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Jan's New "Class"--Writing Basics

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Jan's New "Class"--Writing Basics

Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 2:56 am

It’s great to be starting up another class! This one will be geared to writers in the Beginner and Intermediate levels, although I certainly hope Advanced and Masters writers will drop in, too. These forums classes are best when other writers take what I’ve said and add their own insights.

I’ll say up front that I’m not qualified in the least to teach this class—I’m an intuitive writer and I’ll freely admit that I don’t have formal training in writing, grammar, or literature. I doubt that I’ll ever be published; it’s just not something I’m passionate about pursuing. But I do love mentoring and encouraging writers, and I have a lifelong love of the written word. Take that for what it’s worth.

This class will be a mishmash of topics: anything from commonly misused words to tightening your writing, from adverb abuse to knowing your audience. I’ll stay away from grammar for the most part, since I believe a grammar “class” may be starting up again soon on these forums. However, there may be a certain amount of grammar creeping in here occasionally.

On to this week’s lesson, then!

Certain words are like rice cakes: adequate, but bland and boring. Other words are like salsa: spicy and interesting. Beginning writers often make the mistake of using too many “rice cake” words and not enough “salsa” words. Take the following sentence…

John walked to the small house, carrying a big bunch of flowers.

By changing a few of the “rice cake” words to “salsa” words, you can improve the sentence a great deal…

John strode to the cottage, clutching a big bunch of dandelions.

Not only are the words strode, cottage, clutching, and dandelions spicier than their equivalents in the first sentence, they also convey more meaning. John strode—he felt confident. The small house was a cottage—now your reader has a picture in her mind. He clutched the flowers—perhaps he was nervous? The flowers were dandelions—John’s pretty cheap.

I could have chosen other salsa words, and they’d each carry their own depth of meaning: tripped, slumped, ambled…bungalow, shack, cabin…swinging, fumbling, cradling…orchids, sunflowers, lilacs. Salsa words tend to be more specific than those generic rice cake words; they mean more, and they give your reader more information.

Here’s a list of suggestions on the use of salsa words:

1. Once you’ve got a rough draft, read it once through just to find rice cake words that can be replaced with more specific salsa words.

2. Look especially for nouns and verbs—don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ve got to spice up your writing by adding lots of adverbs and adjectives. Great nouns and verbs are your best friends.

3. Read like a writer. This is advice that I’ll repeat often. When you’re reading an author who you really enjoy, stop and re-read occasional passages as a writer. Note how she uses interesting words.

4. Increase your vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Read, read, read. Get a word-a-day calendar. Make a list of interesting words that you encounter. Buy a thesaurus, or take advantage of the thesaurus in your word processor. There’s also a good thesaurus at http://www.dictionary.com.

5. Beware, however, of over-using the thesaurus. Don’t fill up every sentence with salsa words just for the sake of salsa words. That can get wearisome for your reader. Sometimes rice cakes are nice, too, and good writers develop a sense for balancing bland with spicy. Take the first line of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. There are over twenty rice cake words there, and only one salsa word (can you find it?). Nevertheless, the sentence is perfect.

And that leads me to your homework.

Grab a book that’s written in the genre you’d like to write well. Find a short passage—just a sentence or two—that contains a few salsa words. Type them up for us, along with your own thoughts on how those words are effective in that passage. Please be sure to include the title of the book and the author’s name.

Here’s an example I found, from Thin Blue Smoke, by Doug Worgul.

But LaVerne, who had emerged from the kitchen when Charles started screaming, had other plans. He took hold of Whitey by the arm and hustled him out the door. Bob slunk along behind.

This passage has some great salsa verbs: hustled, slunk. Both of them carry emotional weight; they show me what LaVerne and Bob were feeling.

As I mentioned earlier, the best part of this class is the dialog. Feel free to ask questions or to give us your insights into word choice. Oh, and if you know any Beginner and Intermediate writers who might benefit from this forum, send ‘em this way, okay?

Oh, and I'd also love your input--what topics would you like me to cover in future classes? I've got a list started, but I certainly welcome your ideas.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby yvonne » Mon Jan 18, 2010 10:31 am

Yay, Jan!

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald has always been one of my favorite books. I don't think I'll ever write as well as he did, but here's a passage that gives some vivid salsa words.

"So he sat still in the blue air of the cavern listening to the wash and ripple of the water all about the base of the iceberg, as it sped on and one into the open sea northwards. It was an excellent craft to go with a current, ..."

The whole book is filled with such descriptions. It was hard to choose one. The strong nouns and verbs make me feel the mood of the story.

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 11:36 am

Thanks, Vonnie! You're right--that's a vivid passage that puts the reader right in the action. Just imagine how it would have read with blander words:

So he sat still in the blue air of the opening, listening to the water move all about the base of the iceberg, as it went on and one into the open sea northwards. It was an excellent boat to go with a current, ..."

Structurally, it's the same sentence, but it lacks oomph.

