Word Choice Category Archive

Writing for the Ear

Today, Randy Brandt is guest-posting on Writing for the Ear and the magic of stories read aloud. You might have noticed that we have a similar last name, and…that would be because he’s my dad, and a pretty cool one at that. Currently, he’s a preacher, though he’s worked as a 3rd grade teacher and, in his own words, is a picture-book-wanna-be-author.

I hope you enjoy this post! I wish you could have heard him read it aloud.

Randy Brandt:

It was in high school drama and musical productions that I first tasted the opiate of audience reaction to the live performance of spoken word where as an actor I grew accustomed to inflection, rhythm, pacing, gesture, and pause. I felt a similar reward when reading to my toddling children at bedtime, or to 30 third grade students gathered in our story-telling corner, or with a church of congregants waiting for the impacting end of an illustrative tale.

There is a unique power in how stories are experienced when the narrator speaks aloud, employing control over the timing of pauses or a patient lingering through a string of descriptive adjectives. The bard can sing the description of gentle wind over a field, hurry with fevered pitch and breathless excitement through a tome’s climatic fight scene, add sassy character to biting dialogue, or whisper slowly the description of the antagonist’s last breath.

When I spent time over the minimalist use of words demanded in picture book authoring, I found myself obsessed with reading aloud, time and again, the prose that I imagined someday being illustrated, hoping against hope that my words would be read, not just silently by young readers to themselves, but out loud by teachers, parents, and children. Thus, I wrote in a way that my voice would be the reader’s voice, that my style in writing would reflect how the reader actually read and how the hearer would listen with heart, emotion, and imagination.

I’m convinced that most readers not only see the images and feel the emotions described in the novels they read, but they hear it all happening with inspired imaginations fueled by the writer’s honed skills.

The question I pose for you authors who have no voice, but only the printed word: How is it that through writing style and technique an author can bring the power of spoken voice to prose? Do you image your dialogue being spoken aloud someday, perhaps during a group discussion of your published work or better yet, on the screen?

Do you write for the reader’s ear?  Do you think of yourself as a story-teller who has no lips but her pen, no arms for gesticulating nor ability to slow the pace of speech except in how carefully crafted words appear on a page?

Or better yet…what techniques are in a writer’s arsenal to equip the author with comparable powers of story-telling control to which the ancient bard has always been privy?

Show vs Tell: The Pain Lexicon

Now that November is over and your NaNo is finished, it’s time to move on to the next step…QUERYING!

Uhh…wait. That’s not right. Once you’ve taken a step back from drafting your NaNo and given yourself a moment to clear your head, it’s time to edit your WIP until it shines.

For this mini blog series, Lauren Spieller, Charlie N. Holmberg, and I have put together a few (hopefully helpful) tips on how to pump up your writing. Our goal is to help you avoid a few simple pitfalls when describing characters who are experiencing pain.

To kick us off on Show vs Tell, a quote from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

The idea behind “show, don’t tell” is the thought that, believe it or not, readers are pretty darn smart. They are very capable of taking cues and figuring things out on their own. As an example: when a character frowns, most everyone will know (or assume) that character is feeling something negative. Our goal is to take out the moments when we write, “Suzie is mad,” and change them to, “Suzie frowned.” Though, of course, this is very simplified.

Often, there are simple clues that hint that you might be telling instead of showing. Scour your writing for the following words. If you find them, there’s about a 90% chance that you are telling something that would be much more powerful if you would show it instead.

  • thought
  • knew
  • wondered
  • realized
  • decided
  • wished
  • hoped
  • smell
  • see
  • hear
  • feel

Also check for forms of to be (is, are, was, were…), which are clue words that you might be using a passive voice instead of an active voice.

Instead of this these weak words, as writers, we want to choose strong words! Words that have pop, that allow a reader to experience the story along with your characters. This is exactly why Charlie, Lauren, and I created the Pain Lexicon (found in a link at the bottom of this post).

