Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Power of Just the Right Word

Hi, Julie here. Deb Raney has got to be one of the nicest (and most talented) writers I know, and it is a privilege to welcome her to Seekerville today. But I have to admit, when I first attended a seminar she gave at one of the first ACFW Conferences, well to be honest, the woman kind of ticked me off.

You see, the first novel she ever wrote, A VOW TO CHERISH, was not only fought over by three publishers, but it was made into a television movie that aired in 200 major markets in September 1999 and again in December 2004. Now Deb claimed at the time that this is the exception rather than the rule (uh, yeah), but it simply underscores what a gifted writer this lady is. And honestly, if she wasn't so darn nice, I would still be ticked off. But instead, I am proud to be both her friend and a fan.
Deb is currently at work on her eighteenth novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, the HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award and Silver Angel from Excellence in Media. Deborah's first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and won a Silver Angel, a bronze Omni Award and a Gold Special Jury Award at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival. It is now available on video and on DVD in seven languages. Her newest books are the Clayburn Novels from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, including Remember to Forget, a 2008 Christy Award finalist. Deb serves on the advisory board of American Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small-town life in Kansas.
Without further ado, I give you Deb Raney ...
Words are amazing things. With a unique combination of a hundred or so characters arranged into words, I can build a set as surely as a Broadway stage crew. A string of carefully chosen words can say so much more than what is actually there on the paper. Consider this sentence:

Charles James Stanford IV brushed a freshly manicured hand over the sleek mahogany desktop and depressed the blinking intercom button.
With twenty words, I’ve not only shown you the obvious—well-manicured hand, nice desk, intercom—but I’ve also implied everything those images symbolize—a man wealthy enough and vain enough to afford and desire manicures; a ritzy office; a secretary on the other end of the intercom. Ol’ CJ’s multiple names and numeral tell us that he is someone important—or at least would like us to think he is.

By extrapolating, we could deduce more: that the office is located in a large city, probably in an upscale section of town, that his office is large (doesn’t a mahogany desk just sound imposing? And there’s that intercom system.) We could assume that Mr. Stanford is a tad extravagant since he’s sprung for a fancy desk…and maybe a bit self-absorbed, since he takes time for manicures.

But there’s even more. Our man isn’t jabbing or punching the buttons on the intercom, but merely depressing them. He’s a cool, calm, collected character. We can feel fairly certain that when he picks up that phone, he’ll handle with aplomb whatever news is waiting on the other end.

Now, consider an almost identical scene—man at desk—that sets an entirely different stage with the exact same number of words:

Shorty Stanford shoved aside a jumble of coffee-stained newspapers, raked his palm over the splintered desktop and grabbed the phone.
First, the obvious: we’ve got a messy, splintered desk and a man who has to answer his own telephone. A man named Shorty isn’t usually putting on airs. And we might wonder about his workload, since he obviously has time to drink coffee over the newspaper. But our Shorty is anything but calm. He’s shoving and raking and grabbing. We can almost see the sweat beading on his forehead.

A few simple words can create a vivid backdrop for each scene in your novel. Think of your novel as a play. Have you forced your readers to sit in the back row of the theater watching an early rehearsal? The stage is empty, the lights dim. Backcloths and scrims are rolled up. The actors wear no costumes or makeup, and their hands and eyes are restrained by the scripts. We may get the gist of the story, and even be enthralled with the dialogue if it’s well delivered. But something’s missing.

Oh, what a difference if instead, we invite our readers to front row seats on opening night. Backdrops are beautifully painted and props are in place, our actors are in full costume and makeup, with their hands and eyes free to clarify and embellish the dialogue. The sound and lighting have been carefully orchestrated to set the mood and to spotlight the players’ best assets. Now we’re not just hearing the story, we are experiencing it.

Using this metaphor of novel as play, you can improve your manuscript exponentially by simply reworking the first paragraph or two of every chapter to set the stage as vividly in the reader’s mind as if he were watching a scene from a smash hit on Broadway.

Choose your words with care—especially those first words that will serve as a backdrop for your scene. If you make every syllable significant the payoff will be great. Because once you’ve set the stage properly, without changing another word, every paragraph that follows will be more vibrant, more emotional, more real, because the reader carries those first impressions with him throughout the scene.

Here’s to writing a novel that will bring down the house!


