Rated ‘E’ for Everyone

by Danielle Lee Zwissler

We were sitting around the campfire, mason jars in our hands filled with our favorite apple pie moonshine.

“Come on, tell us what you call it,” LaDawn laughed; she was the youngest in our group of misfits at 24. Several of us at the fire laughed, too. It was fun hanging out with friends at camp. It was an all-together different kind of relaxing atmosphere.

“Well, if you must know,” Tiny, the most outgoing of our group, flirted, “I call mine the Pink Fairy Armadillo.”

“That’s not very flattering,” Cindy replied. Cindy was around 52 years old, and a friend of my mother’s.

I laughed, too. “Wait a minute, isn’t the Pink armadillo the one that is small and can fit in the palm of your hand?”

“…And of course, Dani would have known a useless fact like that,” LaDawn replied, laughing. Everyone else joined, too.

“Yeah, it sure is,” Tiny joked. But it is also hard, and pink, and a big fan of the ladies.”

Everyone took another swig of their moonshine when the conversation went to Cliff.

“Don’t ask.”

“What? Hey, Tiny over there said his was tiny, but he’s still proud of it,” Pat, the only married person in our group, encouraged.

“Hey!” Tiny yelled. “You didn’t mention that it is a fan of the ladies…”

“Yeah, it’s a fan of the ladies, but are the ladies interested in it?” I taunted. Tiny looked confused, but grinned and took a drink of his moonshine anyway.

“Fine,” Cliff said. He was our 67 year old buddy. He camped a few places down from us and he could drink better than anyone. “I call mine the Mt. St. Helen.”

Pat blushed. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah….It’s big, mighty, and people should be warned….”

“But it hasn’t erupted since 82?” I quipped. Everyone looked at me once again and a gale of laughter shattered the silence. Cliff held his jar up in toast fashion.

“That’s pretty much the half of it. Or in Tiny’s case, the short.”

We all took another sip, each of us feeling the smooth liquor more as time went on.

“What do you call yours, Earl?”

“The Wii U.”

“Not just the regular Wii?”

“I’m glad you asked that, Dani. No, mine is more…GRAPHIC,” he emphasized as his eyebrows went up and down, “and it has just the right controls to play with it.”

I laughed, my head fell back and my throat burned from the moonshine. “I hear it’s more ‘user friendly.”

“Yeah, it received an ‘E’ for everyone.”

Just then, my mom came out of the camper behind ours with a jug and filled our glasses.

“What are y’all laughing about?” she asked, noticing us all blitzed.

LaDawn and Cindy laughed, Pat winced, and I had a grin from ear-to-ear. Tiny, Cliff and Earl were all seemingly proud of themselves, too.

“Just talking about what we named our first cars,” I replied.

Mom looked over at me curiously and then shook her head. “I thought for sure you were talking about what they named their penises. I haven’t seen Mt. St. Helen over there since the mid 70’s.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was the winning entry in Challenge 76 of The Iron Writer weekly challenge.

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Choosing the Right Verb

Part 2 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

Describing activity accurately requires that we first envision the action we want to portray and then choose a verb that will create a similar image in the reader’s mind.  If the right word doesn’t come right away, we reach for our trusty thesaurus … and that’s where the trouble begins.

Overblown, understated, or otherwise mismatched verbs can garble our message.  We don’t want to kill a fly with a bazooka, but we don’t want to chase it around with a scalpel, either.  The English language is rich and varied with immeasurable opportunity for novelty and nuance.  Word meanings shift over time, and connotations creep in and out.  The art of the writer is to master these shades and textures, to achieve a measure of style and inventiveness without sacrificing precision and clarity.

For us writers, a thesaurus is a bazaar chock-a-block with tempting treasures, each beckoning for our attention.  When shopping, keep in mind that items are offered “as is,” with no warranty of fitness or suitability for a particular purpose.  You can’t rely on a thesaurus to explain the subtleties of each word listed, so always consult your other trusted friend — your dictionary.

A Pedestrian Example

Suppose I want to take a walk around the neighborhood with my wife, but I want to spice up my invitation with a zestier verb than the reliable old standby, “walk.”  My thesaurus offers many and varied options, some appropriate and some comically inappropriate.  For instance, I could ask her if she wants to “stroll” around the neighborhood, and she would likely agree.  If I ask her if she would care to “saunter” around the neighborhood or “mosey” around the neighborhood, she would probably assume that I was in another one of my weird moods but, again, she would agree.

