Accentuate Accents

     I love writing accents. Giving a character a voice that really fits him is so satisfying — and fun.

     And there are many different accents. There are the national accents, the regional dialects, the local twangs, the tradesmen’s lingo. There are variances through education and age. Real people even “tweak their speak” on a whim, favoring whatever suits their fancy, depending on the situation.

     An accent greatly inspirits a character. We’ve all read books whose characters’ voices were unique. So how to make that happen? Listening and repeating in my head works well enough for me. The problem comes in putting it on paper in such a way that English grammar doesn’t alter the pronunciation.

     I’ve written several characters possessing voices so distinct that they almost speak their parts before I can write them. They leave me trailing behind them, transcribing as fast as I’m able. It’s sublime when that happens.

Vexing Vocabulary

     My daughter recently approached me, a novel in hand, asking what a certain phrase meant. Had the problem involved only a single word, I’d have encouraged her to look it up in the dictionary. We would then have discussed the meaning of the word, making sure she understood it both standing alone and in the context of the sentence.

     In this case, however, she understood the words, but not the phrase comprised of them. I explained said phrase. After a moment’s pause, she turned to face me and said that writers shouldn’t put words in books that kids can’t understand.

     Well, you can imagine what a discussion that started!

     I asked my daughter how she would have become as intelligent as she is had she never come across nor investigated new phrases? I do not believe that writers should abandon a rigorous vocabulary simply because they are writing to children, and I told her as much. Kids are not so delicate as to require familiar words and phrases day in and day out. As a child, I loved coming across new words. It was like meeting a stranger, who then became a friend, who then became a part of my life. I would try to make my new friend part of my lexicon.

     Longer books without higher vocabulary? As a writer, that makes for awfully nondescript writing. As a child, it makes for overly-simple reading.

     I’m willing to bet that within a week, she’ll use that new phrase … and smile while she’s doing it.

Enliven Your Verbs

     Years ago, in journalism school, we students were taught to choose our verbs with great care. Verbs, we were assured, were to express action, but not nuance. For example, we were not to write, “Politician Paul claims to be working on the problem,” or “Politican Paul professes to be working on the problem.” Instead, we were to write, “Politican Paul said he was working on the problem.” The idea behind the less expressive verb was to show the action being taken, but not allow the broadcast or publication of any perceived or actual writer bias.

     The rules have since changed, for a host of reasons, including, I suspect, a desire to give the audience more of a sense of what’s really happening. The journalist with twenty years experience in the market, who knows he’s being snowballed by someone, doesn’t want to become that person’s mouthpiece by reporting action without context.

     It’s also a simple matter of writing more interesting copy. Ninety said’s in one newscast is pretty dull, indeed.

     I was trained to be unexpressive in verb choice and still, generally, use neutral verbs in my news copy. Writing fiction, however, is a whole other matter, and we writers can and should break free from the bondage of boring verbs and pen / scribble / jot / scratch / type verbs that are exact and lively. Like that?

     Great writing comprises great verbs, we know. The verbs should mesmerize us; possess us to feel the emotion and see the imagery that the author exudes. So when creating the story, get yourself a great thesaurus and simply go crazy. Watch your writing burst to life before your eyes. I did.

What’s Your Motivation?

     I read a thread on a discussion board recently that got me chewing over a question. The question was, “What motivates you to write?” I was as intrigued by the answers as by the question.

     Two respondents admitted that ego had something to do with it (I found that to be an enlightening and honest answer), although it was not their primary reason. One liked the idea of being called an “author,” and so, I imagine, she wrote as a romantic ideal. She also liked the challenge of creating something worthy for publication. Another replied that, apparently, nothing motivated her.

     It’s a fair question to ask, why do you write? But how does one give only one answer? I have so many reasons why I write.

     I’d say I write because I enjoy the very process of writing. I love the sequencing of sentences, chapters, and story lines to create a smooth flow. I love developing new and intriguing worlds. I love giving voice to characters who are all my creation. I also write just to get better.

     I don’t write for my ego. After all, writing fiction opens a person up to a whole lot of ridicule if they’re not any good or they write things contrary to the belief system of friends and relatives. Nor does my ego get a boost from simply seeing words with my name attached to it. I’ve written and reported too many stories to walk out of the newsroom impressed simply by authorship. For me, writing a story well is much more impressive than simply possessing the byline.

     None of this is to say my motivation is any better or worse than anyone else’s. Still, it’s an interesting idea to chew on. Just why do writers write? Or do we, like the person responding to the thread, simply need no motivation at all?

Query Letters

     Query letters, like resumes, are some of the hardest documents to write. Not only do they require writers to condense their story and expertise onto one page; they also require writers to do something very few people feel they can do well — sell themselves.

     Self-exaltation, for most of us, is counterintuitive. It’s a clumsy exercise, trying to walk the fine line between promotion and revulsion. On the one hand, if we writers don’t market ourselves, who will? On the other, modesty — and probably reality — dictate that we not present ourselves as the best writers of the generation, especially if our attached chapters will have the agents laughing at our ineptitude (Of course, if we recognized our failings beforehand, we, doubtless, would not have sent out the query to begin with.).

     The query format is simple enough, much like that of a cover letter. We politely explain the aim for our letter, tell exactly what we’re pitching (“My fantasy middle reader of 38,000 words”), and then provide a compelling and pithy synopsis. Finally, we explain our credentials or previous successes, offer a method of communication (email address or phone), and then thank the reader for his time. Oh, how easy I’ve made it sound. In reality, a good query letter is an arduous task, but one that can fling open many doors.

     The rejection / acceptance letter is so much easier! One or two lines. Changing futures. But we all knew this — the number of words doesn’t make the difference. The impact is in the message. Poor agents. I almost feel sorry for them. We writers get a whole page to deliver our message, while they only get a fraction…

One Hundred Pages or One Hundred Seconds?

     There are a lot of ways to tell a story. You can write reams and reams of text. You can condense to single lines of crisp copy. You can use slow, sweeping panoramas or quick, flashing images. You can employ breaks in scenes or breaks in audio. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are people telling it.

     That’s one, and just one, of the many, many reasons why it’s so hard for me to answer whether I like writing long prose more than writing broadcast news. It’s an impossible comparison. They are distinct media with different aims, different audiences, and different results.

     Is covering one hundred pages of paper more fulfilling than using one hundred seconds of America’s broadcast spectrum? Have I cheated the story in choosing one medium over another? Is there not merit in both visions? And, if backed into a corner, why must I declare allegiance to only one? Thankfully, I’m not forced to.

     I am blessed with the opportunity to tell people’s real-life stories in more than one way. I am equally blessed regarding my own make-believe stories. For what better opportunities could a writer ask?

     So when answering the question, “One hundred pages or one hundred seconds,” my answer can only be, gratefully, “Yes.”

Copyright © Silvia Acevedo. All rights reserved.