  1. Cool way to put it! Thanks for the info. I really like how you suggest using the first paragraph to set this up. You're so right! The whole scene doesn't need all these details if you set up a picture in the reader's mind at the very beginning.
    And it's so cool that your first book did so well!
    Here's to many more awards.

  2. Okay, apparently I like the words SO and COOL.

  3. Grin. Jessica, move over girlfriend ... I tend to like the word "so" and "cool" a wee bit too much as well, but sooooo what??? Both describe Deb Raney and her accomplishments soooo darn well, right? Thanks for stopping by.

    And huge hugs to Deb for a great post!


  4. This is a post that I can totally relate to! I've performed in many plays, and I've never seen the task of writing placed in this context. My mind can go places with this!

    I think we can all learn a great deal from Deb Raney! Great post!!


  5. This makes me want to go back and rewrite everything I've ever written.
    I heard an author ... I think it was Sandra Brown quoted as saying "I can write a book fast but wordsmithing takes a long time."
    I've always liked that image. The attention to the words, the picture that's being painted, the mood, the senses. I need to do that better. And Deb has just given me the boot I needed to go back and try harder.

  6. Okay, here's another thought, I am a broadcast journalism major from back in the dark ages when I went to college.
    On of the over riding rules they taught was: The best writing is rewriting.

    It's the absolute truth. Do not think that what flows from your pen (yeah, I said it was the dark ages) is inspired brilliance that must not be tinkered with.

    It gets better, richer, more visual and engrossing every time you work through it.
    I finished a book about three months ago that is just calling to me from my computer to 'get back here and fix me'
    If possible, I finished a book, then go back and fix an old one, the write a NEW ONE, then go back and tweak the one I finished earlier. That distance helps you see the book with fresh eyes and the book always is the better for being reworked.

  7. Welcome to Seekerville, Deb! And thanks for a wonderful post! I love your examples of how we writers can create character in just a few well-chosen words. That's heady stuff. :-) Your post is a great reminder to set the stage in the opening of every chapter.

    I'm totally impressed that you not only sold your first book, you had three publishers fighting over it. And better yet, it was made into a TV movie. Your career is inspiring for all of us here at Seekerville!


  8. Thanks for the interview. spowell01(at)

  9. Deb, your post is like an ahha moment for me. I spend so much time revising each and every sentence to get the most out of them that it's painfully slow to get through one chapter, let alone a whole book.

    I'm going to try doing just as you said with the first paragraph or two of each scene, then jump to the next scene and so on. And then when I'm done all my scene starters, that's when I'll see if the rest of the scene needs more work, or if the new more vibrant starter was enough.

    Oh, I'm so excited to work on my revisions once more. Thank You!

  10. I agree with Mary C, makes me want to go back and rewrite everything LOL!

    Wonderful word imagery.


  11. Hi, Deb, welcome to Seekerville! Gosh, I feel like I just saw you ... oh, yeah, I did! Our ACFW chapter was blessed to have Deb present an all-day workshop last month that was both inspirational and informative. No matter how long we've been writing, there's always something to learn ... or be reminded about.

  12. Brava!

    Excellent performance, Deb.

    Encore! Encore!

  13. Pam, rewriting is almost my favorite part.

    When I hear people say, their deadline is in two weeks adn their book has 100 pages left to write it's terrifying. If that day comes for me, how could I possibly turn something in that is as rough as a first draft.

    Maybe I'll get better and not love and depend on the revision process as much as I do now.

  14. Those paragraphs were so descriptive that now I want to read a story about the two men! lol


  15. Ooops ... I forgot to mention that Deb is leaving for ICRS tomorrow, so she's crazy with getting ready, but promises to check in at some point today, so be sure to check back.


  16. Forgot to add ... this was knot in my tail needed to get started on the first three chapters of The Great American Novel.

    (My version of it ... I know you-all have your own GANs under weigh)

  17. Wow! You Seekers are a talkative bunch! Julie, thanks again for the invitation to be a guest blogger today. I'm enjoying all the great feedback. Maybe I'll just have to write a book about these two guys, CJ and Shorty...identical twin brothers separated at birth, maybe? ; )

    And Mary, after writing for 15 years, I'm here to tell ya that most of the good stuff STILL happens in rewrite! I'm learning, little by little, to incorporate some of it in the first draft, but honestly, at that point you're so absorbed in the plot and characters, that the juicy details get overlooked. I have to agree with E.B. White that the best writing IS rewriting!