However, if I asked her to “shamble,” “meander,” or “scuffle,” she might justifiably be confused as to precisely what I was proposing.  If I asked her to “run” or “jog,” she would probably decline and remind me that she prefers walking.  I don’t even care to imagine her reaction if I asked her to “trot” or “canter.”  Nevertheless, each of these verbs means — roughly — “to walk,” but each also conveys a specific connotation that is not suitable to my purpose.  In this particular case, the verb that best suits my purpose is that reliable old standby, “walk.”

This example illustrates that the simple choice is often the correct choice.  However, often we fear we’re being repetitive when a character walks this way and then walks that way and then walks back again.   We feel we need to break up the monotony with a series of close synonyms.  If you’re presented with this dilemma, rewording is always preferable to using an inaccurate synonym.

For example:

“He ambulated this way and then marched that way and then strolled back again.”

It’s an awful sentence, but the worst part is that this character seems to be changing his gait with each leg of his aimless journey.  First he ambulates, then he marches, and then he strolls.  This is confusing to the reader because the writer has inadvertently called attention to the character’s stride instead of his indecision (perhaps?) and then muddled things further through inconsistency.  Instead, restructure the sentence:

“He walked this way and that and then returned to where he started.”

Note that “ambulate” also sounds somewhat clinical, and in fact, it is a medical term.  A reader familiar with the term may incorrectly surmise that the character is undergoing physical therapy.  Another reader unfamiliar with the term may struggle to divine the meaning of it from context and then wonder why the author didn’t just say “walk.”  Either way, the mood is spoiled, the spell broken.

You Can Say That Again!

When writing dialog, novices often fret unnecessarily about overusing the word “said,” and reach for a thesaurus to break the monotony.  “He said, she said, I said, you said” becomes “he stated, she remarked, I articulated, and you intoned.”  “Asked” and “answered” are also often inadvisably displaced by poor substitutes with unsuitable connotations.  There are times when “said,” “asked,” and “answered” do not suffice and better alternatives exist, but incorrect usage can spoil otherwise perfectly satisfactory dialog.  For example:

  • “Steee-rike three, yer out!” he murmured.
  • “How ‘bout a beer after work?” he queried.
  • “I guess I’m really not sure what to do,” she proclaimed.
  • “Ha!” she vociferated.
  • “I need fresh underwear,” he ejaculated.

Remember that “talk” and “say” are not quite synonymous, and there are many other near synonyms that are closer to “converse” which simply don’t work in dialogue tags.  We would not write “‘I’m right over here,’ she talked,” and in most cases we shouldn’t use synonyms for “talk” that way, either.

  • “I’ve already explained it three times,” she spoke.
  • “I want ice cream,” they chattered.
  • “Landing gear engaged,” he communicated.
  • “We’ve almost decided,” they deliberated.

Other verbs such as “sneer,” “grimace,” “laugh,” and “scoff,” describe facial and other nonverbal expressions and should never be used in place of “said” in dialogue tags.

  • “I’ve had just about enough of this,” he frowned.
  • “You scared the life out of me!” she trembled.
  • “This is ridiculous,” he scowled.
  • “I’m a nervous wreck,” she twitched.
  • “That was a close call,” he whistled.

The word “said” tends to blend into the background, so don’t go overboard fishing for alternatives.  Conversely, if you use a memorable word like “intone” or “reiterate,” it will likely stand out and quickly become tiresome if repeated.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Much of the foregoing can be summed up rather simply: express yourself accurately.  It’s not good enough to use expressive verbs if the ones you choose express something other than what you wanted to say.  If the image in the reader’s head doesn’t resemble the image in your head, you’ve failed.  If you’re not absolutely certain about a verb, or any other word, look it up!

However, some of the most pernicious words we use are also some of the most common.  We know precisely what they mean because we’ve used them thousands of times, and indeed, we use them so habitually we have stopped thinking about their meanings.  In the next part of this series, we’ll identify these bland mischief-makers so we can replace them with dynamic, spirited alternatives.

The Slap of Victory

by Mathew W. Weaver

I am at war.

