Verbs That Inflame the Senses!

A while ago, I was reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, and came across a description I liked of a cat that “oiled against” the main character’s ankle.

“Oiled” captures a slick movement and a shivery, slick, clinging sensation. A moment where a cat brushes against someone’s ankle becomes even more unsettling.

Months later, when I was reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I found a noun-to-verb usage that I really liked: “The evening paper rattlesnaked its way through the letter box…”

“Rattlesnaked” conveys the movement of the slithering newspaper, and the sound it makes when traveling through the letter box. (Although I’m not 100 percent sure this was the author’s intention, the verb also makes the newspaper seem like a venomous creature – and given its contents, maybe it is.)

These kinds of verbs, which include nouns transformed into verbs, deliver a memorable sensory impact. In your own writing, you can use them to add more flavor to the text and to capture multiple sensations or feelings in one word.

But it’s important not to use them too much. If you insert them into every other sentence, they start distracting the reader. They each become less memorable and effective, and you give the impression that you’re trying too hard as a writer, that you’re straining too much to produce a certain effect. If you want to, try using these verbs here and there, in moments that stir the senses and keep the reader hooked to the world you’re building with your text.

A Book With a Built-in Writing Lesson

In Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo, a police chief going through an emotional crisis attends the funeral of a local judge he dislikes. During a long-winded speech by some clergyman (it’s unclear what denomination if any he represents), the chief remembers a lesson taught him by his eighth grade English teacher: the rhetorical triangle.

On the rhetorical triangle, the three sides are as follows:

  • Subject – What you’re writing about.
  • Audience – Who your audience is.
  • Speaker – Who you are.

The triangle seems simple, but really it can get complicated.

Regarding “Subject,” you may not be sure what you’re writing about. Maybe you have a general topic, but you don’t know what to focus on within that topic. You’re not sure what questions to ask.

When it comes to ‘Audience,’ do you have a person in mind, or a group of people? What is it about your writing that they’ll find interesting? (The police chief kept thinking that for his school assignments his teacher was his audience, but she denied this.)

‘Speaker’ seems like a straightforward one, until you realize that the issue of who you are isn’t always clear. Who is the ‘you’ that’s writing? Do you think of your writer-self as a persona, one of many roles you play? What ‘you’ is in the text?

The police chief’s English teacher would write on his essays, “Who are you?”

There was always, she claimed, an “implied writer” lurking behind the writing itself. Not you, the actual author – not the person you saw when you looked in the mirror – but rather the “you” that you became when you picked up a pen with the intention to communicate.

Part of what the chief struggles with in this book is who he is, decades later. With his teacher, he always wanted to tell her “Nobody,” because he hoped that passing himself off as a nonentity would mean she’d dismiss him instead of expecting anything good from him. One of his dilemmas in the book is that he has been roped into writing a speech for a ceremony in her memory, so her lesson – and her questions – have elbowed their way to the forefront of his thoughts. The speech that he’s meant to deliver about her will reflect something about himself, and he doesn’t want to confront himself. He’s tempted to ask one of his officers to write the speech for him.

It’s worth thinking about how the three sides of the triangle interact – more generally and for specific pieces you’re working on. How does the Subject, for instance, influence the voice of the author-you? What if author-you seems weak or phony?

The clergyman at the funeral (the police chief thinks of him as Reverend Tunic) seems to have held on and enlarged the Speaker side of the triangle while dropping the other two sides as inconsequential. But without giving much consideration to Subject or Audience, what kind of a speaker/author is he?

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

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LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.

Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel

I recently finished writing a novel. (I recently finished writing a novel!) I’ve been working on it for years, on and off, and to see it reach its third draft is amazing.

Now that I’m finally sharing it with people for additional feedback and preparing it for agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking about the work of writing a novel and what I’ve learned during those multiple drafts, including the earliest and most hopeless-looking one.

1) You may need to grow older or go through certain experiences to write a novel

It isn’t impossible to write a novel at a young age. (I wrote one in high school that remains in a plastic bin awaiting massive revisions.) But there are novels that can’t be written until you’re older, more mature, and more aware of what’s going on in your life and the lives of other people. This awareness was underdeveloped in younger me. I couldn’t have written this particular novel in my 20s.

2) The first draft is a mess

I thought I might be able to finish the novel in two drafts. I needed three. The first draft is just ink splatter with potential. The second draft is rough but much more coherent. And the third is finally ready to be seen by other people.

If you struggle with perfectionism, the state of the first draft might destroy your willingness to keep writing. Just keep in mind that it’s ok for the first draft to be deeply discouraging. There will be a gulf between how you envision the story and how it’s actually emerging. Your first draft can make you think that you’ll never finish the novel and that you’re incapable of producing anything but a rag pile of loose ends and flat characters who’ve had all the life wrung out of them. And there will be typos and missing words and sometimes sentences you’ve left unfinished.

3) A certain amount of doubt is productive

Too much doubt, and you’ll never finish your novel. You won’t have enough confidence in yourself and faith in the outcome. But some doubt is useful. Between the first and second drafts of the novel, I made a major change to the plot – for the better – after a couple of weeks spent doubting the believability of what I’d written.

Where you aim your doubt is also important. Doubt aimed at weaknesses in the writing is helpful when you’re rewriting a draft. Massive doubt dumped on yourself (“I’m terrible, I’ll never finish”) can stall you or derail a project.

4) You don’t need a rigid writing regimen, but do mind the gaps

A regimen works for some people. They write at the same time each day. They write in the same location. Or they commit to writing a certain number of words or pages per day. I wrote mostly in the same location, but not at the same time, and the amount I wrote varied considerably day by day. What’s more important than a regimen is continuity. Work on your novel most days of the week. Don’t leave gaps of weeks (or worse, months) where you aren’t looking at it or thinking about it.

5) Writing a novel can make you feel vulnerable

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the characters in the novel and people in my life, including myself. And many of the things that happen in the novel never happened to me.

But there’s no denying that I’m in the novel – in more than one character and across different settings. The novel contains things I fear or hope for or struggle with. Which makes me uneasy, even as it amazes me – look at what can emerge when you’re creative, when you’re trying hard not to block yourself with falseness and fear.

I wonder what conclusions others may draw about me, accurately or not, based on what I’ve written. There’s an instinct to shy away from scrutiny and hide what I’ve written. I’m ignoring that instinct and taking steps towards sharing the work and publishing it.

Some parts of the novel took me longer to write than others because they caused some emotional turmoil and forced me to think about things I would have preferred to overlook or quickly disregard. I did my best to write through the turmoil, with an effort for greater clarity and honesty. If you’re writing a novel, and you’re stuck or feel reluctant to keep working on a particular scene, one possibility is that you’re writing something that’s psychologically demanding. (Of course, there are other possibilities, such as being tired after hours of work/parenting/school or getting distracted by Twitter.)