Lightning and Lightning Bugs

Now that one novel has been captured on paper during NaNoWriMo, it’s time to switch my focus to my first love. I can’t think of a better thing to call something that I’ve labored over, nearly given up on, returned to, and continued to attempt to perfect so many years after it was originally conceived.

Of course, writing-wise, this means switching gears dramatically. After a month of working furiously, it is time to slow down. Gone are the hours of thinking of the big picture, and here again is the time to look at the minute details. Is cowered the right word? Is that paragraph as tight as it could be? How can I make the climax more appropriately tense?

For me, most of these questions are no longer a matter of how well the plot is working. Fortunately–for now–I seem to be past that point due to the ridiculous amount of time I’ve spent working on this story. Instead, whether the novel succeeds or fails is now more a matter of the words that give flesh to the plot.

As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Attentive readers can sense ineffective words. The paragraph just doesn’t sound right. The tension just falls flat. The phrase sticks out like a crimson balloon in a black and white photo. The sentence rambles.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to finding the best words. However, here are a few ways to tighten prose.

1. Play dress-up (with dress-ups)
At school, we use curriculum from IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing). Most of the emphasis is placed on using methods to create more interesting sentences, affectionately known as dress-ups. For instance:  
– Vary the way the sentences open
– Add words that end in -ly (aka adverbs)
– Use worthwhile adjectives (never say “nice” again!)
– Utilize strong verbs
– Interject very short sentences for emphasis (five words or less)
Besides adding some zest, sentences end up with more impact.

2. Get rid of unnecessary words
Do I really need to tell you the Christmas ornament is tomato red? Or that it was adorned with a French fleur-de-lis? Half of the time, we don’t even need to use the “there is” or “there were” that litter the beginning of far too many of my sentences. If there is a simpler way to say what you want to express, try it. Often, less is more.

3. Make the thesaurus your best friend
Or, better yet, keep lists of words you stumble upon. You never know when cachinnate could come in handy…

4. Remain single-minded
“Oodles” and “regalia” probably don’t belong in the same sentence. The decided differences between them make them less than compatible. It’s important to keep this in mind, otherwise awkward word combinations could be a story’s undoing.

5. Read excellent prose
Don’t settle for filling your mind with mediocre prose. Life is too short to read shoddy books. Find authors who write the way you want to and imitate them in your own way. It’s a simple way to perfect your style. 

Though a plethora of other ways to tighten prose exist, my duty to my unfinished novel calls. Now to apply these tips myself in hopes that my lightning bugs turn into lightning.

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