The enemy is right there, glaring at me, leering through its tiny compound eyes. It gloats, sadistically savoring its repeated triumphs, taunting me with that maddening hum.

I grit my teeth as I cradle my wounded, crippled pride and I swear upon my honor … this mosquito will never live to see the sun rise again.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

As with any conflict, there was a calm before the storm. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down at my laptop, cracked my knuckles and started work. For a short while, there was nothing that could have warned me about what was coming. I was focused, minding my own business, at peace with the world and with myself.

Then came the first blows.

My ankle began to itch. I used the heel of my other foot to rub against it. You know how it is. It then started to itch just a little to the left of the first spot. Then lower down.

I was getting annoyed by the time I drew my legs out from under my table and checked out what the heck was happening. That was when I saw it. The bumps, sporadically scattered across my lower leg and foot.

We were at DEFCON 3.

The klaxons where blaring as I yanked the chair backwards and got onto my knees. I peered under my table, but I couldn’t see it. But I knew it was there. Hah, of that, there was no doubt whatsoever.

Then, I heard that angry whine and I rolled back commando-style to my right, facing the wall next to my desk. There, against the backdrop of white wall, I saw my nemesis emerge, bloated and drunk by my blood. My legs burned at the sight of it, the itching almost unbearable. The battle … was joined.

Man constantly finds himself caught up in the war between humans and insects. Minor skirmishes here and there, border incidents around the globe, we have all been dragged into it at some time or another.

There are those heavyweights of the enemy; The Spider (which I know really isn’t an insect. They’re just mercenaries, who turn on their winged allies when they get pissed off or when they just get hungry); The Roach (shock troops. Infiltrate and attack. And they have the ‘grossing out’ factor as a special ability); The Fly (aerial recon and annoyance division); and The Mosquito. SWAT team of the Insect Kingdom.

Fighting a roach is a different deal entirely. Roaches are bigger, need more firepower, and well, though most thankfully don’t decide to fly at your face (though they have with me before, and that was NASTY) they can be put down with a little quick thinking, fast aim, a handy shoe nearby and a smidgen of luck. Not necessarily in that order, but pretty much all you need as a substitute to a can of bug spray.

That’s the roach. This is the mosquito. No comparison possible.

I lunge and slam my palm into the wall. I miss.

Lunge again. Miss again.

The tyrant starts circling upwards, heading to the ceiling where it knows with fiendish delight that it is beyond my reach. I must not let that happen.

I lunge for a final time, my itching feet lending strength to my will. A minor split second mid-air course correction, and then I make contact with the wall again. My fingers sting, but I hold on.

The mosquito is missing. It isn’t on the wall, it isn’t flying anywhere and I didn’t see it leave. There was only one possible place where it could be…

Trapped under my hand. I have it.

I press my palm as flat as I can against the wall, squishing the demon with as much force as I can muster. I knead the back of my hand with my other fist, and punch it in for a good measure. It’s worth the pain.

Slowly, I pull my hand back.

And through a crack in my fingers, it flies up and to the ceiling, literally doing a gloating dance as it does. My foot itches like crazy as I watch it go, and I vow revenge.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now there it is, on the wall, watching me. Here I am, on my chair, watching it. It is a standoff, and it has been going for the last half hour.

There are those people who feel sorry for roaches. They would probably rather scoop them up and release them into the wild rather than stomp on them. No offense, but I feel that’s sort of futile, since pretty soon that roach will be inevitably stomped on by someone else, anyway. But no matter, it’s their choice, and I respect that.

But if you tell me that I should feel sorry for a hungry mosquito and just indulge it since it was nature’s design, and not its own fault? No, I’m not going to even bother with the malaria or dengue speech. I’m slapping the pest, right there in front of you, whatever it takes, and so help me.

My foe takes off and starts flying again. I notice the spider webs in the corner of the ceiling, and I will it to get tangled up in there, to be tortured by the patient, hungry spider. I don’t mind spiders as long as they stay away from me.

Then, as it starts flying to that very web, I begin to have second thoughts. How can I let some spider, who has nothing to do with our feud, deny me my revenge? That mosquito made it personal, and I was going to make it pay myself. No middlemen.

I let a sigh of relief as it zips adroitly around the invisible lines and moves away from the web. Then, I stiffen, because it has started to descend.