    As Julie said, I'm headed to Orlando tomorrow, but I'll try to check back here at least once more before the "bus" to the airport (my dh) leaves my house at 4:30 in the a.m. : {

  18. E.B White said: The best writing is rewriting
    Hmmmmmm good think I didn't claim to have said it myself.
    Maybe I'll see you at ICRS, Deb.
    I've never been before and have no idea what I'm supposed to do.

  19. My first visit to Seekerville and I'm rewarded with this fantastic tidbit from Deb Raney, one of my favorite authors. (All her books are on my "keepers" shelf.)

    Thanks for that insight into the importance of those first words. It instantly helped me with my own troubling opening paragraph.

  20. Great post, Deb. Just like Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. It's amazing what just the right words will convey. And as authors, we are duty-bound to write tight and not overdo it. On the contrary, we should indulge in the sweetness of brevity and the power-punch description that blows away our readers.

    Oh, and Julie? I can relate to being ticked off upon first meeting Deb and learning that A Vow to Cherish was her *first* book. Of course, I also was a bit partial to her because I knew the star of the film from a favorite TV show at the time...Dr. Quinn. Deb and I had a nice little chat about that connection.

  21. Deb, welcome to Seekerville!

    I've brought the coffee set-up and fresh-squeezed lemonade for those who don't do mid-day coffee.

    Check the back tables, ladies, where I've placed a fresh batch of double dutch fudge chocolate chip cookies. If nothing else, PMS makes women creative with cocoa beans. If it's chocolate or murder, chocolate should always prevail, don't you think?


    So Deb, you've gotten over Julie's angst, Amber's awe and won over about every heart available. Nice job, all in all. And I'm laughing at Mary's bemusement, picturing her pounding the keys, deleting word after word...

    But the world needs Connealys just as much as it needs Raneys and I'm glad you guys are different. Both styles work for me.

    And Mary, I can just see the Texas series as a three part Michael Landon production for the Hallmark channel. You just give it time, girlfriend.

    Deb, let me know what you think of those cookies. I think we've got a winner on our hands.


  22. Hey Tiff, so glad you can relate to being ticked off at Deb's incredible success -- nice to know I'm not the only little brat in the world. :) I can only imagine how I would have felt if she WASN'T one of the sweetest people on earth!!

    And, Ruthy, oh man, you really have something there with Mary's Lassoed in Texas series being the perfect fit for Michael Landon, Jr. and Hallmark. From your lips (or keyboard) to God's ear!!

  23. Cynthia RutledgeJuly 9, 2008 at 5:12 PM


    Great blog...I loved the examples you gave...

    Thanks for sharing!

  24. Oh, man, there I go again, being nice to Mary.

    In public, no less!

    What was I thinking??????? What've I been smokin'??????

    Now everyone's gonna expect it day in and day out, and who knows when the planets might align in just that fashion again???

    Golly gee whillikers, the things I do to myself.

    Mary, pretend I said nothing, 'kay? I'm not sure I can stand the pressure.

    Let me just go grab a handful of them thar cookies... Chocolate. The great equalizer.

    Next to God, of course.


  25. As a novice writer, I appreciate Deb's great examples of how less can be so much more. Thanks for the blog!

    Becca Dowling

  26. Wonderful post with valuable insights so clearly shown. I'm going to heed your advice. Thanks, Deb.

  27. Hey, Ruthy, FYI, I have done very well getting back in the writing groove this week. I'm ready for my pie, if you please.

  28. Wow, Ruthy, they say it can happen but nothing can really prepare you for the shock.

    And did you say chocolate equalizers, because my first reader I got chocolate tranquilers, which would be a very tasty idea.

  29. Whoa, whoa, whoa...I leave for a few hours and you break out the cookies? What's up with that. Are there any left? ; )

    Thanks for all the encouraging words. It's been a good day! I finished a rewrite (whew!), worked on some proposals, edited some cover copy, got a sneak peek at a new cover (LOVE it!) ...oh, and packed for my trip.

  30. Thanks so much for being in Seekerville today, Deb. Great post and nice to have a glimpse into your career.

  31. Deb! It's lovely to see you here. Thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for the advice and for your books. After my daughter read Remember to Forget, she ran out and bought Leaving November. She loved both, and is looking forward to reading Beneath a Southern Sky. A fantastic trend, so thank you.

  32. Deb, I was out of town this past week and just read your post. Thank you so much for the inspiration! I'm going to keep at my revisions with a keener eye now.

    Thanks so much for joining us in Seekerville!