Words That Punch Above Their Weight

If I had to pick a favourite word, it would have to be whoops. It’s so universal, so expressive and everyone can read whatever they imagine into that one word. It’s a word that punches above its weight.

I first noticed the power of whoops when it made newspaper headlines in 2000, the year Sydney hosted the Olympics. Early that year, during the selection trials for the Australian swimming team, the unthinkable happened. In the 800m freestyle, Australia’s swimming hero Ian Thorpe made a disastrous break before the starter gun and was disqualified. He was world champion for the 800m and had won gold for that event in the previous Olympics. So the photograph of him tumbling towards the water as his feet left the blocks made the front page of every newspaper in the country. In one national newspaper, beneath that photograph was a one-word headline: Whoops! Most people still easily recall seeing that photograph with its single word in large print, even though more than a decade has passed since.

Whoops! meant so many things in the minds of Australians who saw it. It said: well, we didn’t see that coming or perhaps oh dear, there goes gold for Australia or even never mind, Ian, we all make mistakes. It might also have expressed what was going through Ian Thorpe’s mind at the time, like: what was I thinking? or please don’t let this count against me.

Whoops! said it all and more.

When I’m writing, I constantly search for words that punch above their weight, words that have more than one meaning or words that imply something deeper. Even when I’m not writing, I take note of interesting or powerful words I read or hear. Not big words because I’m not a fan of big words, just simple words that work really well for the space they take up.

One of my stories is called Xiao’s Patch and I chose the word patch because it has multiple layers of meaning. The story is about a homeless man, so the word patch refers to the small stretch of street where he lives. Patch also means a scrap of something or something to cover up a hole or something make-do, all of which convey a sense of poverty. Patch is also used in a competitive sense, as in your patch versus my patch. As events unfold, Xiao’s spot comes under threat from another homeless man whose size and belligerence are more than Xiao can face. I could have called the story Xiao’s Home or Xiao’s Street or Xiao’s Struggle but none of those words pack as much punch as the word patch.

Many writers settle for too little when choosing words. There’s an old adage: “Don’t say a bird, say a robin.” I think it’s better to paint a bigger, more detailed picture in the reader’s mind by being specific rather than generic.

So instead of using the word shoes, try  joggers, brogues, sneakers, stilettos or Nikes and let the shoes reveal something about the character. If you write he looked down at his shoes it just conveys a simple action, but if you write he looked down at his sneakers it conveys something about the character along with the action.

Verbs are often neglected when it comes to finding something with more punch. Instead of using the word put, try slipped, eased, shoved, crammed. If you write she put the letter in her pocket it’s just another simple action, but if you write she shoved the letter in her pocket there’s an added layer of meaning about how she feels about the letter.

Any added meaning within a single word is very satisfying to the reader because it enlarges the picture in the reader’s mind and it often raises questions for the reader to mull over.

One author who does this to an amazing degree is Tim Winton. He rarely uses complex words, instead he finds simple words that punch way above their weight. In one of his short stories in The Turning, he has a scene in which two brothers are surfing when a shark moves in. One of the brothers is taken by the shark and his surfboard tombstones out of the water. That word tombstones creates a very accurate picture of what a board looks like when it’s upended and shoots up out of the water, minus the surfer. On top of that, the use of tombstones conveys a sense of death without having to spell out the possibility the surfer might die. The whole story has an underlying theme of death, so it’s even more powerful in reiterating the idea behind the story. One word, many layers. Bravo Tim Winton!

When I find a word that punches above its weight, I use it sparingly. In my story Xiao’s Patch, the word patch only appears in the title and twice in the text. That’s because a powerful word sticks in the reader’s mind and any overuse would reduce its effectiveness. It’s like a little splash of red that catches your eye in a painting full of yellows and blues. It’s the little that stands out a lot. Too many red splashes and the effect is ruined.

Some words become overused, especially in the media, and begin to punch well below their weight. I avoid those. I won’t use delicious unless it has something to do with eating and I won’t call anything sexy if it doesn’t have genitals. And I definitely don’t describe a raft of anything unless it’s floating on water. When a word is overused, it loses its power and only serves as padding in the story. That’s just irritating for the reader.

