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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Pimp my pen: ten tips to get the most out of language

I don't advise writing with a Sea Pen, but it's pimpin' nevertheless. Image by CW Ye http://www.flickr.com/photos/cw_ye/2799915376/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Okay, so it’s Friday and this is just a little bit of Friday fun. I wrote it as a much shorter piece for a guest blog that never eventuated, and it is not the word of God. Moses did not bring this down from the mountain, people, so spare me any emails telling me you you’ve sold eight trillion copies of a novel that exposited the shit out of  fifty-five characters all written in first person point of view and you never touched a thesaurus and made every second word an adverb.
It is just (hopefully) somewhat amusing and marginally useful advice from an editor who sees quite a bit of weak writing and a hell of a lot of excellent writing from some truly pimpin’ authors. So …

1. The thesaurus is your friend and will transform your vocabulary from meager to marvelous, but use it prudently—too many prodigious words and you’ll start sounding scholarly or pompous, rather than just cleverly flamboyant.

2. Rather than throw a stupendous amount of measly adverbs in the ring in an attempt to add depth, consider substituting impuissiant verbs with more robust cage-fighting ones that lift your action (e.g. not walked quickly but strode; not hit sharply but jabbed; not said quietly but whispered, not had sex but … you can see where this is going, can’t you?).

3. Throw in a fragment or two. Really? Sure. Like this? You betcha! Aren’t they against the rules? Rules schmules! Used moderately, fragments can enhance your work, adding pace and passion. They’re great for action scenes, hooks, and, ahem, (cue Barry White) bedroom scenes. Dig?

4. Make your characters act—to a degree. By this, I mean give your characters actions that frame their dialogue and make them more than just talking heads, without descending into writing entire scenes that read like screenplay, and without stage-managing them by giving every little detail. She wrote, tapping at the keyboards quickly. Then she looked up at the television and ran a hand through her newly dyed red hair. It was a LG television that was large and flat and hung on the wall to the left of the red couch opposite the painting of Elvis and next to the photo frame depicting her cat Schmoo-moo licking its butt. Dr Phil was on. She glanced up at his moustachioed, egg-bald head, frowned and picked up the remote. She clicked the channel option and changed the channel. She yawned. Then, tired of being overwhelmingly stage managed, she lapsed into a goddamn coma. Don’t do that. Don’t. Do. It. Step away from the courier font unless you’re writing a script.

These actions should not be just additions to the dialogue, they should add nuance and meaning to it. They should embellish it and enliven it. People rarely stand in one spot and converse for half an hour (who has the time). They gesture. They fidget. They multitask. They think about how to respond. They wonder if it would be rude to swipe at that little bit of spittle that just flew onto their cheek (No? Just me?). So provide your “cast” with relevant actions that reveal something about them as they engage in discussion, she said, adjusting the red bra strap that peeked out from under her demure blue cotton dress. Oh my.

5. Yo! Use slang. Bring it in off the street, bro. Not so much in your narrative, but in your dialogue. Dialogue needs to be authentic. That doesn’t mean you should add every “ahem,” “well” and “like” that peppers actual conversation, it means you need to create the illusion of plausibility, and slang is a great way to do that. (Caveat: IF it suits your character’s voice. Don’t be having grandma enter the room with a “Wasssup!” unless she’s supposed to be a creepy old bogan.)

6. Have you ever noticed that people rarely refer to each other by name, Dear Readers. Dear Readers, it’s true they rarely do. I think you, Dear Readers, should refrain from using your characters’ names too much in dialogue. Dear Readers, it comes off a little stilted and obsequious and downright weird otherwise. ☺ Seriously, try to limit dialogue tags wherever possible, and have your characters sparingly address other characters by name. Your characters should have unique voices and your dialogue should be clear enough that unless you have many people involved in a discussion, your reader should be able to follow it without you constantly needing to inform them who is speaking by tacking on “Bubba said” or “said Hugh Jackman” or “Franky spat” or “Bella Swim simpered” every two seconds.

7. Don’t be a wimp; be a pimp. Usually, this would be very poor advice indeed, but I’m talking about a “word pimp” here, people. Dress those words up and make them work for you—get them on their knees, bend them to your will, make them dance. Dance, I say. Their job is to show you the money. If they’re not working, slash them. That’s right—you heard me, tough guy—SLASH them. Kill your darlings. That might mean not every book you write needs to be out there earning you a cut. Some might be skanky moles better locked out of the metaphorical brothel lest they disease your reputation and spread a festering pox among your other, prettily primped and preened lovelies.

8. Ignore the word police (sometimes). Yes there are some offenses that should be punishable by a prolonged beating with a bold solidus, but … most rules can be bent, if not buried on occasion. Following every single piece of advice you get on writing message boards or blog posts—even from editors (yes, yes, it IS ironic)—can leave your work a touch vanilla. So don’t be afraid to use “insisted” rather than “said” as a dialogue tag on occasion, or to split an infinitive, or to use passive voice, to provide back story or narrative in small doses, to use a well placed adverb or twenty, to experiment with point of view, or even to interject occasionally if you have an omniscient narrator (but not too much or it’ll seem like you’ve got a God complex).

9. Add spice. Sprinkle some colon on that baby, add a dash of em dash, season with metaphor. If you feel stuck in a rut, try to write something entirely out of your comfort zone and cut it with some cracky, trippy word weirdness, just for fun. It may be like snorting ajax (don’t try this at home, Dear Readers), it might be a brain haemorrhage waiting to happen (a little like this blog post), it might end up being another scraggy wannabe that no amount of pimpin’ makeup and feather boas can save, but it also just might enliven your style a little.

10. Cultivate a unique, original voice; don’t steal someone’s style. Write like you think, or like you talk, but most importantly, write from the heart and not from the grammar guide. There will be time to put on your clear heels and tart things up. That time is later (after dark) when the editing begins. If you’re afraid to reveal your delicious, pimp-pushing self to your readers, your characters will veil themselves too. They’ll be wooden when you want them to be warm, wonderful and wholly believable. Write honestly at first, then pimp, pimp, pimp, pimp your characters up.

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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Uncategorized