Since this post is supposed to be directed toward PAIN, here’s an example of using “telling” words to describe what a character might feel if they are in pain:

Suzie realized her stomach hurt as pain ran through it.

In the sentence above, we know Suzie’s stomach hurts, so writing the word “pain” becomes redundant. Also, do you see the clue word “realized”? Take it out! If it’s happening to your character, they won’t have to “realize” anything—their response to it will be automatic.

To help make this moment more clear for a reader and show instead of tell, think about what else might be happening to Suzie’s body: is she sweating, or experiencing shortness of breath? Is she bent over and clutching her abdomen? Or perhaps she’s rubbing her skin, trying to make the feeling go away. To fix this sentence, I grabbed a few words off the lexicon: clench, wheeze, and lurch. So, “Suzie’s stomach hurt as pain ran through it,” turns into,

Suzie clenched her fists and wheezed, doubling over as her stomach lurched.

When you show, your reader will be intimately drawn into your character’s experiences, rather than being on the outside. If we look at the science behind storytelling, it seems that with good showing, our brains can’t actually tell the difference between reading about an experience and having it happen first hand.

If you are working on this very thing in your writing, the next time your character has a tummy ache, is shot, or falls and breaks an arm, I challenge you to forbid  yourself to write the word pain. Try it! Use the Pain Lexicon to identify words that pop and zing. It might be difficult at first, but the end product will be powerful writing that your reader will be able to experience right along with your character.

What tricks do you use when trying to show rather than tell? I’d love to hear about any struggles you might have, or if you’re especially good at this!

Pain Lexicon

Visit Charlie’s website for her post: The Pain Lexicon: Using Physical and Emotional Descriptors in “Painful” Passages.
Visit Lauren’s website for a post: The Pain Lexicon: Let’s Make It Hurt.

Here are some follow up posts that might help if you still need clarification on this:
 Don’t Tell Me Why–by Janice Hardy
Show, Don’t Tell–by Grammar Girl
In Six Seconds–by Chuck Palahnuik 

Repetition in Writing- a writing exercise

I started out the day with a fun writing exercise that helps with repetition and learning to use it for effect. For me, I usually balk from repeating a word too many times. If you’re like me, you scour your paragraphs for repeated words and do word searches for writing-tics (particular favorites of mine are “moment”, “slip, and “jerk”). But today, rather than flee from the dreaded repeated word, try embracing it! This exercise takes only a few minutes, so I highly suggest giving it a shot! I’m reading the wonderful book The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla long, where I found this exercise.

  • Before you start, here are two helpful hints:
  1. When repeating words, three is the magic number.
  2. After you first use the word, repeat it again as soon as possible, even if it’s immediately after!

This exercise has two parts.

First, set your stopwatch for five minutes. Write about a person or setting (try using something that could geared toward your current WIP!) using hot-words, words that seem to fizzle or zing when you say them–crackle, slick, zipper are all great words.  After you finish writing, circle your hot-words and pick your favorite of the bunch.

Second, set your stopwatch for ten minutes. In this round, use your favorite hot-word as often as you can, at the very least repeat it once on every line. Not once per sentence, but once on every line. Sometimes, this means repeating your word two, three, or four times in one sentence. Write the full ten minutes, even if you can’t think of a single thing more to write. Your best sentences might very well be written at the nine minute mark.

Here’s an example of repeated words in a very lovely paragraph, used as an example in the Writer’s Portable Mentor:

“For now he was still stuck in this red earth country, in this red earth place, in the red sky world, far from home, far from life,  far from everything. On top of that he felt slightly worn. Slightly old now. More than slightly seasoned. And more than anything else, used up.” (Philip H. Red Eagle, Red Earth, 16-17).

What are some of your favorite writing exercises? Do you tend to avoid repeating words, or do you embrace it?


Beware the Weak Heroine

One of my biggest pet-peeves in writing is the weak heroine and the shallow love story.

