Tunesday: What a Few Words Can Do

When I was a little girl, down here in the Deep South, learning how to do make up was a big part of growing up. I started with the little Tinkerbell brand kiddie lipstick and perfume, moved up to Bonne Bell Lip Smackers and Jean Nate Eau de Cologne, and now today, being a woman with funds of my own, I have reached the fully grown-up stage of Chanel and Bobbi Brown products.

What, you ask, does any of that have to do with writing? Well, for one thing, the Southern girls in my contemporary humorous fiction just love them some fancy makeup. Dear Cassie, in HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO, my most recent finished book, just may have fallen in love with the man of her dreams when he treated her to a full day of spa and salon pampering on a trip to NYC. Fashion, makeup and hair always play a big role in my contemporaries.

But even more than that, I have a lesson of my mom’s that I live by, not only in the realm of makeup, but in my writing. My momma would slather on her coat of Revlon Cherries in the Snow (perhaps the greatest red lipstick ever) and solemnly tell me: “Remember, baby. The point is to put on as much makeup as you can, without people thinking you’re wearing any.”

I think of my mom and her words of wisdom every morning when I try to see how many products I can use without looking “made-up.” But suruprisingly, I often remember this motto as I write. The best writers have a huge vocabulary, with far more words in it than they will ever use in their stories. But having all the different variations on a thought make it possible for you to say exactly what you mean, in as few words as possible.

One of the main goals I have as I write and edit is to put in as much meaning, as much nuance and subtle distinction, as possible without letting the reader notice my word choice. Kind of my mom’s beauty philosophy in literary terms.

You can see some masters of this theory at work in lyrics. I greatly admire lyricists; the idea of saying what you mean while making it rhyme, fit a predefined meter, and sound good when sung is far more difficult than writing fiction. But Lordy, when a lyric works, it puts so much in just a few words.

For example, for some reason, I got a dreaded earworm this week — you know, where a song gets in your head and will not move on. You hear it over, and over, and over, and … And an earworm usually is NOT a song you want to listen to 24/7. The one I got this week was (blast from the past) Delta Dawn, as sung in the 70;s by Helen Reddy.

Now, I’m not going to say that Delta Dawn is great art. But one phrase of the song got me thinking about this whole economy of words, of packing a whole lot more into a few words than you expect. In describing the poor jilted faded Southern belle, Larry Coliins and Alex Harvey put it this way: She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her baby.

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Wow. Nine words. Thirteen syllables. But don’t you know everything there is to know about poor Delta when you hear that? I can see her in my mind’s eye, I can hear her talk, I know this woman. Amazing. I want to use words like that. Cram in all the meaning and description I possibly can, without the reader noticing that I’ve said much at all.

Have you got a favorite killer lyric that says exactly what you need to know? Tell me about it — one llucky commenter on the blog in the month of July will win an Amazon gift card!

(All the normal disclaimers apply. Don’t get all legal with me — I have a J.D. and I’m not afraid to use it.

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One response to “Tunesday: What a Few Words Can Do

  1. Good point about the lyric. It sure says a lot to me.

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