Monthly Archives: November 2011

How and Why to Write With Power

In just about any other endeavor, that headline (swapping out the word “write” with the passion of your choice) makes sense.  But for writers it’s a loaded gun, and if misunderstood, not in a good way.

Too many writers misunderstand what it means to write with power.

Too many writers equate power with… eloquence.  With descriptive genius.  With adjectives.

That’s not writing with power, that’s too often writing with gobs of purple prose. 

To fully understand what writing with power really means, one has to know the difference, one needs to get it, and then see it or hear it when it crosses your path.

Let me lay one on you right now.

In the trailer for the upcoming film “We Bought a Zoo,” there’s a line that (IMO) qualifies as powerful:

All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

There’s only one adjective in there.  My jaw dropped into my popcorn when I heard Matt Damon say this in the preview.

We should strive to write sentences like that one.

Power is not about adjectives.  Power is all about punch… sub-text, relevance, illumination, heart and soul… the poignant moment, the ironic, the truly humorous… the truth.

Nothing wrong with colorful writing.  Just don’t confuse it with powerful writing

Here’s another example.

Click HERE to go to the page for a novel called Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison, originally published in 1997 to astounding critical acclaim, and republished in 2008.  Click the book cover image marked “Click to look INSIDE,” then click through all the title pages and beyond the quote by Luc Sante (I never heard of him, either), to the first page of the novel itself.

Read the first paragraph. The one that begins with: “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder and doom.”

I believe the term OMG! applies here.

There are four adjectives, two sentences with two each.  And yet… this is an astounding example (IMO) of powerful writing.

Colin Harrison, by the way, was once dubbed “the poet laureate of American thriller writers,” and it wasn’t because of his descriptive prose, which in places it certainly is.  It was because of his ability to write with power, which fueled his otherwise solid but arguably unremarkable storylines with a delicious reading experience.

Power depends on timing, cadence and relevance.

You have to really understand what a scene is going for — indeed, what the thematic essence of the entire story is — in order to optimize your ability to write powerfully.

Many times — most of the time — less is more. And certainly you shouldn’t seek to make every sentence something quotable.  Exposition is as important — and separate from — powerful writing… if you season your writing with powerful moments, you’ll imbue the whole thing with a powerful essence.

Sometimes, though, in those moments, it’s time to swing for the fences and hit it out of the park.

It’s hard to really “learn” this. It’s a sensibility, a nuance, a deft touch.  Rather, over time, you can discover it from deep within yourself.  You need to summon your inner poet, copywriter, philospher, favorite uncle, JFK’s speechwriter and Abraham Lincoln, all fused and staged with an equisite sense of timing.

Don’t force it, just understand it.  And then look for just the right moment to go for it.

What are some of the most powerful single lines you’ve ever read… or perhaps even written?


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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

“One Author’s Writing Path” — A Guest Post by Nann Dunne

Each writer treads upon a writing path unique to him or her. Hearing about others’ steps along that lonesome and sometimes treacherous path can bolster our confidence as we try to push past life’s detours and persist toward our writing goals. Here’s my story. I hope it encourages you.

My fiction writing didn’t begin until I was fifty-eight years old, but the foundation had been built long before that. My two older brothers and I played school at home, and they taught me to read at a fourth-grade level before I started first grade. Once my mother realized I could read, she gave me a real dictionary – not a children’s one – and showed me how to use it. I fell in love with words.

All through grade school, high school, and college, I got high grades on anything I wrote as an assignment, but I didn’t acquire the writing bug. People all along the way would tell me I should write. I became an editor in the advertising and corporate worlds and spent many years editing other people’s work. In fact, I occasionally composed business letters and resumes and even helped with work manuals and organizational bylaws just as favors to my friends. Still, I had no compulsion to attempt creative writing.

When I was forty-two years old, I suffered a stroke that affected my right side. Suddenly my life turned upside down. I had difficulty walking, talking, and manually writing (I’m right-handed). I lost huge gobs of memory. My physical ability to walk and talk improved rather quickly, thank goodness, but in a strange fashion, my words partially deserted me. While speaking, I often had to search for words I knew and couldn’t bring to mind – a recall problem that still plagues me. But in that strange fashion I mentioned, I discovered I could write words with much less difficulty. I’d always been a computer hound, so I switched from editing manually to editing on a word processor and that enabled me to cope with my job. Still, I had no urge to write stories.

Fifteen years later, several factors conjoined. My mother died, my best friend of twenty-five years died, the owner of the company I worked for retired, and I switched jobs. I was overwhelmed with grief and loss. I had difficulty focusing, and I spent a lot of time watching television, something I had rarely done before. But it turned out to be my salvation.

I got caught up in watching the Xena: Warrior Princess show, a somewhat campy but delightfully entertaining show. After I had watched it for about six months, I learned that fans were writing their own stories for the show that they posted online and I began to read them. I read this fanfic, as it was called, off and on for about a year, and one day it occurred to me that it might be fun to write one of those stories. But I hesitated; I had never written fiction. Then I read an interview of one of the writers who was a consummate storyteller. She said writing was easy. Just put the two main characters in a setting and keep on asking “what if.”

So I did that. I wrote and posted three fanfic novellas. To my surprise, I caught the writing bug and churned out six more. Fanfic is a great way to cut your writing teeth. Fans read your stories and give you instant feedback. My fans were very encouraging and kept asking me to write more. I was co-writing and posting a full-length novel with a friend, and a publisher’s agent contacted us and wanted to publish the story. We were ecstatic. The company published that novel and a sequel. Subsequently, I wrote a story by myself and that got published too.

I stopped writing for a while. I decided if I was going to have stories out there with my name on them, I wanted them to be the best-written stories I was capable of. So I diligently perused books and websites on the craft of writing, studied the conventions of fiction writing for three years, and picked the brains of writers I knew and admired. Lori L. Lake helped me so much and so generously, that I still call her my mentor. Then I went back to writing.

I’ve had two more books of fiction published. I re-edited the first three books and they’ve been reissued. I learned so much in those three years of study that three different publishing houses contracted with me to edit their books, and I’ve written a book on editing. I love to help other writers by editing their stories, but it’s terribly time consuming and “steals” from my writing time. So I’ve started cutting back.

For the past eight years, I published an online ezine called Just About Write (JAW), and December’s issue is the last. I’m clearing the deck to free up more writing time. It took a long while for me to become a writer who yearns to write, but it finally did happen. Now when I don’t write, I get antsy.

My writing path has been a long and winding one with plenty of detours, but once I was sure where I wanted to go, I became persistent about working toward my goals. And I will constantly sharpen my tools by learning from teachers like Larry Brooks. That’s an important part of the process.

Stay on your path. Learn. Write. Persist. It has worked for me. I got a late start, but I’m having the time of my life!

 Visit Nann Dunne’s sites: for her fiction for her book on editing

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Filed under Guest Bloggers