When I was in middle and high school Amelia Atwater-Rhodes  and Tamora Pierce were my favorite authors because they got it. They got that I didn’t want to read about sniveling girls who were struck dumb by every boy who glanced sideways at them. I didn’t want to read about girls like that because I was a girl like that. I wanted to read about heroines who took control, who fought hard and didn’t have brains that frequently stopped working. I wanted to read about girls who showed me how to be who I wanted to be. These were the girls I day-dreamed of becoming.

If you haven’t read any of Amelia’s work, go read them. Now. Demon in my View. (Amelia did vampires long before the fad and she did it much, much better). Hawksong. Shattered Mirror. You can not go wrong with any of her books. Same with Tamora Pierce. For many years, I idolized Alanna.


When younger, in the YA ‘age zone.’ I dreamed of falling in love, but I got something. I understood that love wasn’t it. Love wasn’t everything. All of the books I have deemed worthy of keeping (some that I’ve had since elementary school) have female main characters who are willing to pass up love for something greater.

Sabriel. Yalena. Opal. Jessica. Alanna. Mary. All great examples of this.

Strength. Spunk. Fight. Soul.

The shallow love story? I don’t believe it. I have never believed it because even before experiencing love, I knew the shallow stuff would never, ever last more than the two seconds spent in the story. I knew that the girl, plus love, plus boy did not equal overcoming all evil. (Yes, this is real math. Girl+love+boy ≠ conquer evil). There has to be something in the girl before the love that makes her strong.

Yes, I know this is all personal taste. I know love is something to aspire to and it is beautiful, wonderful, make-you-throw-up incredible. I absolutely concede these things.

But please, authors, don’t write a heroine who, if she read her own book, would be ashamed of her actions and ask herself, Why? Why was I such a goon over that boy and completely passed by the rest of the world? Write a character who would be proud of herself. Write a character little girls can aspire to be.

Writer a heroine who is the hero: flawed, yes, but strong and courageous despite those failings, willing to persevere and overcome her own weaknesses.

Of course, she should be willing to bend herself to love and let love make her greater, make her better, make her able to relent to the goodness love brings. But take the inherent strength in your heroine and let love make that strength all the more powerful. That is when love is believable.

Love can not create strength from nothing. If you try to convince your reader of this, they will see straight through it.

Lies do not become us.

Write a heroine/hero who is capable of great things both with love and without it. If you can do this, then you will have a great character on your hands.

(I will not be posting an audiobook review tomorrow. I only made it through two discs of Wither before I quit. Go for the read on this one folks, not the listen).


Sentence Sundays! Words!

Yes, I know it’s Saturday night and not Sunday, but tomorrow I start the drive from Mississippi to Minnesota to go visit my family. I can’t tell you guys how ridiculously excited I am. 🙂

So, here’s your sentence Sunday post a night early, and it’s all on words, specifically word variation.

I admit, varying words is not easy. But honestly, does your reader really notice if you’ve used the word cacophony twice in one book? Umm, yes! At least I do.

But what this post is really about is insuring you vary how you begin a sentence.

Here’s an example of a paragraph I wrote tonight:

Twisting on my toes, I look back to Kira, her blond hair brittle in the morning sun. My shoulders sag and I turn to look over the expanse of desert we are traveling across. I shuffle forward, continuing to walk up the small mound of dirt that has formed into a hill.

But what if I had written it like:

I twist on my toes, looking back to Kira, her blond hair brittle in the morning sun. I sag my shoulders, turning back to look over the expanse of desert we are traveling across. I shuffle forward, continuing to walk up the small mound of dirt that has formed into a hill.

Every sentence here begins the same way, always beginning with the word I (yes, the format is the same, but I don’t know what you call those sentences so I’m not messing with that part). Isn’t the first example more interesting? The reader isn’t punched in the face by an ‘I’ character, someone completely all about me, me, me.

If you find yourself beginning several sentences in a row with the same word: he, she, I, my, change it. Those words begin to grate on your reader and your writing will become boring as there are no surprises, and as we all know, surprises are a great thing 🙂