‘He was a human nail’
After 15 years of schlepping books from sea to shining sea, I can now fit all of my reading materials into my purse, thanks to Kindle.
I thought the thing I’d love most about my e-reader would be the extra mini-fridge-sized space it leaves in my luggage for necessities like thick Marimekko sweaters and airport-sized Fazer chocolate bars that I collect on my trips. It turns out that my favorite feature is “My clippings,” a tool that transforms my highlights and notes into text that I can transfer to my laptop.
After a couple of months of reading on a reader, I decided to review my clippings. What I found will help me — and, I hope, you — model the masters, or steal techniques from some of the year’s best writers to make your own writing more creative and compelling.
One problem with modifiers — thin, lean, straight — is that they don’t paint pictures in your readers’ heads. Instead of simply describing your subject with adjectives and adverbs, engage your readers’ senses with analogy.
Meg Gardiner used this technique to describe a charismatic religious leader in her Edgar Award-winning mystery, China Lake:
“Peter Wyoming didn’t shake hands with people; he hit them with his presence like a rock fired from a sling-shot. He was a human nail, lean and straight with brush-cut hair, and when I first saw him he was carrying a picket sign and enough rage to scorch the ground.”
Find yourself writing an adjective or adverb? Could you develop an analogy instead?
2. Coin a word.
Rebecca Goldstein is quite the neologist. In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, she creates half-and-half words in this passage:
“Auerbach harbors such impatience for the glib literati—the ‘gliberati,’ as one of his own digerati had christened them—that Cass has wondered whether there might not be some personal history.”
Can’t find just the right word? Why not make one up?
3. Twist a phrase.
To call attention to an idea, change a word or two in a colloquialism to give it new meaning.
After seeing David Mamet’s Boston Marriage hilariously performed by the Kansas City Actors Theatre, I read the play to make sure I didn’t miss any lines like this phrase twister:
“ANNA: Have you taken a vow of arrogance?”
Want to call readers’ attention to your point? Surprise and delight your readers with twist of phrase.
Model the masters
Regardless of your reading technology, modeling the masters is one of the best ways to improve your writing every day. When you find a passage or phrase or word you wish you’d written, clip it, study and master the technique yourself.
The better your reading, the better your writing.
What’s in your clippings?