“Rhett... if you go, where shall I go, what shall I do?
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a poop."
It’s downright painful how the wrong word can transform a strong, hulking man into a total ninny, isn’t it? And as a romance writer who LOVES strong male heroes (who doesn’t??), I cannot emphasize enough how important the “write” word is, not only in describing our characters, but in every sentence of our novels.
Margaret Mitchell knew the truth of this when she penned Rhett Butler’s famous final line from her masterpiece novel Gone With the Wind—“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” And producer David O.Selznik knew it, too, when he fought the censors with a placebo line in the early previews of the movie—"Frankly, my dear, I just don't care." But the “write” word that gave Rhett’s curtain call all the punch and pop that still resonates today is the one censors finally allowed Selznick to use in the 1939 premiere—“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Of course, Selznick added the “frankly” to Margaret Mitchell’s original line to soften the blow for censors and the public alike, illustrating once again just how important the right word is to everyone involved.
Now, as an Inspirational romance writer, I am not advocating profanity in novels, especially Christian novels, but I do believe “strong” language is a must in effective storytelling. And since we are on the heels of Seekerville’s BIAW challenge (Book in a Week) and you have all those wonderful words down, now is the perfect time to make sure they’re the right ones.
I don’t know about the rest of you folks, but I write by “feeling.” What I mean by that is when I read what I’ve written, I listen for rhythm and flow. It’s part of my voice, who I am to have this cadence that soothes me and carries me along, almost like poetry. In fact this sense of rhythm is so strong, that when my first copy editor on A Passion Most Pure changed some of my lines without tracked changes, I jerked in my chair, near traumatized while reading the galleys. Now, don’t get me wrong—my copy editor was following good writing sense by condensing and simplifying some of my sentences, but many times it also wreaked havoc with the flow and rhythm of the words in my head. Why? Because the wrong word can stop me dead in my tracks like fingernails on a chalkboard. And trust me, it will do the same with your readers.
I once read a pretty good book where the heroine—a shy, quiet thing—had just suffered a tragedy. Now mind you, I was engaged in this very low-key scene, completely feeling the angst of her misfortune, tears and all, when BOOM! The author ends the scene by having her 18-year-old heroine “skipping” out of the house and down the street to see her good friend. No, no, NO! Words must fit in with the mood and the sense of the scene or they will rip the reader right out with a scrunch of their brows, a gaping jaw or in my case with this particular scene, a comment such as “Are you kidding me?”
Believe me, I’m no stranger to using the wrong word as my husband will loudly attest in my overuse of the word “prostrate” in A Passion Redeemed, where as I mentioned in my recent “The Kiss of Death” blog, he joked that I used the word “prostrate” so many times, he felt inclined to visit a urologist. But I find that the more I focus on the right word, the more I am aware of the wrong ones. And so, although I know I don’t always succeed, I do attempt to customize the words to a particular scene, character or mood I am going for.
For instance, when setting a scene, I try to utilize words that are in keeping with the mood or feel of that scene. In the following paragraph from A Passion Denied, I wanted to convey the dark and deadly pain that Marcy O’Connor was experiencing when her normally loving husband cruelly rejects her, so I loaded up on words like bleak, rain, weeping, gray, dismal, mourning, cold, dead, corpse, hoping to inject some of their gloom to reflect Marcy’s own:
Marcy stood at Mrs. Gerson’s kitchen window, in bleak harmony with the rivulets of water that slithered down the pane. It was a slow and steady rain, endless weeping from a gray and dismal sky, and Marcy felt a kinship with it. It showed no signs of letting up, much like the grief in her heart over the loss of her husband. A silent mourning over a spouse who was still very much alive, but whose love was as cold and dead as any corpse.
When fleshing out your characters, the right word is essential. If you are a romance writer and your hero is a tall, testosterone type (and whose isn’t??), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use feminine words like “flirty” or “sashayed” to describe them or their actions. I repeat: under no circumstances does a real man EVER sashay. And since most men are not real chatty either, when I’m writing dialogue, I tend to go in and pare away tons of words, especially with a no-nonsense type of guy like Mitch Dennehy in A Passion Redeemed, who talks in short, to-the point phrases and grunts most of the time.
In the revision stage, I always read the copy out loud, and if a word causes me any hesitation, I close my eyes and visualize it. For example, if it’s Collin giving Faith a “flirtatious smile,” I pause and change it to “dangerous smile” because in my mind, “flirtatious” seems too feminine, while “dangerous” immediately puts the gleam of desire in Collin’s eye and makes his intent abundantly clear. Or, if I’m trying to soften Charity up a bit, I will quickly change her “caustic” tone to a “wounded” one or maybe even “guarded” to give the reader insight into why she is responding the way that she is. The right word can make or break a character in your reader’s mind, so zero in on those words that seem off-key, and pull out your trusty thesaurus or in my case, The Synonym Finder by J. A. Rodale. Then plop in different words until you get the perfect pitch that will make your sentence sing.
In my first draft of A Passion Redeemed, the story of Charity O’Connor, the vixen that people love to hate, my editor was understandably concerned that readers would not cotton to her, so she asked me to soften her up. Not only did I add scenes that emphasized her kindness to stray kids and old men, but I combed through the entire book, searching to temper her with just the right words. Here’s a sample where the right words made a difference in taking Charity from a hard vixen (in the original manuscript) to the final version where I hope she comes off more as a desperate young woman with a frail conscience:
Charity reached for her wine, allowing her lips to rest on the edge before sipping it. Swallowing, she held her glass aloft, sloshing the deep-red liquid until it glazed the sides. She smiled, her eyes riveted to his. “My lips. And nothing more?”
Charity quickly reached for her wine, desperate to diffuse her shock. Her lips rested on the edge before sipping it while thoughts of Mitch Dennehy clouded her mind. She stared at the scarlet liquid glazing the glass and fought back the hint of impropriety that nettled her nerves. No! She couldn’t do this . . . could she? She swallowed hard and slowly looked up, careful to place the glass back on the table with steady fingers. Her chin lifted with resolve. “My lips? And nothing more?”
The bottom line is, contrary to the philosophy that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words DO matter. They can, indeed, hurt … or heal or encourage and inspire. For us as writers, words are lifeblood, coaxing the lift of a smile or the swoon of a heart. And to those of us who are Inspirational writers, our words are even more vital, infused with the wisdom of God’s “Word” in the stories we are privileged to write.
Just as we labor for the right words in our novels, it’s been my experience that God often has a right word at the right time for each of us. A long time ago, when I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life, I woke up early in the morning with the phrase “Abide in me” drifting through my foggy brain. Abide? What exactly did that mean, I wondered with a yawn, not fully awake as I stumbled to my dictionary. I knew it meant to dwell and reside, but I had no idea that that one word would deliver a far more powerful message than I ever anticipated.
According to Webster, it means to “remain, stay, to last, to endure, to withstand without yielding, to accept without opposition or question, to comply, to submit, to remain faithful” And when you couple it with God’s Word, which He did for me that morning with John 15:7—"If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you”—well, it was a word that helped to change my life.
I’m a firm believer that God has the right word for each of us at the right time, so I’d love to hear yours. Or if you don’t have one, I encourage you to do what my prayer partners and I have done—ask God for a special “word” and then look it up to see all the wonderful things He wants to speak into your life at the moment. It’s really fun and inspiring. But a “word” of warning to all you ladies out there—I wouldn’t try this with your husbands. I did with mine, and he prayed on the spot, then shot me a crooked smile. “Escalade,” he said with a quirk of his lips. Sigh. You gotta love a dreamer.