Today is my first mystery blogger! I asked my friend and fellow novelist, James Scott Bell, to write some thoughts on the power of words. My mystery bloggers will be talking about words in their world. We'll have writers, lawyers, pastors, teachers and more. It will be fun. So here are some thoughts from Jim on the power of words inside a novel. I wonder what would happen if we thought just as carefully about how we use words in real life?
The Right Words by James Scott Bell
Mark Twain famously said that the difference between the right word, and the almost right word, is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. That's the power of words, and the writer needs to be merciless in the search for the right ones.
I see a lot of bland writing in unpublished manuscripts. Description that merely describes, rather than giving us tone or emotion, for example. That's a waste of space. Like this:
The wind blew in from the desert, making the grass brown. Only the oleander plants seemed to thrive, their blooms and green leaves healthy.
But now see how Janet Fitch does it in White Oleander:
The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I.
Every detail of the weather here has tonal and thematic significance to the narrator, who is introduced in the third paragraph reacting to the weather.
Or how about this, from Raymond Chandler, in his short story "Red Wind":
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
What's the key to finding the right words? It's part alchemy, of course. You can't buy the ability. But you can work at it by first looking to the emotions roiling inside the Lead character. Then keep writing and trying different words until there is a connection between them and those emotions.
I see too many lightning bugs on the pages of aspiring writers. Squash them! Zap them with a bug zapper! Then crack some lightning.