I’ve been delving deep into one of my favorite writing topics lately—language. I’m putting together the materials for an online class on voice that I’m teaching at The Writing Barn in June, and language is so much part of voice. But what I really love about language with writing is how it also affects just about everything in a story, making it so fun to play with as well as a powerful writing tool.
You’re probably thinking, yeah, yeah, of course writing is about language. It’s words! Well, yes, but too often we think that only poets or picture book writers have to worry about finding the exact right word. But for novels, including middle-grade, language can make the difference between a good book and a great book.
And knowing how to use language, can help us writers up our game.
Let’s face it, when we talk about stories, the focus is often on plot or character development, because we studied words and grammar in school. What’s left to learn?
But what we were told in school were the rules, the science, not how to break those rules, to use them to pull in readers, the art.
So how does paying closer attention to language help us?
Here are a few of the multiple ways:
Voice always seems like this elusive part of writing. How often have you heard an agent or editor say they want a “fresh, distinct voice”? And how many times have you rolled your eyes because they followed it up with the explanation, “I know it when I see it.” Right.
Well, yes, on the one hand, how “fresh” or “distinctive” a voice is is subjective, but when words are chosen carefully so they pop off the page, beg to be read aloud and sing to the reader, you can bet agents and editors will shut off their phone so they can read.
One of my favorite recent middle-grade reads for voice is Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN: FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD. Look at this section from chapter one: “Even though the whole city is ribboned with waterfalls and fed with canals, the pearl itself is dry and never melts. As I skate, my blades bite into it, but the pearl smooths itself behind me. The sensation is delicious. We have nothing like this back home. In Shin, we have to skate on rinks made of ice preserved in caves until it’s ridged and yellowed like bad toenails.”
Henry Lien uses phrases like “ribboned with waterfalls” and “fed with canals.” The blades don’t cut or slice, they “bite” into the ice. And with “The sensation is delicious,” we get a visceral sense of it that we almost taste, even though we haven’t been talking about food. The words draw us into the world. Then that last simile of “bad toenails” quickly changes the taste in our mouth.
Unique. Intriguing. Brilliant!
When you’re writing in first person, the book’s voice is also the voice of your character (or chapter in dual or multiple POV), and the language must be what they’d use. We often hear that first person is more immediate and pulls readers in more easily. This is exactly the reason. We’re hearing directly from the character at all times.
This also means that we can get to know the character more intimately by the types of words they use. Look at this example from Leslie C. Youngblood’s LOVE LIKE SKY: “We got out of the car, and he reached for my hand as we crossed the lot. I grabbed it like I would catch a grasshopper, knowing I’d let it go but wanting to see how it felt. Frank’s hand was like a polished stone, hard but still smooth.”
The character G-Baby grabs Frank’s hand, and there’s an urgency there. Then the “like I would catch a grasshopper” tells us so much. Like being able to hold Frank’s hand is a moment she’s curious about but could be fleeting and she has to take the chance right now because it could jump away in a second. That tells us a lot about the relationship between G-Baby and Frank. Then G-Baby uses the simile of “a polished stone”, not just a stone, but a “polished” stone, like in G-Baby’s mind, this hand is something that should be taken care of.
The language of a book sets the tone. If you use upbeat words, readers immediately get ready for an upbeat story. But take a look at the first two sentences of Kim Ventrella’s SKELETON TREE: “The day the rain stopped, Stanly Stanwright found a bone in the garden, poking up out of the dirt. It could have been a bean sprout, only it was white and hard and shaped like the tip of a little finger.”
How brilliant is this? Simple, to the point, and yet hidden within these words is so much about the story. Not only do we immediately get drawn into the book’s inciting incident (the finding of the bone), we also get the tone of the story. Kim Ventrella didn’t choose to start on a sunny, happy day, but “The day the rain stopped,” implying that maybe it’s been raining for a while…and perhaps that the rain is symbolic of other things in Stanly’s life.
In Roshani Chokshi’s ARU SHAH AND THE END OF TIME, the language of the opening immediately lets us know we’re going on an adventure. But it also has a tone of storytelling, beckoning the reader in, encouraging us to pull up a seat and get ready for a good, action-packed story: “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them. … Some folks may not like the idea of working on a weekend, but it never felt like work to Aru.
“It felt like a ceremony.
“Like a secret.”
And notice the line breaks. They tell us that this is important information, but also build on each other to draw us in. Fantastic!
Talking of line breaks, language and how we break it up with grammar can speed up action or slow it down. Here’s a paragraph from an action scene in K.A. Reynolds’ THE LAND OF YESTERDAY: “A flash of memory seized her brain. Of her father, trapped in Widdendream’s attic, screaming her name.
“Her lantern pulsed, and then , it blazed.
“Cecelia backed away slowly.”
The words and sentences are short and clipped, letting us read it quickly and giving us that feeling of speed and anxiety. Those first two sentences could be one, but K.A. Reynolds separated them at “Of her father,” telling us this is important and keeping the action tight.
But now, read these few lines from the first chapter of Patti Kim’s I’M OK, when the protagonist, Ok, is at his father’s funeral: “She tells me to eat, eat up, even if I’m not hungry, even if I don’t feel like it, because I’m going to need all the strength and energy to grow through this very hard thing that’s happened to me. It’s not normal, she says. It’s all wrong. What a senseless mess.”
That first sentence is long for a reason. It slows us down so we focus on every single part. Each section builds on the next, just like in the ARU SHAH example above. In that case, however, each phrase is given strength from their separation, but Patti Kim joined them with commas so each phrase strengthens the next and makes the maximum impact with the entire sentence. Then Patti Kim changes it up. Whereas the “She tells me…” sentence is long and supportive, the shorter sentences that follow are staccato and harsh, bringing us back to the difficult scene young Ok is going through.
There’s so much more that I love about playing with language. In my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, I used so many different types of figurative language that I developed creative writing exercises from it for educators.
What’s your favorite way to use language in your middle-grade books? What kind of language tricks do you love to read?
If you’re a language nerd like me and love how language affects voice, join me in my online class at The Writing Barn on June 22.