Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, June 10, 2013

Confessions Of A Literary Streetwalker: The Right Word

(big thanks to Erotica For All, where this article first appeared)

The Right Word

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
– Mark Twain

No insult to Mr. Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens to his pals), but he’s a bit wrong there … but, more importantly, a lot right.

Wrong in when writing, slaving over just the right word can, too often, grind the process to a halt. When I hit that speed bump I usually just put the word I know isn’t the perfect, ideal, and – yep – right I just highlight it so I know, when I look over whatever I’m writing I can come back and fix it later. The key to keeping up your flow is not just writing well but to keep writing. Period. It’s far too easy to let niggling details get in the way of where you’re doing, and what you’re saying: it’s far better to just keep at it and then come back and do some tweaking after.

But Sam (Mark Twain to everyone else) is damned right about the damned right word. It’s been a very strange trip, going from writer to editor and, now, to publisher: I see a lot of things I wish that writers would get into their heads – and, similarly, try to get into my own thick noggin. The number one has to be to show and not tell: in more words, rather than less, it’s far better to be evocative and imagination-feeding than completely, unarguably, accurate.

Let’s try something: the brown chair. Not much there right? We know it’s a chair, we know it’s brown. End of story. But what if I wrote, “the chair was the color of a well-worn dirt road”? Immediately you not just see the chair but might even feel a bit about it: the road, and it’s color, overlaid with an image what a chair like that might look like, feel like, smell like, etc.

It’s far better to conjure the chair, with magical language and imagery, than carry it onto the stage. You can so much with so little if you take the time to think of words, and language, that is evocative and alluring that unarguably precise. The same, naturally, goes with sex: rather than saying that, say, someone’s breasts were perfect, or conical, or whatever shape you’re thinking of, try, instead to say they were “happily rich and full, tipped by the inquisitive arousal of umber nipples.” Okay, that might be a bit too much but I think you get my point: the first was dull, boring – the second says so much more happily at that.

Additionally, I’ve seen far too many stories cross my desk (as both an editor and a publisher) where the author thinks that they have to not just set that stage but show the reader every little board and nail. I have a little joke I tell when I teach writing (smut or otherwise): avoid the scroll. The origin of the joke it the way some movies – and far too many books and movies – feel that they have to spell out the world, the setting before even showing a single character, setting, or hint of a conflict. In movies it shows up as a literal scroll of what’s going to happen. Sure, it can be good – even very well written (The Road Warrior is a perfect example) — but far too many times it goes on too long and says far too much. It is far better to simply start the story with us, the reader/watcher, right in the middle of it.

For instance, what’s more effective…

A: Robert Sharpe West was 56 years old, a little overweight, with a full shock of dark hair. His job for the Central Intelligence Agency was to take care of their problems. One of those problems was named Anne Smith. She had taken something that didn’t belong to her and so it was up with Robert Sharpe West to get it back…

B: The first bullet exploded in impact an foot from his head, two centuries of Roman architecture splintering into a dusty bloom that bit his eyes, burned his cheek, and filled the air between him and the shooter with a cloud of dust – a cloud hiding the second bullet: the one that hit the wall, again, right where he’d thrown himself, where he’d been standing before twenty years experience hadn’t screamed in his ear move, damnit, move!

Okay, that wasn’t exactly brilliant but what do you expect for something tossed off pretty quickly. But I think you get my point: the first scene is – yawn – pretty damned dull. The second, however, gets the shit across pretty dramatically. The same, of course, is true of erotica: we don’t need to know the characters’ heights, weights, job histories, what they are wearing, where they went to school … zzzzzzzz … sorry, I nodded off a bit there. What we do need to know is who they are in a way that immediately, and evocatively, draws the reader immediately into the story. Don’t worry, if it’s important you want always dribble in the facts and figures and histories and all that other stuff as the story progresses – you just don’t need to begin the story by standing on stage and reading a dry scroll. Drop us right into the middle of it, with guns – or genitals – a blazing!

While picking just the right word can, sure, slow things down, Sam (Or Mark) is more completely right than wrong: try – always try – to bring down the literary lightning, instead of describing the boring details of a photinus carolinus. A flash of brilliance, after all, is always much more beautiful that just describing a glowing little bug.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice, Chris - and a bit related to what I plan to talk about in my post this month.

    I'm working on a story right now, and I'm trying for a lean, evocative sketch. Meanwhile there are all these DETAILS crowding my brain, trying to muddy up the page...

    I remember reading one author (can't recall who) who talked about the radio drama approach to writing erotica. Let the readers/listeners fill in the details, making the story their own. Resist the urge to tell everything you know about your characters - and be sure, as you say, that every detail you do share does extra duty by stimulating the readers' imagination.


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