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The Right Word

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on January 3, 2012

Isn’t it frustrating when you’re looking for a particular word and it doesn’t come to mind? It’s similar to remembering a person’s name. The word hovers in your subconscious but you are unable to bring it forth.

I’d written the following passage in book three of my paranormal trilogy but wasn’t sure about one adjective, and that was holding me up in my revisions:

Sudden dread pierced the veil of his thoughts. He hadn’t noticed, but the black vapor had seeped across the floor and oozed up his leg.

Shadowy fingers extended from its midst and dove into his chest. His heart squeezed as searing pain shot through him. Biting his lips to keep from screaming, he bent forward as far as his bound wrists would allow.

A voice entered his mind. “Tell me, Drift Lord, what know you of the rune? Where does your team plan to assemble with Nira Larsen’s sisters to recite the words?”

“You’ll never find out,” he gritted, barely able to speak. “We’ll say the verse and you’ll be dispelled forever to the underworld.”

The ephemeral fist tightened, and his vision tunneled into a red haze of pain.

But when I looked up ephemeral, it meant fleeting, temporary, short-lived. This wasn’t at all the meaning I wanted. What was it then? Something unreal, imaginary, without substance. I knew there was a word that would fit. So I used the built-in dictionary and thesaurus in Word and came up with these choices.

Ethereal: ghostly, otherworldly, insubstantial
Illusory: misleading, deceptive, imagined, unreal
Intangible: insubstantial, incorporeal, ethereal
Incorporeal: unreal, disembodied, ghostly, intangible

Okay, I’d nailed it. I changed this passage just so:

The illusory fist tightened, and his vision tunneled into a red haze of pain.

I’d stuck in the same word on the next page until I could find a substitute:

Loki’s ephemeral fingers twisted and probed, intensifying his agony. Magnor’s jaw throbbed from clenching his teeth. His nerves felt on fire. His heart raced like an out-of-control train, threatening to derail.

Loki, if you’ve seen the movie Thor, you’ll know is the Norse god’s foster brother and a mischief maker, to say the least. He figures as a villain in my Drift Lord series based on Norse mythology. Loki is also the bad guy in the upcoming Avengers movie. Popular fellow, eh? Anyway, I changed this passage to:

Loki’s incorporeal fingers twisted and probed, intensifying his agony. Magnor’s jaw throbbed from clenching his teeth. His nerves felt on fire. His heart raced like an out-of-control train, threatening to derail.

Believe it or not, I used the same word yet again in a sentence with a different meaning. This is why you write your story in the heat of the moment, when the words flow and you just want to get it all down on paper. Then you go back and scour through your manuscript one word at a time, sentence by sentence, and fix the word choices.

So here’s the next passage with a needed change:

And was this where the legend came from about the six sons of Thor uniting with the six daughters of Odin to chant the ancient words and prevent the coming darkness? Nira and Zohar were searching for a rune that she believed held the key to battling Loki. What if they both reached for ephemeral goals?

Is this the correct usage? What word do I really mean here? What I want to say is that their goals may be futile, as fleeting as dreams and as vaporous.

Oh, that’s a good word. Let’s look it up. Vaporous can have different meanings.

Gaseous: misty, steamy, cloudy, ethereal, indistinct, wraithlike
Volatile: unstable, unpredictable, explosive
Insubstantial: nebulous, evanescent, ephemeral, ethereal
Fanciful: unreal, insubstantial, implausible

Wow, so many choices! And ephemeral is one of them. But that’s not quite what I meant for that word. What does evanescent mean? I looked it up. It’s momentary, fleeting, passing, transient. Nope, that’s not it. I want that sense of futility. How about nebulous? Hazy, unclear, vague. Uh uh, that isn’t the right word, either. Illusory? Meaning: illusive, imagined, unreal. I’m getting there! Illusive: False, misleading, imagined, erroneous, unreal, deceptive.

Yes, I like this one! Here’s the change:

And was this where the legend came from about the six sons of Thor uniting with the six daughters of Odin to chant the ancient words and prevent the coming darkness? Nira and Zohar were searching for a rune that she believed held the key to battling Loki. What if they both reached for illusive goals?

I get such an innate sense of satisfaction when I find the exact words I need. This process took me at least a half hour. You see why revisions take me a month or two? Being precise is important. After all, aren’t writers also called wordsmiths? That’s because we love to manipulate words on the written page.

Here’s another problem to look for: word repetitions.

“So we have to climb the fence somewhere or find a break in it.” Erika moistened her lips. “I don’t suppose you have wire cutters hidden in a pocket somewhere?”

I changed this last sentence to: “I don’t suppose you have wire cutters hidden in one of your pockets?”

Or here’s another one: Did it matter that he’d leave her in the end? No matter how long they had together, at least she’d experience what it meant to be a wife.

New version: Did it matter that he’d leave her in the end? Never mind how long they might have together, at least she’d experience what it meant to be a wife.

Watch out for repeating phrases as well. Yes, “as well” is one of mine. I have to keep an eye out for that one. You can never be too alert when revising your manuscript.

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Wednesday, January 4, follow my discussion on the January Doldrums at The Kill Zone.

Friday, January 6, join us here with guest blogger and mystery author Roberta Isleib.

Leave a comment during my January blog tour and enter to win a set of Paua shell jewelry and a signed copy of Shear Murder.

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2 Responses to “The Right Word”

  1. Shirley said

    I have also had the problem of the word looking right one day and not the next so it takes more than one reading with revisions to finish off the exact phrase I was looking for at the time.

  2. Shirley, you’re absolutely right. Ideally, I like to have one read-through for heavy line editing and continuity, and then another read through for overall smoothness. There’s always something to fix.

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