Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Azure Blue Sky

A streak of white light cut across the azure blue sky --

Okay, stop right there. What's wrong with this sentence?

The thing that stands out to me is "azure blue sky." Why? Because it's wasteful. You only get so many words per book. Don't waste even one. You don't need to say, "azure *blue* sky" since azure means "pale blue." That's like saying, "the pale blue blue sky."

Yeah, I know we all tend to zip through the first draft, waxing poetic, as they say, and don't take time to edit our lyrical voices. And the second draft focuses on dialogue (or continuity or chapter hooks or ...), but what about the fifteenth draft? Somewhere along the weary staircase of drafts, we have to stop, catch our breath, and take a close look at the actual words we've used.

Examine your writing. Have you used two words when one would do? On the other hand, did you use one word when two or ten would have been better?

Your characters are stranded on a boat, in the middle of a seemingly endless sea. You write, "Dark clouds approached."

Look at what George R. Stewart wrote in Storm:
"Hour by hour the cloud-deck grew lower and thicker and darker; swift-blown scud sped beneath the low stratus, seeming to skim the wave-crests."

Wow, much tenser than "Dark clouds approached."

Whether you're trying to chisel down your words or use the exact words to evoke an emotion, go through your manuscript and look for the opportunities to make use of the language. No need to say a character's ears were large and projected outward from his head when you could say he was jug-eared.

Think about your descriptions. Sometimes it's the little things that say the most. As an example, read this sentence by V.S. Naipaul in Guerrillas:
"A triangle of white light was advancing from the porch into the sitting room, over the curling edge of the electric-blue carpet, which lay untacked on the terrazzo floor."

"Porch" and "sitting room" evoke almost genteel images. "Electric-blue" seems rather modern. But the words that really get to the core are "curling edge" and "untacked." Without those miniscule details, the sentence would have a whole different meaning.

What could you say about an object or a scene or a character that would be so right-on it would be unforgettable or would bring that image into sharp focus? Look at this from Rumer Godden in _Black Narcissus_:
"The woman's face was Chinese, brown and withered like a ginger root; she wore dark blue clothes, a necklace of turquoises and sharp little silver knives, and her hair in pigtails like two grey wires."

I don't think I'm going to forget a face withered like ginger root and pigtails that look like two grey wires.

What you're describing may not require eloquent words. The mood may need starkness. Here's Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale:
"When I'm naked I lie down on the examining table, on the sheet of chilly crackling disposable paper. I pull the second sheet, the cloth one, up over my body. At neck level there's another sheet, suspended from the ceiling. It intersects me so that the doctor will never see my face. He deals with a torso only."

Look for just the right words that evoke the emotion, the image, the soul of what you want to say or describe. It's not necessarily easy. It may take many rewrites and a lot of searching for the telling aspects and perfect words. But when you get it right, it can be an epiphany. The azure blue sky opens up and releases a torrent of beautiful, shining words onto your manuscript.

Okay, maybe not an azure *blue* sky.

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