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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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Postby OldManRivers » Tue Jan 19, 2010 4:05 pm

Jan,

As to help topics. I recently received a decline from a New York literary agent for a new mystery novel I wrote ... in fact, it is a series of mystery novels. Though he offered positive affirmation about writing style and plotting, he felt that my "main character was not believable."

What might be a lesson to work on this area as I begin rewrites?

jim
May God's gentle grace be with you.

Jim McWhinnie

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Postby A Nonny Mouse » Tue Jan 19, 2010 4:40 pm

Okay, Jan, how about this:

From Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana" --

"I reached down and opened the chest. I threw the lid back. I stared at the contents, the glistening alabaster jars, and the great collection of gold coins that it held, nestled in their tapestried box. I emptied the coins onto the floor. I saw them glittering as they scattered."

I noticed as I reread this passage in Anne's book, that most of the "salsa" words were verbs. I think that's one of my biggest problems in writing. I want to use too many adjectives to add color to the picture I'm trying to paint.

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Postby anna banana » Tue Jan 19, 2010 5:27 pm

Well, at 10:30 at night I thought I'd turn in some homework.:)

I'm not sure that this is right, but here goes....

From Heaven's Wager by Ted Dekker

He twisted his head and watched her from the corner of his eye. Lacy wore blue jeans. She seemed to float along the shiny marble floor, her white running shoes gliding along the surface, her thighs firm beside her swinging brown purse.

The reader gets a vivid sense of action through his use of these verbs. You can picture her and her actions through his words.
In order to clarify: Rachel Rudd

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Postby glorybee » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:12 pm

OldManRivers wrote:Jan,

As to help topics. I recently received a decline from a New York literary agent for a new mystery novel I wrote ... in fact, it is a series of mystery novels. Though he offered positive affirmation about writing style and plotting, he felt that my "main character was not believable."

What might be a lesson to work on this area as I begin rewrites?

jim


Jim, I had a lesson in Characterization, but the content was lost here on the boards in the Great Meltdown of 2008. I still have it on my computer; if you PM me with your e-mail address, I can send it to you.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:15 pm

Nonny, I don't know that "threw" or "stared" are salsa words (it's an objective thing, admittedly)--but the others that you bolded certainly are.

Please don't think that I'm anti-adjective--they certainly have their place in good writing. But adjective overuse is of the things that beginner writers tend to do, which makes me think that perhaps it should be the focus of my next lesson!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Tue Jan 19, 2010 8:17 pm

Anna, thanks for the Dekker selection! I've heard his name so much that I really think I need to read one of his books.

Homework at 10:30 at night? That's dedication for you!
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Postby A Nonny Mouse » Tue Jan 19, 2010 10:18 pm

glorybee wrote:Please don't think that I'm anti-adjective--they certainly have their place in good writing. But adjective overuse is of the things that beginner writers tend to do, which makes me think that perhaps it should be the focus of my next lesson!


Oh, I didn't sense that in what you said, not at all. But I've gone back and read through some of my other writing, and I can see that I tend to gravitate toward adjectives in a big way. After reading Anne Rice's book, and a couple of Nicholas Sparks' books, and then one by Thomas Kincaide, I can see how my writing needs to improve in this area.

Another area I have real trouble in, is "conciseness." I am really too wordy!

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Postby readtheword » Tue Jan 19, 2010 10:32 pm

Hi Mrs. Ackerson,
Thank you for inviting me to this new class you are doing. Also thank you for your comment on my story from the Writing Challenge.
Here is my choice for some salsa words taken from Christian Conquests by A.L.O.E ( Charlotte Maria Tucker ) :

Percy, still stretched at his ease on the sofa, took up a book which he had laid on the cushion, and soon, busy with it's contents, forgot all about George Faithful, the sweeper.

I think that the choices she makes for describing Percy's actions are very colorful and I can picture him reclining with his book. I love how this woman writes; both for men and women , boys and girls.

Alexander

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Postby Symphonic » Wed Jan 20, 2010 12:17 am

Congratulations, Jan, on another wonderful class and a great response from everyone!

I like the salsa analogy. Where I live, salsa is a culinary art form, and I'm a salsa connoisseur. I love it so much, I sometimes forget it's just a condiment--it's supposed to enhance the taste of the food, not overwhelm it.

