Choosing the Right Words for Your Novel

Happy February!

Last week, I participated in World Read Aloud Day for the third consecutive year. For the unfamiliar, World Read Aloud Day is an annual celebration of the power of reading aloud sponsored by LitWorld and Scholastic. Authors offer free virtual school visits during this one day of the year. Typically the visits include an intro, a read aloud (of course!), a Q&A, and generally the author shares a few book recommendations. This year, I virtually visited middle schools in California and New Hampshire and high schools in Alabama and Texas. The photos below are from the beginning and end of my day. I had an awesome time, but it was exhausting!

Every year, I’m so impressed by the questions students ask. There are some perennial questions like:

  • How long does it take to write a book?
  • Do you ever get writer’s block?
  • Have you written other books besides the ones that are published?

But every time I talk with students, they surprise me with new and interesting questions. My favorite was: What is your skin care routine? It might have been a joke, but I took it as a compliment 😊. One school’s book club was currently reading My Second Impression of You, so they had used the MSIOY book club kit to make Maggie’s favorite Mocha cookie crumble Frappuccino and also asked some very specific questions about the book.

But on to today’s topic, which was one of my favorite writing questions of the day.

How do you choose the right words for your novel?

At first glance, you might assume this is a grammar question. It certainly can be, but on a bigger picture level, it’s really about character and voice. The words you choose are a reflection of your character’s point of view, particularly if you’re writing in first person or close third person. So who is your character? Their age, ethnicity, where they live, family situation, beliefs, level of education, and a plethora of other factors will impact how they think and speak. Even for something as simple as noticing a car drive by, you would get vastly different internal thoughts/dialogue.

  • A teen with no car knowledge: An older car went by. I don’t know what kind it was, but I recognized one of the guys from school.
  • A mom: Two boys drove by, way too fast, in a red car with a scratch along the side, probably because they’ve been reckless before, completely ignoring the signs to slow down for children in the neighborhood.
  • A small child: A red car zoom zoomed by!
  • Someone in law enforcement: A red, four-door Toyota sedan with two passengers passed by, license plate XXXXXX.

Of course, word choice goes beyond descriptions. It encompasses everything your character says and thinks. Are they observant, or do they go through life completely missing what’s happening around them? Do they speak what they’re thinking or hold nearly everything in? Do they have intricate knowledge about a particular topic and so are likely to go into a lot of detail whenever it comes up? Or even see the world through the lens of that passion?Or… are we in a different world entirely and that’s going to inform your word choices? Fantasy and sci-fi worlds are sure to have unique word choices and terminology. As does historical fiction. But wait, there’s more! Is your character prone to metaphors? Other literary devices? Short, choppy thoughts and dialogue or longer, more lyrical internal dialogue and discussion? Constantly crack jokes or not understand them at all? All of these factors–and so many more!–affect the words you choose.Let’s take the two main characters from my published books:

  • Jenny Waters: 17-year-old girl from 1995; aspiring journalist; sheltered; rule follower; constantly observing the world around her for a potential story
  • Maggie Scott: 16-year-old girl; Broadway hopeful; dramatic; goal-focused to the point of tunnel vision when it comes to family and friends; doesn’t ask too many questions

Now let’s take a prompt and modify it for each character with specific word choices.

Generic prompt

I’m so bored. I want to go somewhere fun. Where is everyone? I have to get out of this house.

Jenny

Two thirty-three. Seriously? I swear it was two thirty-three the last time I glanced at the clock. Usually Julia Quinn’s books completely engross me. This calls for a change of scenery–and a list.Things I can do to today (since everyone seems to be busy)1. Walk to the park2. Or the library for a new book3. Go watch baseball practice4. Work on the next issue of the Parkwood PressActually, I had an idea for an article about…

Maggie

I can’t sit here for another minute, or I will die. Of boredom. But Rayna and Clara haven’t answered my texts for two whole hours.Okay, fine. They’re both taking the SAT this morning, which I elected to skip, since it’s optional for my college choices. Whatever. I’m so sick of this house I’m tempted to make an appearance at Adam’s drills. Maybe I could stand on the sideline and break into a choreographed version of “My Shot” but switch up the lyrics for soccer. Oh, he’d want to kill me. Yesss!

Okay, so that’s a bit exaggerated, but hopefully you see the point I’m trying to make about voice and word choice.It becomes especially tricky when you’re writing multiple viewpoints within the same novel. In that case, I usually revise each viewpoint separately to ensure I use distinct word choices for the characters. Will you choose the right words in the first draft? Probably not! At least for me, the first draft is about getting the basic story onto the page, and revision is where the real magic happens. I generally find some gems that slipped in there and I keep through every draft, but it’s when I start analyzing the story carefully that I become picky about word choice.Overall, my best advice for choosing the right words is to get to know your characters well so that you understand how they think and speak.  Now go choose your words wisely!


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