Friday, May 27, 2011

Wow, that's a cool phrase!

By Julie

How many times have you done it? Stopped in your tracks (while reading) to roll a new word or unusual phrase around in your mouth and brain because it's just SO cool and … different.

Then jotted it down on a scrap of paper so you'd remember to use it IMMEDIATELY—during your next writing session.


(Uh oh. I'm talking to myself again.)

A few years ago, a neighbor and friend sat in the driver's seat of her minivan. I stood at her window, chatting with her while we waited for our kids to pry themselves out of the community pool. (Yep, we had plenty of time to talk.) Sandra and I frequently talk books. We discuss what we loved or hated recently. She knows I'm a writer and checks in on the status of my latest manuscript.

This day she exacted a promise from me:

"Please. Do. Not. Ever. use the word 'padded' in your book. The next time I read that word, I'm throwing the book across the room."

I laughed and crossed my heart.

Apparently, the authors she'd been reading had latched onto this verb that somehow portrays a different kind of walking—barefoot? Sock footed? Trying to walk without noise? Contented, but tired?

It's a perfectly fine word—and more common than you'd think... Obviously, it's been a little overused. It's the kind of verb that jumps out at you more than "walked," so it draws attention to itself.

I've kept that promise. Not a single case of padding in my stories so far. (And Sandra has permission to flay me if I slip up.)

But it's not just padding, is it?

Last night, I finished reading an AMAZING novel. An author recommended it to me while I was searching for great examples of a certain point of view. Man, it delivered, and though it took me a while to read because of life's timing, I raced through the last 50 pages or so last night, my heart hurting along with the characters at the sad, but hopeful resolution.

Even so, my racing slowed at one point as I read one phrase: "… into the middle distance."

I really do love that phrase. So much, that I was awed when I first noticed it in a book by Anne Lamott. I don't remember which book, now, but I remember the phrase clearly … hmm. I thought, "Wow, that's an excellent way to put staring into space. Sounds so much more sophisticated and … literary."

I hurried to jot it down, and yep, worked it into my manuscript in progress. I was a little paranoid, because I was sure Annie had coined that phrase, so I played with it until it was new, until I thought it was me.

I have no idea whether she was the first to use it or not, but I'll always give her credit. My suspicions tell me it's been around a long time, though. And I can't tell you the exact percentage of novels I've read that have used it—perhaps changing it up a bit as I tried to do (and probably failed)—but I'd bet it's somewhere around 25 to 75 percent. That's a broad figure, but when you consider I read about 80 books last year, it's quite a few—even on the low end.

I saw a conversation somewhere online about the term "mind's eye." (Maybe in a forum, maybe on Facebook, I can't remember. Would love to give credit, but sorry!) The person said something like, "What the heck is a mind's eye anyway, and why does everyone use it?!"

I remember seeing the phrase myself, thinking it was cool, though I didn't jot that one down or try to use it. But it obviously hit a hot button with the writer. Another phrase people had latched onto.

I came across the word susurrance a few years ago. This is such an unusual word, it's not even recognized by Word. In fact, the root word (or wow, maybe correct spelling?) appears to be susurrus … "a soft, whispering, or rustling sound." I fell into deep and immediate enchantment with it, a lovely example of onomatopoeia—a word that sounds like what it is or means.

And yes, I jumped on it, using susurrant to describe something about summer in my manuscript. My beta readers left comments—"What is this word? I've never seen it … interesting!" And I felt a little smug and proud of myself.

Also a little counterfeit.

If you're on the phone with your mom and use the word padding to describe the way you walked up the stairs to bed last night, use it to your heart's content. If you tell your friend about what you saw in your mind's eye the other day, I won't question it in your book. If your kids know you so well, they ask if you're staring into the middle distance, you're good.

Now, I'm not trying to be pompous here. I'm just trying to issue a challenge to writers—and to ME!

Don't use a phrase you saw somewhere else just because you thought it was super cool. Don't fall for the trap of incorporating it into your writing immediately.

If you're listening carefully, an observer of the world, new vocabulary will make its way naturally into your own speech and become comfortably yours until it flows organically as you write. It won't have to be forced there. If it feels like "writing," then leave it to the writer who used it before you.

I promise. If you're working diligently at your craft, unique turns of phrase will come to you on their own—and they will be yours.

Just wait patiently, and they will pad into your mind's eye as you gaze into the middle distance.

(By the way, click here for an excellent post on a similar topic by Keith Cronin, whose debut novel, Me, Again, comes out later this year!)


  1. One of our dogs, Gizmo, we call him Lord Giz of the Mos when he sits in 'his chair' and 'stares off into the middle distance' in disgust because he isn't getting his way. I do love that phrase and can't remember where I first heard it; although I do believe it was in reference to some king's behavior. Great post!!!

  2. I hereby decree that any dog with a nickname as cool as Lord Giz of the Mos has the right to stare into the middle distance any time. :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Julie, I share your experience of taking a sentence that you like (in this case .. into the middle distance) and inserting it in your novel .. and it does sound more literary...:)
    My only novel is commercial (I can't write literary anyway) but I follow you example to upgrade it. For example, I was happy to find the sentence "break down into a puddle of tears" somewhere and then inserted it in my novel. I like the concept of your blog of six women sharing it, making it more diverse and interesting. I guess that you got another follower. Best wishes from Canada.

  4. I think my problem is sort of the opposite. I'll write a cool phrase. Reread it. Ponder it. Assume I've lifted it from somewhere--and have no idea where. Delete it, consumed by guilt and thoughts of being sued for plagiarism. And replace it with something safe and boring. Writing--it brings out my crazy, paranoid side. :)


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