It's like that with words. As many others have pointed out, it's a delicate balance between using too few salsa words (making the story seem dull and bland) or too many (overwhelming the progress of the story itself).

Here's an example from The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. I like it because the salsa-variety action verbs illuminate the personalities of the three characters in the scene:

Undine made no answer, but swept down the room and out of the door ahead of her mother, with scorn and anger in every line of her arrogant young back. Mrs. Spragg tottered meekly after her, and Mr. Spragg lounged out into the marble hall to buy a cigar before taking the Subway to the office.

I think it's remarkable what these verbs accomplish. Even without the rest of the paragraph, we could probably guess that Undine is commanding and forceful, Mrs. Spragg is timid and repressed, and Mr. Spragg is unconcerned or somewhat disconnected.

Thanks again, Jan, for a great discussion!
Carol S.

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Postby swfdoc1 » Wed Jan 20, 2010 3:09 am

Jan,
A few things struck me as I read what has already been posted. 1) Most passages had a lot of salsa words compared to your two examples. Sometimes less is more. 2) The same salsa word principle should work for non-fiction. 3) Sometimes what we really have is a salsa phrase, made up of words that are individually rice cakes. 4) Sometimes, the Salsa words appear in clusters to break up the rice cakes. For example, if you are able to look at the surrounding context of the Francine Rivers excerpt that Joolz posted, you will see that this salsa-heavy, adjective-heavy passage works well because it is surrounded by much more rice cakey paragraphs. 5) Some words pack as much or more punch as salsa words even though you don’t choose them over rice cake words—it’s just that they are the only words available.

Then I realized I knew of a passage that to some extent demonstrates all of this. Furthermore, it is a timely piece for this week. I’m sure not everyone who reads this thread will agree with the advocacy position taken by the author and I don’t want the thread to get high jacked, but I don’t hesitate to use it either. My comments below will be directed only at writing techniques.

Because there is a fair amount of rice cake, I’ve included two paragraphs. I’ve marked what I think are the salsa words and salsa phrases, but not the category 5 words (which should be pretty obvious in paragraph 2).

In 1969 three complete strangers were on a <b>collision course</b> with history—and <b>infamy</b>. One was a twenty-one-year-old <b>unwed, unemployed pregnant carnival worker</b> who wanted an abortion. In December she met with two <b>activist feminist</b> lawyers who wanted to fight the Texas law that made abortion illegal. When the lawyers asked her if she was willing to be a plaintiff in such a case, she told them she didn’t know what a plaintiff was. Yet in time she would be the plaintiff in the <b>bloodiest</b> United States Supreme Court decision of all time. Her name was Norma McCorvey, but America would come to know her as Jane Roe in the case of <i>Roe v. Wade</i>.

This young woman <b>claimed</b> she had been raped one night on a country road in Georgia. The two lawyers were always <b>skeptical</b> of this claim. Her story changed too often. At first she said she had been raped by one man. Then she said she had been gang raped by several men and her own female companions. Later she <b>claimed</b> she was gang raped by a white man, a black man, and a Hispanic man. As Marian Faux, in her book, <i>Roe v. Wade</i>, points out, this was “a highly unlikely combination to have been walking together down a Georgia country road late at night in 1969.” Finally, in 1987, nearly fifteen years after <i>Roe v. Wade</i> was decided by the Supreme Court and after more than <b>twenty million babies</b> had been <b>murdered</b>, McCorvey <b>admitted</b> she had never been raped.


OK, the author is . . . . me. This is from a book, <i>God Save this Honorable Court</i>, (at only 100 pages, my wife always says I should only call it a booklet!) I wrote for Coral Ridge Ministries that they used both as a fund raising premium and offered as a regular for-sale item. There are actually a few things that could be fixed here—some because I wrote it 16 years ago and was a 16-year-worse writer and some because I had to live with changes forced by the editor. But I will leave those unmentioned. (Except for one: “complete strangers.” As opposed to what? Partial strangers? That’s a freebie for you, Jan, for when you talk about the dangers of over use of adjectives.)

I’ll just deal with the salsa words/phrases. The salsa in the first few sentences (combined with the rest of theparagraph) was my compromise between trying to bring a “telling, not showing” type of feel to a non-fiction piece and hitting the tight chapter length parameters I had on this contracted book. It resulted in a higher than usual percentage of the salsa being adjectives (even without counting “complete”). The rice cake version could have been:

“In 1969 three strangers were about to make history—in a bad way. One was a twenty-one-year-old woman who wanted an abortion. In December she met with two lawyers who wanted to fight the Texas law that made abortion illegal.”

