I like plain food, think Corn Flakes kind of plain. Or, Rice Krispies. Rice Chex. Maybe, maybe Fruity Cheerios. I like simple home-cooked meals, and simple seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic powder, maybe some Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, and for Italian or Mexican something or other, I stick to oregano, basil, bay leaves, cumin, and chili powder. I like plain coffee with 1/2 and 1/2 and sugar. No triple-shot non-fat, sugar-free, cinnamon dolche latte with whip for me, thank you very much.
My clothes don’t scream Chico’s, at least not lately. I dress up (when I have to) and do my husband proud, but mostly, you’ll find me in those dreaded yoga pants. Depending on the weather, it’s either a long sleeved shirt and hooded jacket,or short sleeves – or tank tops. The progression of sleeve length adheres to the weather. Most of the colors are black, gray, white, and off white. I do break out the occasional “colorful” shirt, but don’t go much wilder than red, purple or pink. Green, I might have some green. I wear flip flops year round. Yep, when it was snowing this past winter, I took my little guy out to do his business in my flip flops. Granted, these aren’t the cheap kind for 99 cents at Walmart, but… still… flip flops! Guess what color. Black.
Maybe some of this personality, this plain Jane psyche has something to do with the way I write as well. IDK. I’ve thought of this before, and when I recently read an online article that talked about the stylistic differences that make a bestseller just that, it sort of affirmed my thoughts. The author discussed bestselling authors methods, and the crux of their success was this, “It’s the words they use, the order they use them in, and how they tell their story.”
Well dang. That would seem obvious, right? Maybe, maybe not – there’s more to it. To achieve a higher level of writing, they recommended you strip down your own writing and then see if it still has or does certain things:
- Active descriptions
- Underlying emotion
- Quickens the pace
- Natural dialogue and cues
- Smooth choreography between characters
- Gripping cadence
- Visible tension
- Smooth transitions
I’m going to try and “strip down” a sentence from a very popular author’s book, and then provide some of it back with all of his brilliant writing. You’ll see the difference. Here’s the stripped down sentence:
When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their dads worked together at a candy plant and they grew up hating sweets.
I did a pretty good job of making it mundane, didn’t I? Anyway, here’s how he really wrote it, and as you can see, it becomes more than a sentence, but it’s perfect in what it does, which is to begin to let you begin to see these characters. It’s already building on the foundation of their relationship.
“When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy Plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgesicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate desserts.”
Such a difference isn’t it? This is from MYSTIC RIVER, by Dennis Lehane, and it’s one of my favorite books. (If I had to choose an author I wanted to write like, he’s one – and Dorothy Allison.) This example doesn’t take all of those listed qualities above (#’s 1-8), but it does give you the idea of what is meant. It’s definitely 1, 2, and 8.
The thing is…we’ve all been told at some point or another, there are only so many words in the English language. I.e. I get to use, and you get to use, what Dennis Lehane uses. Or Dorothy Allison. Cheryl Strayed. James Patterson. You get it. Still, I went so far as to wonder if the combination of our English words is infinite? I tried to research this answer, only very briefly because the discussion became pretty scientific about sequencing and streams. About finite versus infinite, and mostly about letters forming a finite equation. Nothing jumped out at me about our ability to put one word with another, and with “x” number of words in the English language, and based on our form of sentence structure, if we could say it is defined as infinite.
I didn’t want to over-rotate on a simple message.
And that is, you’ve got a ton words to use to tell your story. So, what if you start off as a plain Jane writer, (think shitty first draft, or stripped down version, like the sentence above), because you then get to go back and layer on all the wonderful, descriptive words. What you want is to not put in too much, or too little – you want them to flow, to be just right. We could call this the Goldilocks method of writing, I suppose. Not all of word choices or sentences have to be stellar. You don’t want to overdue the fancy prose, but simply strike that perfect balance. You’ll be able to tell when you’ve strung together sentences you’re proud of, and like the sample above, you’ll know it when you read it.
Have you found that “just right” balance with your own writing?