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Antidisestablishmentarianism and the magic of words, a guest post by Anne Greenwood Brown

The birth of a guest blog post:  The other day author Anne Greenwood Brown tweeted that she had nothing to write that day and I, seeing an open door, tweeted back: “Why don’t you write a guest blog post ::cough:: Wait, did I say that out loud?”  And she said, “What about?”  To which I replied, “Mermaids? A teen book you love? Antidestablishmentarianism?” 

Why antidisestablishmentarianism?  Well, in part because I was being a smart mouth.  But also in part because I have always loved that word – it is fun to say.  I am also a huge fan of onomatopoeia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, guffaw, and more.  Some words just have an amazing sound to them.  So today, Anne Greenwood Brown, author of Lies Beneath, writes about antidisestablishmentarianism – and the magic of words.  It turns out, I am not the only one who loves that word.

After Karen suggested I write a post about “antidisestablishmentarianism,”  she said she was kidding, but I sort of took her up on it. I LOVE that word! I have since I was nine and  regaled my third grade classmates with my knowledge of the so-called longest word in the English language. Well… regaled might be a little strong. While my friends ran off to play kick ball, I contemplated my fascination of words, and it’s a fascination I have never lost.
For me as a writer, word choice is a labor of love. I try to pick words, particularly verbs, that create an emotional response, inform the character, and give a deeper level of understanding. For example, in Chapter 10 of Lies Beneath (my YA novel about murderous mermaids on Lake Superior), I used the setting to reflect the main character Calder White’s state of mind:
 “The aspens grew haphazardly, clinging to the bank, often shooting out in precarious angles over the water.”

I could have said that the aspens simply grew out of the bank, but using the words haphazardly, clinging, and precarious, the setting better informs Calder’s character. Just as the trees cling to the earth, Calder clings to his humanity. The tree fights gravity just as Calder fights his nature, and there’s always the threat that the tree (or Calder) will lose its grip and fall into the lake.

This part of the writing process takes the most time for me. While I can get a first draft done quickly, the polishing takes much longer. To illustrate, here’s an excerpt from the first draft of Chapter 1:

“The transformation began immediately. I thrashed noisily on the rock, muffling my screams of pain. When it was over–the culmination of my metamorphosis punctuated by a giant snap–I pushed myself to standing and turned my back on the ocean.”

The “sh” sound in thrash, theff” in muffling, and the “ph” in metamorphosis were too soft, and it resulted in a passage that didn’t pack the right punch. In the finished version, that same paragraph reads like this:

 “The transformation began before I could catch my breath. First the tightening–and then the ripping as my body strained and pulled against itself. Bones split and stretched, popping into joints that seconds ago didn’t exist. I thrashed silently on the dead coral, cutting my shoulder and gritting my teeth against the pain, until I eventually flopped onto my back, gasping and bleeding on the rock.”

It’s not just that the second version has more detail, but there’s a nice strain of alliteration in the first sentence. Moreover, the words tight, rip, strain, split, stretched, pop, and thrash create a more visceral reaction of pain. Also using alliteration of the hard “t” in quick succession: split, stretched, joints, exist, cutting, gritting, teeth put more “bite” into the pain. Finally, at the end, the soft “p” of flop and gasp give the exhausted feeling of culmination that the first paragraph didn’t master.

Maggie Stiefvater uses a similar technique in Shiver when she writes:

  “Their tongues melted my skin; their careless teeth ripped at my sleeves and snagged through my hair, pushed against my collarbone, the pulse at my neck.”

The double “pp” of rippedand the double “gg” of snagged are harsh and violent words, while the softer tones of push and pulse, hint at something gentler yet to come.

Laini Taylor plays soft and hard sounds against each other in Daughter of Smoke & Bone to describe the dichotomy of her character Kaz when she says:

“That was Kaz: carnal and elegant. And deceitful. And narcissistic.”
Compare the soft “l”s of carnal and elegant against the hard “t”s of deceit and the final “tic.” Later, Taylor’s use of the repeating “s” sound evokes the release of air as something or someone deflates:

“His eyes were sunk in bruises, and his teeth, which were not his own, were over large in his shrunken face.”

Sometimes the scene can be conjured not just with the words themselves, but in their arrangement. For example, Stiefvater’s Shiver begins,

“I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”

In this introduction, Grace is the small red spot, and that description of her comes in the middle of the sentence, surrounded on both sides by the snow and the wolves.

So what do you do with all this? For those of you who are writing, think about the kinds of sounds that evoke the emotion you’re trying to create, then look for similarly constructed words to help sustain the emotional thread. I think you’ll find the text becomes richer, the characters more full bodied, and the reader more satisfied. Same thing when you’re reading–if you come across a passage that makes you feel strongly about the characters or the plot, take a second to pause and really look at the choices the author has made. See if you can discover the magic behind the words.

About Lies Beneath

“I hadn’t killed anyone all winter, and I have to say I felt pretty good about that.”

Calder White lives in the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, the only brother in a family of murderous mermaids. To survive, Calder and his sisters prey on humans, killing them to absorb their energy. But this summer the underwater clan targets Jason Hancock out of pure revenge. They blame Hancock for their mother’s death and have been waiting a long time for him to return to his family’s homestead on the lake. Hancock has a fear of water, so to lure him in, Calder sets out to seduce Hancock’s daughter, Lily. Easy enough—especially as Calder has lots of practice using his irresistible good looks and charm on unsuspecting girls. Only this time Calder screws everything up: he falls for Lily—just as Lily starts to suspect that there’s more to the monsters-in-the-lake legends than she ever imagined. And just as his sisters are losing patience with him. (From Goodreads)
“Forget everything you think you know about merpeople. Forget that freaking Ariel, think Silence of the Lambs, think Friday the Thirteenth.

Anne Greenwood Brown lives and writes in Minnesota. LIES BENEATH, her debut Young Adult novel about murderous mermaids on Lake Superior, will be released by Random House/Delacorte next Tuesday June 12th.

Lies Beneath (Random House/ Delacorte, June 12, 2012)

Deep Betrayal (Random House/Delacorte, March 2013)

Check out the Lies Beneath Book Trailer HERE

And the Audio Book Teaser HERE

I want to give a huge thanks to Anne Greenwood Brown for responding to my impromptu Tweet and writing such an excellent guest blog post.  Tell us your favorite words in the comments.