By the way, “activist” and “feminist” are words that tend to produce emotional reactions in people, but which are terms of art as well. These are terms the two lawyers proudly claim and thus there is no name calling here.

“Skeptical,” “claimed,” and “admitted” all point to the fraud that was perpetrated. The sentence with “skeptical” could have been left out all together or I could have said they “wondered” or “had doubts about.” But I was setting the tone (these two paragraphs open the chapter) for the factual picture I would paint throughout the chapter of 1) all the dishonest things the plaintiffs AND lawyers did in the case, and 2) the way the lawyers used the plaintiffs. “Claimed” and “admitted” could have been “said” (which I did use a few times to prevent over seasoning).

To avoid starting a debate over abortion here, I will simply say that from a WRITING standpoint, “bloodiest,” and “twenty million babies . . . murdered” were chosen to represent my advocacy point of view. Instead of bloodiest, I could have chosen “one of the most famous.” Instead of “after more than twenty million babies had been murdered,” I could have chosen “after abortion had been legal all those years.” Both choices would have been neutral, but advocacy by definition should not be neutral.
Steve
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Postby anna banana » Wed Jan 20, 2010 5:14 am

glorybee wrote:Anna, thanks for the Dekker selection! I've heard his name so much that I really think I need to read one of his books.


Yes, you definitely should! I reccommend Three or Blink, although A Blessed Child is definitely wonderful, too!
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Postby glorybee » Wed Jan 20, 2010 10:16 am

readtheword wrote:Hi Mrs. Ackerson,
Thank you for inviting me to this new class you are doing. Also thank you for your comment on my story from the Writing Challenge.
Here is my choice for some salsa words taken from Christian Conquests by A.L.O.E ( Charlotte Maria Tucker ) :

Percy, still stretched at his ease on the sofa, took up a book which he had laid on the cushion, and soon, busy with it's contents, forgot all about George Faithful, the sweeper.

I think that the choices she makes for describing Percy's actions are very colorful and I can picture him reclining with his book. I love how this woman writes; both for men and women , boys and girls.

Alexander


Welcome, Alexander!

I haven't been "Mrs. Ackerson" since I retired--please, call me Jan.

I'm not sure I'd call all of the words you chose salsa words, but then again, it's not an exact science...they're certainly not rice cake words, either. Maybe something in between, like a tasty potato salad...they do indeed show us Percy's actions, though!

Are there other lessons that you'd like to see posted here?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Jan 20, 2010 10:18 am

Carol, thanks so much for your example--it so richly demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen words!

And on another note: do you have any wonderful salsa recipes for us?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Jan 20, 2010 10:40 am

Steve, thanks for your additional insights, and for that passage. I was hoping that someone would post an example of nonfiction rich with salsa words.

Your post and Carol's and a few others have really brought home a point that may have been lost in my original post: many words really have several dimensions of meaning, and it's important to know not only the definition of a word, but all of its connotations.

A. Jan smiled at Ben's antics.
B. Jan grinned at Ben's antics.
C. Jan smirked at Ben's antics.
D. Jan beamed at Ben's antics.

All of those verbs might show up in the same thesaurus entry, but they don't mean the same thing, not at all. A is bland, open to interpretation, needs more context. B imples more of a connection between Jan and Ben; she's in on the joke. C has a negative connotation; Jan feels superior to Ben. D has an element of pride.

By the way, Steve--I'd be VERY surprised if anyone on this site wanted to take you on on the abortion issue! Sanctity of Life Sunday is in just a few days; thanks for bringing this issue to the forefront.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby readtheword » Wed Jan 20, 2010 11:28 am

Mrs Ackerson,
Thanks for the invite to call you by your first name, but my mother would frown. I was taught to use Mr. and Mrs. with my elders. My mother still calls some people Mr. and Mrs. that she has known for years. I think if you do not mind, I had best stick to Mrs. :)
You are probably right about the potato salad words that I picked. I do not think that I would call them tasty potato salad words, as I do not like potato salad. :lol:
I cannot think of any lessons right now that I would like to see. I will just follow along as much as I can.

Alexander

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