I’m forever jotting down words that catch my ear or eye. I might not use them straight away but I like to collect simple words that punch above their weight. I like to let them float around in my head, waiting for the right spot in a story where they will sit comfortably, more than earning their worth.

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The Long and the Short of It

There’s been a lot of interest in Skinny Fiction lately. It’s been popping up on writers’ blog sites all over the world and a lot of people are turning their hand to writing powerful stories packed into tiny word limits of 10, 25 or 100 words. Very short stories are often called Flash Fiction or Short Short Story. Whatever you call it, writing a good story in a small space is never easy.

But then, writing a good story in 100,000 words is never easy either. So what’s the difference between writing short and writing long? Is one easier than the other? Is one more satisfying to the reader than the other?

When I was in High School, there was a craze for attempting to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not that any of us had any interest in Russian literature, nor were we particularly keen on the history of the Napoleonic Wars. It was just a BIG book. If you could make your way through it, you were considered a legend. I was never one of those legends. After attempting a few chapters and jotting down notes on who was who and what was where, and getting awfully confused, I gave up and went back to John Wyndham’s sci fi instead.

At over 500,000 words, War and Peace is still regarded as a challenge by most readers. Though, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, at 1,200,000 words, is an even bigger book. I like the little irony in the title, given the number of hours it would take to read it. It’s never been on my reading list because I really can’t afford to lose any time searching for lost time, if that makes sense. My days are short enough as it is.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is at the other end of the scale as far as word count is concerned. A slim volume, it still stands as one of my favourite books. And when it comes to short stories, Annie Proulx’s 55 Miles from the Gas Pump at only 266 words contains so much in such a little space. I often go back to read it again and again – but not too close to bedtime, still spooks me just thinking about it.

Often writers spend too much time worrying about word counts. The writer might try to pad out a story to notch it up into the novel category because a certain publisher doesn’t accept novellas. Or the writer might strip down a story to squeeze it into a literary competition with a tiny word limit. But a story can often suffer when it’s subjected to external fetters like word counts.

Of course, editing is always helpful and most stories benefit from a bit of weight loss. Whether novel or short story, my first approach is to cross out everything the reader doesn’t need to know. It’s an old piece of advice and it doesn’t only apply to short stories. Just because I’m writing a novel doesn’t mean I can throw everything  inside my head onto the page or show off every scrap of research I’ve undertaken. That’s just lazy writing and every writer needs to hone the story down through multiple drafts. Some of my stories end up a third of their original length and they’re always better for it.

The other thing I cull is dead words. These are words that don’t add anything to the sense or sensuality of the story. Words like that are habitual offenders and even the can be thrown out quite often. Other dead words might be adjectives and adverbs that add nothing special to the reader’s understanding or experience of the story. Then there are all those shallow words that can be replaced with something a lot more punchy. Lean and muscular, that’s the kind of story I like to read and that’s the kind of story I try to write.

If you’re writing Skinny Fiction, editing needs to be even more intense. When you’re limited to only ten words, you need to make sure each one is supercharged and none are wasting valuable story space.

When I start a story, I never know how long it will be. It might turn into a novel or it might be complete as a piece of Skinny Fiction. Some stories need a lot of space to be told and others need only a little space. The trick is knowing when you’ve used too many words and when you’ve used too few. Too many words, the story is likely to become boring. Too few words, the story is likely to become confusing. Either way, you risk the reader tossing it aside.

As for which is easier to write, each form has its own demands. With all that luxury of space, it can be difficult to make sure a novel isn’t obese with characters and events that don’t propel the story forward or with background and context that hijack the story altogether. On the other hand, short fiction can be downright anorexic with so little substance the story is forgotten almost the second it’s read.

So, long or short? Tolstoy or Annie Proulx?  Honestly, there’s no point comparing because every reader will have their own preferences – horses for courses, I reckon. For the writer, the really difficult task is to write a memorable story in whatever space it takes, a story that lives long after the reader has turned the last page.