Dealing with the Illusion of Words, This Is the Only Trick Writers Ever Need to Know

trav_writing_617

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been called a wordsmith. I have been called a word merchant. I usually refer to myself as a used word salesman But, basically, all of us who write are magicians who use words to deal in illusions. It’s our goal to tempt and taunt the human emotion, and words are the only tools we have. There are no magic wands in the writing business. You’re little more than a prospector, digging it out one word at a time.

I have always liked the Stephen King quote:  “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick. It’s work.”

And so it is.

Often, it’s hard work.

There are the right words that make people laugh, cry, or scare the hell out of them.

There are the wrong words. And the wrong words make the writer cry, and they can scare the hell out of him when he sees them show up in print, in cold hard type that can never be erased and might not be forgotten.

We are sometimes guilty of using too many words. But then, as Stephen King said, “Belief and reader absorption some in the details. An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”

Forget the details. And you’ve forgotten the reader.

Jack Kerouac has the trick
Jack Kerouac has the trick

Let readers see the overturned tricycle, and you have caged their attention and locked it away. Eliminate the overturned tricycle, and readers wonder why you even bothered to bring them to the abandoned neighborhood.

Details require a few more words, perhaps, but details are worth every one of them. The mistake, however, comes in writing too much about the tricycle. The reader does not need a two-page or even a two-paragraph description of the scene. The tricycle is there. It’s overturned. It’s in the gutter. The reader wonders, “What happened?”

You have him now.

Move on.

Leave him haunted by the mystery of it all.

As Hunter Thompson, the Gonzo Journalist of the beat generation, wrote: “Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life.”

It’s vital to add all the critical details. But you don’t have to waste words to do it. You don’t have to say, She was tall, standing about five foot, eleven in her stocking feet, and was as slender as a New York runway fashion model, with a long fur coat draped around her fragile shoulders. She stopped to light a cigarette and looked like she could use a glass of wine, probably an afternoon Chablis.

Just write: She’s a long, cool woman. Fur coat. Cigarette touching her lips. In need of a free drink, probably wine. Definitely on the prowl.

Once it’s said, you don’t have to wallow in it.

So when you’re writing the next paragraph in your novel and you’re in doubt about what to say, just remember the words of Jack Kerouac: “It ain’t whatcha write. It’s the way atcha write it.”

We deal in the illusion of words, and that’s the only trick you ever need to know.

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • So true, Caleb! Fine post!

    • We live with words and still seldom understand them when they start playing tricks on us.

  • “Once it’s said, you don’t have to wallow in it.”

    Perfect.

    • Thanks, Rainy. Obviously you and I look at the written word through the same pair of eyes.

  • “She was tall, standing about five foot, eleven in her stocking feet, and was as slender as a New York runway fashion model, with a long
    fur coat draped around her fragile shoulders. She stopped to light a cigarette and looked like she could use a glass of wine, probably an
    afternoon Chablis.”

    While I agree that one does not need a lot of description, I think something was lost when you rewrote this, at least it was for me, but that might be just a matter of different styles. If I could be so bold as to offer: “She was tall and as slender as a New York model, a long fur coat hugging her body. She stopped, touched a flame to her cigarette and looked like she could use a glass of wine, probably an afternoon Chablis.”

    Just write: She’s a long, cool woman. Fur coat. Cigarette touching her lips. In need of a free drink, probably wine. Definitely on the prowl.

    • I like it spare and to the point. Other writers have their own voice. Thank God for yours. You do sling words together beautifully.

  • Caleb, you are so right. The problem is that writing short is damned hard.

    • I am always guilty of writing short sentences and long copy.

  • It’s the old, I wrote a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.

Related Posts