The time of thy reckoning hath arrived, ye bug.

I sit still as it comes closer, closer. My foot is itching like mad, but I do not dare to scratch lest the air currents from that movement send my enemy away again. Like Harry’s scar, my bumps go crazy as my Voldermort approaches.

It is here.

I reach out, and the world shrinks to just that moment in time. Seconds become minutes as my hands close together around the mosquito. My eyes wide, my teeth bared, my leg itching, the deafening whine in my ears.

I connect.

In the stillness of the night, the crack that issues explodes out like the blast of an M67 grenade. My windows literally rattle, my books shudder on their shelves, and my hair is blown back.

Then silence. Outside, the wind blows softly.

I open my hands, and there, crushed and fallen, my defeated enemy lies in my palm. My respect for my fallen foe remains. For a moment, I toy with the idea of going out and burying her, as a token of honor. Then I flick the carcass into my wastebasket and go wash my hands.

My foot isn’t itching anymore.

I have won.

Energize Your Writing with Vibrant Verbs

Part 1 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

Verbs are action words. We all know that, but it’s easy to forget in the midst of a frenetic writing session that verbs do not merely report action, they portray it. The right verb can depict action, motion, gestures, and other behavior with more precision, nuance, and power than a crate full of fuel-injected adverbs. The best verb for the job is the one that most accurately describes the action we envision. Choosing this best verb from among all of the others requires more than a thesaurus and set of darts, however. It entails a specific thought process tailored to your style, tone, and theme.

Less is More

“Omit needless words,” admonished Strunk and White, but this sage advice is difficult to follow when we carelessly choose languid or imprecise verbs. To fully express ourselves, we often buttress flimsy verbs with a superstructure of wordy constructions that cannot be removed without changing our meaning. We adorn vague, homely verbs with a profusion of adverbs and adverbial phrases when a single succinct verb would have sufficed. We run quickly instead of dashing, speak loudly instead of bellowing, and we suddenly enter unannounced instead of just barging right in.

If a verb you have chosen lacks the verve or specificity you desire, resist the temptation to gussy it up. Instead, think of a robust alternative that packs all the color and nuance you need in a single word. But before you break out your thesaurus, get a clear image in your head of precisely what you want to convey.

Picture It!

We all know that the first step in successful writing is knowing what you want to say. This advice applies not only to the points you address, or the storyline you narrate, but to every paragraph, every sentence, and every word you write. In the case of an individual verb, “knowing what you want to say” means envisioning the action you intend to depict–the subject, the object, and the context in which the action is taking place. When your image is vivid and sharply focused, you can choose a vivid, sharply focused verb to convey the action.

Let’s take this perfectly mundane example, bane of journalists everywhere, “the dog bit the man.” Not much to go on, so we have to put on our journalist hat and start asking questions. For instance, what kind of dog? When we know whether the dog is a frenzied Pit Bull or a panicky Chihuahua, we know whether it lunged and chomped or yipped and nipped. In a gritty crime drama, the dog might shred or maim an intruder, while in a delightful comic piece the dog would more likely nibble or gnaw, say, a tormented refrigerator repairman.

Some verbs don’t convey action in same sense as “shred” or “nibble.” For instance, “think” is a verb, but the action described is less overt and harder to visualize. Nevertheless, knowledge of your character’s personality will determine whether they ponder, dither, cogitate, or brood.    When you can see the image in your mind’s eye, you can describe it to your reader.  That is the essence of “showing vs. telling.”

Tightening is Lightening

If nouns form the skeleton of a sentence, verbs are the muscle and adverbs are the fat.  A little fat is a good thing, but muscle gets the work done.  Strong verbs and minimal adverbs are the key to lean, mean, vigorous prose.

Identifying weak verbs might seem like the easy part, but there are pitfalls we’ll examine more closely in the next installment. I’ll also reveal the secret weapon (hint: it’s a book with a bunch of words in alphabetical order) against choosing poor substitutes, and offer some tips on differentiating between verbs that are stronger and verbs that are merely longer.

In the third and final part, we’ll scrutinize a small collection of five incredibly frail “crutch” verbs which are sucking the life out of your writing. We’ll also heap scorn on the “L-word” and “A-word” and wrap things up with some thoughts on rewriting, editing, and developing your style.