Great example!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby rita5000 » Mon Jan 18, 2010 12:41 pm

Thanks for doing this class, Jan. :D

Bon Appetit by Sandra Byrd

We drove up the narrow gravel road through an old apple orchard, finally pulling over at a crumbling Tudor building. It looked like Henry VIII could have hefted the beams himself during the meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Rice cake version:
We drove up the narrow road through an old apple orchard, finally pulling over at an old building. It looked like Henry VIII could have lifted the beams himself during the meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Reflections With Dr Rita
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Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. —ROMANS 10:18, NIV

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 12:45 pm

Excellent example, Rita! In the "real" sentences, I could picture the building and hear Henry's "oof" as he hefted the beams. In your rice cake version...meh.

Thanks for stopping by...any ideas for future topics?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Anja » Mon Jan 18, 2010 12:53 pm

I could have chosen other salsa words, and they’d each carry their own depth of meaning: tripped, slumped, ambled…bungalow, shack, cabin…swinging, fumbling, cradling…orchids, sunflowers, lilacs. Salsa words tend to be more specific than those generic rice cake words; they mean more, and they give your reader more information.


Not only do "salsa" words mean more, but they can reflect the writer's intent, and thereby change the reader's bias or understanding.

A real life example would be from the media... If anyone remembers the Waco / David Koresh event, the word "bunkers" were repeatedly used by the press.

How much would public opinion have changed IF the words "underground SHELTERS" had been used instead.

ALL words carry positive or negative weight. They can be inflammatory... create prejudice... reflect coziness...

Whether we are writing fiction, essays, newspapers articles, or devotionals, it is very important to choose words well. Technically, words can "mean" the same thing, but be loaded with intent.

And don't forget what Mark Twain said... The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
Ann Grover

"What remains of a story after it is finished? Another story..." Eli Wiesel

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 1:18 pm

Wonderful example from the media, Ann! And that Mark Twain quote has long been a favorite of mine; I even made a bulletin board featuring it (which impressed my students not in the least).

Thanks for stopping by--I hope to return the favor soon.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby kpwrite » Mon Jan 18, 2010 1:44 pm

Thanks for doing this, Jan!

I took mine from All Together in One Place by Jane Kirkpatrick.

Every tendril of her hair ached. Her throat burned. Her soul felt shriveled and sliced as though the brute's horns pierced afresh.

Salsa--tendril, ached, burned, shriveled, sliced, brute, pierced.

A more ricecake version would be:

Every piece of her hair hurt. Her throat was sore. Her soul felt painful as though the bull's horns had run through her.
Kristi

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 1:51 pm

Thanks, Kristi! What an exciting couple of sentences--makes me want to read that book.

Do you have ideas for future topics for this class?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby kpwrite » Mon Jan 18, 2010 2:07 pm

This is my first class, so I'm not sure what's been covered already. I'm open to just about anything! I think I need to go back through the archives and see what kind of goodies you've already posted! :D

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Postby Verna » Mon Jan 18, 2010 2:39 pm

Thanks for teaching us again, Jan. This is definitely a skill I need to work on, especially in prose. I'm tempted to be lazy and write what slips through my fingers instead of looking for the salsa words.

I, too like Jane Kirkpatrick's style. (The above-mentioned book is my favorite of hers though.) Here are just two examples from the book of hers I just finished A Sweetness to the Soul.[i]

"So we played stick ball over Mama's protest. Our dresses flounced, scaring up our pantaloons as we ran the bases..."

"Dawn came like a baby's breath: soft and sweet and warm. It blushed the river canyon with its soothing pink..."

Now if envy weren't a sin...
Verna

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine...
Proverb 17:22

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Postby Verna » Mon Jan 18, 2010 2:41 pm

Obviously, I can't seem to grasp the concept of how to get italics stopped in here, once they're started!
Verna

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine...
Proverb 17:22

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 2:52 pm

Verna, I love "flounced", "pantaloons" and "soothed"--great words!

Do you have ideas on topics for this class? What have you observed that beginning writers could benefit from learning?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon Jan 18, 2010 3:05 pm

This is the opening paragraph from a Christian inspirational suspense novel that I am currently reading. I prefer to lean towards humor writing, but did not have an example.

Twin Targets by Marta Perry

The woman’s body lay on the cold, dirty concrete floor of the garage, a few feet from her car. She’d probably been trying to run to it when the murderer caught up with her. Her hands reached towards it, the right one smeared with dirt, in a silent, futile plea for help.

Concrete: Not just a garage floor, but I can see that it is a hard and grimy place to be lying on.

Probably: Speculating why she was in the garage

Caught: Inferring that the killer was chasing, rather that stalking her

Smeared: I would understand being smeared with blood, but the dirt seems more graphic, and introduces the final thought

Silent: Unspoken body language
Barb Culler

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Postby glorybee » Mon Jan 18, 2010 3:21 pm

Thanks for this excerpt, Barb!

I'm not sure I agree with all of the words you pegged as "salsa" words--in particular, 'probably' and 'caught'--but I definitely agree with the others, and I'd add 'futile' to the mix. The whole passage definitely creates an atmosphere of suspense.

What topics would you like to see covered in future classes?
Jan Ackerson

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