Plant a Garden: On Becoming a Word Gatherer

As I surge forward in my growth as a writer I often reflect on the speech patterns learned from my family. It wasn’t until I attended college that I realized my mother should have been nicknamed “The Cliché Queen.” I thought everyone spoke that way until someone pointed it out to me. I still struggle with it in my writing. I do love my clichés! They seem to be imbedded deeply in my brain and spew out with wanton abandon, sneaking in like a thief in the night and forcing me to continually expunge them.

Writers are constantly searching for new ways to say things. We invent creatures and crazy weapons or an outrageous fantasy world. Uniqueness is essential to a writer, the ability to present a situation, character or world in a new way, mandatory. We know to avoid stereotypes in our characters and we must continue this commitment in our writing. Clichés are a quick and easy (read lazy here) way to get an idea across to your reader. Of course, when a cliché originates it starts out as a clever way to say something but overuse soon sentences it to death and we are forced to bury it in the Bad Words Cemetery. One of my new favorites was Jumping the Shark. I loved it! And used it often, until I started hearing it everywhere and then I had no alternative but to drop it like a hot potato! (Oh dear, a cliché! And I fear you’ll find a few more!)

Interacting with crit partners and editors over the years, I’ve discovered that many common sayings fall into the murky realm of clichés, phrases I never realized were clichés at all. It’s helpful to search the Internet for lists of them. Some may surprise you!

When I’m in the editing phase, I keep a sharp eye out for those pesky little critters that manage to stealthily crawl out of my brain, like tiny asps slithering onto the page. Once I catch one I dissect it, I examine the language and try to construct a new image that can get my idea across in a different way. But beware! Sometimes you can get carried away and you might just be better off giving the reader the straight language and avoiding the urge to be too clever for your own good.

It’s a struggle to stay fresh.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing for me is body language. My editor-friend, ET, calls me out on this often. I tend to be stuck in a body-language rut, overusing words such as looked, smiled, sighed, frowned, gasped… blah blah blah. So I’m always on the hunt for unique words that will give my characters a more animated existence. Setting is my other Achilles heel. I’m not big on description and don’t care much for books that detail the sound of a clock on the wall to the point where it hurts my head. I crave action and dialogue, those are my strengths, but I need to work more diligently on honing my descriptive skills.

wild flowersSo, I seemed to have developed this obtrusive habit. I gather words as if they were wild flowers there for the picking. I do it everywhere… in a movie theater, watching TV, or reading a book or online article. I gather them as single blooms or extravagant bouquets. I have notebooks filled with them. Here’s a sample of some words I gathered just this week:

           Sashayed, vexed, sputtered, mirth, quaked, arched, quirked, armpits, crook, canine, self-effaced, flick, flustered, frantic, clattering, pinched.

 Of course these are all words I know, but they don’t seep into my writing very frequently.

When starting a new project, I keep these lists handy and try to use them wherever I can. Especially since the setting of each new novel is different and I strive to leave the pathways I’ve trod too frequently. It’s also important to break our too-comfortable personal word patterns, because writing for the global market requires us to understand the differences dotting our landscape. On several occasions I bumped into people who had no idea what I was describing. It can be as inconsequential as the difference between soda and pop, or standing in line or on line, but others are broader in scope. Writing dialect is an intense immersion into a new word and pronunciation bank. I give the author of The Help kudos for being able to write such extensive dialogue in the jargon of a black maid in the Deep South, circa 1970s, or Mark Twain for Huck Finn.  little girl with big bouquet of wild flowers

Be it clichés, local colloquialisms, or just growing your vocabulary, stay vigilant for new words and images that you can use to expand your verbal horizon. Read. Read. Read. Pluck new words wherever they grow. And make yourself a bouquet, a fragrant and colorful one.

You get the picture. Don’t you?

Up Next from Caryn: A Rant! Be forewarned!


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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