Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Concrete prose: chiseling down to specifics

I recently asked a very smart man to read one of my manuscripts. The story is about a dying witch and a jinni fighting together to stop an EBG (evil bad guy or evil bad gal) from destroying the world. Near the end they break into the EBG's lair and are smacked in the nose with the "rank odor of destructive magic."

Okay, we all know what "rank" means. Nasty, icky. But it's pretty general. What kind of nasty is it, the sharp bite of acid or the over-sweet of decay? So I refined it to "acetone" but really, how many of us sniff nail polish and think "uck, acetone." Yeah. We want concrete, and not esoteric concrete but something most readers can relate to. So the very smart man said how about the smell of burnt hair? It's concrete and everybody has (or has had :) hair, and we have the added bonus of a nice shudder along the spine (think about it. If you haven't experienced it, seeing your hair go boof! is pretty darn scary. If you have, you know what I'm saying).

But even specifics themselves have to be concrete! Another bit of the story had the witch saying she was a "level four". Which, the very smart man pointed out, didn't mean anything. It's arbitrary specificity, like saying "I got five stars" which is good in book ratings but would make a very small galaxy. So I changed her to a "full" witch, still not completely defined but hey, it was a short-short story and at least "full" has specific meaning.

Another example: I originally started this posting with "In the battle to show not tell, one siege stone you can throw is making your words concrete. Hazy, vague writing can instantly snap to attention by chiseling down to specifics." Nice idea words but this is not a paragraph you can sink your hands into and knead.

So slash paper with red ink or prick nostrils with pig stink--keep it concrete!

Author update: I've got a new paranormal witch/shifter story started as part of NaNoWriMo Camp, and 6000 words on the Nixie & Julian short story freebie.

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