Monday, February 15, 2010

Words that Rankle

Our spring Audience-with-an-Agent Contest is underway. If you'd like a chance to have your manuscript read by agent Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency go to our Promotions page and follow the guidelines.
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Every 10 days or so I spend about 3 hours ironing the clothes my husband and I wear. A lot of work, yes. Outdated, I know. But we wear cotton. Period.
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This photo is of me from 1st grade. It's one of my favorite pictures of myself as a child ... with one exception. The thick turtleneck sweater beneath the corduroy jumper is part wool (we won't even talk about the hair). I wore my brand new outfit that day, for that photo, and refused to ever wear it again. I love my mother, but wool? Why would she DO that?
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I can watch an old farmer walk into a coffee shop wearing a wool Pendleton, without even a T-shirt underneath, and for me it's like passing the scene of an accident -- I don't want to look, don't want to imagine how awful that shirt must feel against his skin, but I can't help myself! And a wool dress on a woman? I can never see that without taking time to ruminate on self-flagellation. It stops my thought processes. Literally. I watch old military movies with my husband and do you think I'm drawn in by the drama? No. I'm thinking, "The uniforms are wool. How did they stand that?" I'd have gone AWOL.
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What on earth does this have to do with writing, you ask? Okay, you saw my title so you probably didn't ask. But here's the thing. I've been known to stop reading a book because of the "W" word. I can feel it coming in a sentence, know the word is about to jump out and assault my sensibilities, and I can barely stand it. Extreme? Obsessive? Oh, yeah. "Hello, I'm Sharon and I'm a wool-hater."
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Maybe I'm this way because I have very sensitive skin, but the fact is that the words wool, cashmere, mohair, have a physical affect on my psyche. They create in me the most uncomfortable feelings, they disturb, they rankle.
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So here's my point. Words have the ability to move us. We're writers, we know that, and in fiction we need to stir all kinds of emotions. We need to inspire, appal, amaze, even rankle. But we sometimes forget the importance of one perfect word or phrase to achieve that. To be good writers we have to mine the dimensional words, the ones that emerge from the page and engage the senses. It's easy to settle for words that are comfortable and within reach, like well-worn slippers. But well-worn doesn't cut it if we want our fiction to be noticed. Here's an example from Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg. The passage is in the form of a letter from a woman to her husband:

I don't regret the fact that I was the one to stop working to raise Ruthie. When we brought her home from the hospital I hovered over you every time you even held her. I knew you were her father and half responsible for her in every way, but I have to tell you, Martin, as far as I was concerned, she was really all mine. I made her baby food, I picked out her toys and her clothes, I took her to school every first day, I pulled her shades down for her naps, I took her to the doctor, I braided her hair and buckled her shoes and mounted her artwork on the refrigerator. And I wanted to. I wanted to. Once she got into the teen years, you and she seemed to get closer and that was fine with me, too. I had had my hands to her when she was still wet, was how I saw it. Now I could step back -- keep watching, but step back. And then back further.

The line in red is a beautiful, breathtaking example of words that burst from the page. Ms. Berg could simply have written, "I know I'd left my mark on her." That would have made the point. But to have her character, Nan, write, "I had had my hands to her when she was still wet," depicts the type of effect Nan wanted to achieve, and conjures a far deeper stirring of the emotions in the heart of the reader than a stagnant phrase ever could.
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In Blue Hole Back Home, by Joy Jordan Lake, we find this fabulous passage where two girls, different in every way, are getting acquainted:

She looked startled, like our little exchange had been suddenly tossed, then retrieved -- and no reason for either. But she took -- after a second -- the rope-end of talk I held out.

The rope-end of talk... What an image those words create. I don't think there's anything that inspires good writing as effectively as good writing. When the bar is raised, it benefits writer, reader, publisher, everyone. We've been talking about books that are keepers the past few days on NM, and many of the books cited are ABA books. I want to see that expand to include more and more CBA books. If we choose our words expertly, avoid the cliche, and dare to strive for phrases that do more than get the point across, we've taken one giant step in the right direction.
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So now that you know more about my quirks, what words rankle you? And Happy 34th Birthday to my darling daughter, Deanne!

3 comments:

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I knew we were separated at birth! As a young girl, I could not stand wool next to my skin, nor peach fuzz. Pretty difficult for a girl who grew up in a peach orchard in the Four Corners area!

Words that rankle me -- feel like peach fuzz or wool on the area between my shoulder blades -- fall in two categories.

Now, I wish I were more tolerant and that these things wouldn't bother me, but they do. First category is misspellings of words with apostrophes. Like your for you're, bargain's for bargains, its for it's (or reversed), and their for they're.

The second is the overuse of some "religious" words which once had great impact. I'm thinking here of "God" and "awesome." Both of these are used so often, and usually without any connection to their original concepts, that they are sometimes meaningless. In many cases they are throw-away words or at best, conversational interjections.

Patti Hill said...

It must be 30 degrees or less for me to tolerate wool sweaters, but it still can't touch my skin. I do wear Smart Wool socks. They are soft and warm. Next time you're (not "your") in a sporting goods store, check them out. Wool CAN be a treat for skin. Oh my, peach fuzz is torture. I picked peaches when pregnant with my first son. I stood in a cool shower for an hour!

The misuse of further and farther rankles me. Isn't that silly? I only know the difference because I misused them and had to be set straight.

As adverbs they can be used interchangeably whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved. But where there is no notion of distance, further is used. For example: I further believe the difference between further and farther is absurd. Further is also used as a sentence modifier. For example: Further, the athletes were discouraged by low attendance.

When used as adjectives, farther is taking over the meaning of distance (the farther parking space)and further the meaning of addition. "Amy needed no further encouragement to dance on the table."

Now, isn't that as clear as mud? I might even be wrong.

Kathleen Popa said...

I'm with you ladies when it comes to wool. Even a wool coat has a collar, and collars touch the neck.

Peach fuzz? I love the feel of a new-washed peach against my tongue. Can I admit that on a Christian blog?

As for words, it bugs me every time someone says "nucular" when the word is plainly spelled "nuclear." George Bush did it, and now Jack Bauer, and I want them both to stop it right now.

One more: to say one thing is "different than" another makes no sense. If you use the verb, you say it "differs from" the other, so the proper adjective phrase would be "different from." For years I thought I was wrong on this because everybody, everybody says "different than." But now I find I am right. Why am I so surprised?

Now if someone would explain to me: Why does "a quarter of three" mean 2:45 and not 3:15, when 2:45 is still in the second hour, not the third?