Friday, March 4, 2011

Meaning What You Say; Saying What You Mean

I'm no expert and, quite often, when I craft a story it's much less about craft than it is about feeling. I'm basically a blind man in a room with lots of buttons. I get feedback (a whistle or a buzzer or a bell) when I press the right button at the right time. I get a shock when I press the wrong one a second too late or maybe a little too hard.

But I do know a few 'rules of the road' when it comes to crafting a sentence, a paragraph, a whole story. I was an editor for a number of years and still do it regularly for other writers, in addition to gutting my own work and striving to make it better.

A few minutes of your time is all I'll take to discuss a few small writing tweaks that will, in my humble opinion, make your sentences smoother, more meaningful and waaaaay more powerful when a stranger sits down to read them.

When editing, I try to pick up on the phrases that, at least on the surface, mean something, but underneath, either have a flaw or don't really mean what they're intended to mean. Here are a few examples and my thoughts on them. These are not exact phrases I've found while editing manuscripts from other writers, but they resemble some that I've seen and are used here to illustrate a few of my ideas.

Word choice leads to ambiguity

"Her heart was beating like a hammer."

Uhm. A hammer doesn't beat. It pounds. But it doesn't really beat. Also, what's with the passive verb choice? "Was beating?" I would offer this revision for the above sentence, making it clearer, more correct, and more forceful:

"Her heart pounded like a hammer."

It still borders on cliche, though, so I might suggest finding a different way to say the same thing. Although, in a bestseller on the rack at B&N, this sentence might be the perfect fit. It would come down to knowing your audience. If your audience is a "heart-pounded-like-a-hammer" kind of group, then you might be done and shouldn't mess with it further.

Using bad metaphors when similes would do

"Her hair was oleander blossoms."

Do you mean that her hair smelled like oleander blossoms? Or do you mean it looked like oleander blossoms/ If you mean look, then that's probably a botched trip to the hairdresser. Do I really want to be sorting these things out as I'm reading? It will probably slow down my enjoyment of a passage if I have to think too hard about what is being said and the intended meaning.

Saying things that are wrong, even though they read 'cool'

Now, I've been accused of ratcheting up the metaphors a few times myself. It's the kind of writing I do, and for the most part, my audience enjoys the word portraits I paint. But there are limits and they will slow a reader down more than just conveying action, plot or character.  Metaphors are mood or motif but they are still additive. Unless they are used badly.

Metaphors need to make sense. You can't really say that a "man's skin was leather". That sounds neat, and on the surface, is a striking image. But, unless you are trying something new age or poetic, it's simply not literal. A man's skin is skin. It's not anything else. If it was leather, that would mean he is dead.

Now if he's dead, well, that's a new and interesting angle on the story, but I digress. Maybe you'll see my take on that one in a future tale. Simply put, if he's up and moving around in most fiction, it's really hard to believe that his skin is also leather since leather is, by definition, flesh that is removed, hairless and tanned. Tough to do with a living, breathing character unless we're reading the novelization of "Saw 842".

In this instance, if the writer wants to draw a comparison between a man's flesh and the leather that we, as readers can all picture in our minds, then he has to switch over from metaphor to simile, and say that the flesh was like leather. Or, leathery. Or, even more descriptive, "His skin reminded her of an old leather purse her mom would toss into the passenger seat of their Buick when they went to the store."

That last passage has a bit of heft to it, and can be used to draw in character details and the history of a family moment, but don't go overboard. If you want to keep the pace up, maybe it's just better to say, "His skin was leathery," and keep the action going.

Rounding up: Say what you mean to say, but don't confuse

I suppose my bottom line is, when you're writing an idea, it often sounds perfect in your head, or it sounds like how one might say it out loud. When you say it out loud to someone, they're right with you and can glean your meaning from you as a person, your mannerisms and more. But on the page, they might not have those things to go on. You want as few stumbling blocks between the words and their true meaning as possible.


  1. I have only recently started writing fiction. I'm in my late 40s and decided to try something new. I Have heard that if you keep the brain learning new skills you live longer. Anyway, I have found this to be very informative. I have taken notes. Thanks. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, gwennewpenny! Hopefully my little stash of ideas here won't lead you to far astray...

  3. Great post.
    I often find deadweight words and phrases such as 'wondered', 'realized', and 'thought to himself/herself' to be common stumbling blocks

  4. Nice post my friend. Good tips for cleaning up the old manuscript. I hope my skin never looks like Mom's old leather purse.

  5. Eeleenlee, thanks for your comment. Dead weight. Hate it. But am SO guilty of it sometimes. It's like a crutch. Like saying "uh" and "like" and "y'know" when you're having a verbal conversation on the phone or in an elevator. They're pauses just to fill gaps while the next *meaningful* part of your dialogue forms in your head and comes out of your mouth.

  6. Al, from one thin white duke to another, you're a handsome man. Just stay out of the tanning beds and you should be smooth and supple for years to come.

  7. Great post, Jason. Very helpful tips. Once upon a time my writing was lousy with passive voice. Sentence sounded better in my head, didn't it? ;-) Kidding aside, did you know women are even more likely to use passive voice than men? An interesting psychological phenomenon, don't you think? Be that as it may, I've worked hard to shed the bad habit.

    Adverbs are evil little culprits as well. If the reader can't tell from the scene you've created that your character is angry. All the "she said angrily's" in the world won't help you.

    Also, I find if I am firmly rooted in the p.o.v. of my character things like "he thought" are not necessary. They tend to gum up the works.

    Last but not least, repetitive word choice is an important thing to watch out for. I believe the brain has a natural inclination to begin using the same words over and over again. I find it really important to keep reading the work aloud in order to keep this from happening. (I might have already mentioned that here before, but it bears repeating.)

  8. Yes, Heidi. Adverbs are killers when it comes to qualifying how a character did something. "He ran speedily down the hall." Gah!

    Adjectives can be irritating too, of course: "She became very excited at the mention of her old friend." I think we can all agree that being excited already has the attribute of being 'very' living and breathing inside itself. If it wasn't 'very' excited then saying 'pleased' or 'roused' or some lesser degree of affectation might be more appropriate.

    I had no idea female writers use passive voice more than men. I guess it's more of that societal conditioning phenomenon. I try and stay away from it when it's unintentional. On occasion I break the rule and use it very intentionally for a specific purpose -- usually to soften a moment after there's been some intense action.

    Thanks for all of your great input, Heidi!


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