As a reader my main love is language. I’m more likely to fall for a writer whose work, like music, values rhythm and arrangement more than a writer who relies heavily on plot.

Simon van Booy consistently makes me feel like I have to sit down and stop everything else and just be in this world for a while:

“This morning I woke up and was fifteen years old. Each year is like putting a new coat over all the old ones. Sometimes I reach into the pockets of my childhood and pull things out.”

‘Little Birds’ in The Secret Lives of People in Love

I love Eva Lomski’s use of short and incomplete sentences to set tone and show action with such control:

Sun seared her eyes. At the eucalypt grove, he disappeared. For a second, she was confused. A chink. Her brain reactivated. Metal snap of a trap. Cried out. He was there, standing over her, springy as a jockey, lifting a shovel to waist-height. Black.”

‘The Trapper’ in Lost Boy and other stories (edited by Estelle Tang)

No amount of refining, drafting and killing darlings will help most of us develop a voice like these writers, but that shouldn’t stop us playing with structure and word choice to see what effects we can create.

It’s an essential part of “show don’t tell” but I can find it so hard to describe a character’s ‘ordinary’ actions or expressions: someone can only inhale and exhale smoke so many times to show they’re thinking or avoiding; it’s useful to raise eyebrows in plenty of different scenarios but you’ve got to keep an eye on that (sorry, that’s awful) along with shoulder shrugging, sighing and straightening up.

I’ve got a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi that’s a handy jumping off point. For each of 75 emotions there’s a definition, physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses and cues of the emotion as an acute, long-term and suppressed condition. I find it helpful to drill down into something I’m trying to demonstrate, and its opposites, to try and find a powerful, succinct expression.

But sometimes you just can’t beat real life almost translations. Like an Italian tour guide beneath the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, closing her eyes as she searches for the word that captures the effect of Michelangelo’s work, and fans herself as she bursts, ‘He makes me so passionated.’


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