and combinations everywhere. Train is one of my favorite groups because not only do they have a unique sound, but they also have a unique voice in their poetry. “If It’s Love” is filled with great words. Listen to the whole song and be blown away. But for me the pinnacle is when he talks about being in love is like going to a concert. He doesn’t just say, “Love is great like a rock concert.” He says, “Hold our cell phones up in the air and just be glad that we made it here alive on a spinning ball in the middle of space I’ll love you from your toes to your face.”

I mentioned my daughter had her tonsils removed recently. One of the ways we shared her time recovering was by reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together. While I noticed JK Rowling made mistakes like using the same word in close proximity together, what everyone remembers I think is her fantastic made up names in the magical world: quiditch, muggles, Nimbus 2000, mudbloods, Nearly Headless Nick, Moaning Myrtle and on and on all through the series.

Of course Shakespeare is the master wordsmith as are several early English writers like Chaucer, John Donne and Jane Austen.

I truly think my recent acceptance at The Colored Lens is due to word choice. When I sat down to rewrite the story before submitting it again, I focused on words that would give vivid imagery and emotions. I think it elevated it from a cute story to something meatier and more meaningful…at least that’s how I perceive it in my own mind :)

Who are your favorite wordsmiths? I left out a whole bunch, so please fill up the comment section!

Why did this Book get Published: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

This is a subject I will be returning to occasionally in my book reviews— sort of like a mini-series without being consecutive. The premise is how did these books even make it out of the slush pile when they break so many rules? I’m not intending to bash anyone: I honestly want to know the answer, and maybe some of you can help me. So let’s get started.

In January, my middle child was quite ill and missed a lot of school. I decided to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with her to help pass the time and ease the discomfort. Harry Potter is a series I actually started reading when my first child was born—a couple of years before I took up writing. I forgot about my anniversary the year Goblet of Fire came out because it came out a night or two before and I hadn’t finished it yet. Despite being out of town when Order of the Phoenix came out, I still went to the midnight release for it. I went to all the subsequent midnight releases as well as several of the midnight showings of the movies. You can say I’m a fan of Harry Potter.

I hadn’t read Sorcerer’s Stone in several years, so you can imagine how surprised I was to find it riddled with adverbs. Holy Hannah. If I ever wrote that many adverbs, my crit group would wash my mouth out with soap. Let’s see a few:

First sentence of the book: Mr. And Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Still on the first page: He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck although he did have a very large mustache.

Still on the first page: Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful…

From the next two pages:

Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily

…he couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about.

…standing quite close by. They were whispering excitedly together.

…this was probably some silly stunt— these people were obviously collecting something…

I count 13 adverbs in the first three pages. I think there are tons more adjectives which is something else writers are supposed to do without. Essentially, we are supposed to stick to verbs and nouns in our art form. Sooo, how did this make it out of the slush pile? Did that editor not know the adverb/adjective rule?

And did anyone talk to J.K. Rowling about POV? The first chapter is in an omniscient POV, but then it sort of narrows down into Harry’s POV. Except when it seems inconvenient like at the first Quiditch match. The beginning of the chapter is about how nervous Harry is from a close third person POV and then we back way out through the announcements of Lee Jordan and land at Hermione so we can see her light Snape on fire. Is that legal?

I think one of the keys to JK Rowling’s success is her voice, and, honestly, her use of adverbs adds to the voice. And the POV changes are not something I noticed until I became aware of them as a writer myself. Maybe she gets away with it through smoke and mirrors by starting innocently with a sports announcement and boom: now it’s Hermione.

But still, it makes me sigh in frustration as my crit group tells me I use too many verbs with ING. Maybe the larger lesson here is at some point you have to let go and not worry if you’ve used more than one adverb in your chapter and exactly how many adjectives are there? Do you have too many “was’s” and verbs ending in ING? J.K. Rowling got published with 13 adverbs in her first three pages. Maybe you can too.