How Word Choice Influences the Feel of a Story
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Tara Kennedy: Okay, welcome! You’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Tara Kennedy from the WriteOnCon team and I’m really excited to chat today with author Jasmine Warga about how word choice influences a story. Welcome, Jasmine!
Jasmine Warga: Thank you!
Tara Kennedy: So, tell me a little bit about your writing process. Are you a big, like, vomit first drafter – get it all out there – or a polish as you go kind of writer?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah, you know, I guess this isn’t, like, that helpful an answer to this. But to say I’m sort of both in this strange way. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how I tend to rewrite the first, like, twenty to fifty pages of a project over and over and over again because I cannot – I’m not somebody who can move forward if I know that the beginning isn’t right.
And I don’t mean that in that I’m not going to go back, obviously, and massively, probably, edit the beginning later once I finished it. But doesn’t feel right to me in terms of voice or where the story is supposed to start. And so, lots of times, what I’m doing in those sort of, writing those first 50 pages over and over again, is finding the voice finding the character and actually finding where the story begins. Because lots of times in my head where I think the story begins, I realize that it’s not.
So, like, for the thing that I’m working on now I’ve realized that it actually starts like, a little bit before where I thought the starting point was going to be. And other times, it’s been, like, pushed forward. So.
But I’m definitely not, like, an outliner and I sometimes wonder if I was an outliner or better plotter if I would save myself all of these pages but I guess the more I do it the more I become comfortable that this is my process and so the less frustrating it becomes to me even though I’m like in that stage right now of having re-written the beginning of this thing, like, a million times and starting to feel like, Whyyyyy. Like, I’m never making any progress forward.
Tara Kennedy: Yeah, it’s always a tough balance.
So, does that mean you’re thinking deeply about word choice, sort of, throughout the entire process?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah, so, right from the get-go, you know, I didn’t realize how much I actually did think about word choice until – I used to live in Cincinnati. I recently moved to Chicago – but when I was living in Cincinnati I had the wonderful honor of friending, becoming friends with, Emery Lord, who’s another writer, and we would get together and we would have like what she called “witchcraft sessions” which were, like, craft sessions about writing and she was talking about something that she did for every project where she would write out, like, actual words that she wanted to use in the book. And that just clicked to me as being really smart. It’s not something I had ever done before, or even thought about doing, but I realized that part of my process is really similar into that and figuring out what my characters vocabulary is. Which is different for every story.
So, for example, my next book which comes out in May – the little girl, she is raised in a seaside Syrian town and she moves to the United States and so, obviously, her frames of reference, the way she’s gonna think about the world, are a lot different than my character in the next book I’m writing who’s a 12 year old American girl from sort of like a small Ohio town and so it’s at a granule level, the word choices, but also the way in which like you throw words together and, like, the phrases and the way you see it. And so, I started to really think about this more. Being more deliberate about in my own writing after having had that conversation with Emery. Like, really early on, thinking about that and how that changes the feel of the story from everything from the way, like, you bring a reader in with all of their senses to building character and making it realistic especially, I think, when we’re writing for children. There’s that fine line between wanting to produce, like, a beautifully written thing and also wanting to be authentic to a 12 year old’s voice. And, I think, sitting down and really thinking about the words your character would use and how they would use them is going to kind of make the whole story more satisfying on every level.
Tara Kennedy: Yeah. So, tagging on to that, I know you mentioned you’re writing Middle Grade. Do you think that your target age for the audience, as well as the main character, changes how you think about word choice?
Jasmine Warga: Sometimes. I think also, just life experience. Like, for example, when I was writing Jude, who’s the protagonist in my third book. She’s 12 years old and the protagonist in the book that I’m writing right now – she’s 12 through most of the book but she’s technically 11 when the book starts. But. There’s just a huge difference in the way they think about language. Like, Jude, she’s a native Arabic speaker and so the way she even constructs sentences. I had to think about the way, like, Arabic places – the difference in which, like, nouns and verbs come and how, like, her brain is going to think.
And just, like, in terms of, you know, we rely a lot, right, on, like, metaphors and similes as authors.
And so, like, I might want to say something, like, you know, a reference to something which would be a metaphor that would come naturally to my writerly brain that’s very, like, American in its conception.
And so I’d have to pull back. So I actually, like, borrowed from Emery’s technique and just wrote down a lot of things about like Jude’s hometown just to get into her head, like, words that she would associate with that. But words that would be in her vocabulary. And it’s almost less, like – so right now, the new thing that I’m working on is so, like, fragile and tentative but currently in the main character, her name is Cora, and her and Jude know so many of the same words. It’s just the question of how they would use them and also, sort of, when they would use them and what kind of story I’m telling. And then, also, pulling – and at different levels, like, where the books take place. So, my third book, it starts in Jude’s hometown which is by the sea. So a lot of the, like, smells and feel that I’m evoking have to do with the sea, with the ocean. So there’s, like, fish, and then there’s jasmine flowers that grow by the sea, and there’s the sand and there’s the really luxurious, like, chaise lounges that the tourists can sit in. and all those types of words that, obviously, Cora knows. But in the story she’s in this landlocked, small town in Ohio, so those words probably aren’t going to come up. So, for her, it’s a lot like – there’s woods in her hometown, and it’s Fall, and all of that kind of evocative language. And much more, like, Americanized phrases and things like that. It’s just like, again, so, they’re pulling from the same dictionary, I guess, but to narrow in on the story and, like, where it is. And that helps me to sort of focus myself when I start to think about drafting and to getting really into the head of the character. ‘cuz it’s, you’re obviously, like, the creator. And there are things, like, you fall back on.
Like, I love, for some reason, to always describe trees. Like, no matter, like, where my characters are
no matter what, like, I always am, like, really interested in, like, the botany or describing the botany.
Everyone in my family – well, I have a botanical name and I gave both my daughters botanical names — so maybe this is, like, my own, like, interest is showing. But then you have to pull back and you have to be, like, “okay, well if you’re gonna rely on that, like, what kind of botany is this character experiencing?”. Like, “where are they?”, “What would be the word for that?”.
So, I think I definitely have, like, the same patterns that I return to but I at least try to, like, make them specific to whatever character it is that I’m writing about.
Tara Kennedy: Yeah. Makes a lot of sense.
So, I saw that you majored in art history. Do you think the art history background influences your desire to create a really rich and full setting for your worlds?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah. I mean, I think so. It’s funny, I’ve never actually been asked that, and never thought about that, but I think that’s really apt. I think I’m, like, a visual thinker. I once read – so, I love the poet Frank O’Hara – and he was a poet but he also worked at the Met, I believe as a curator. And he once said something about how, like, artists think in words – and what he meant was, like, fine artists – and writers think in pictures. And that always made a lot of sense to me in that I see my scenes. Like, I visually play them out and I think that that’s what I’m always trying to do. ‘Cuz writing in itself – it kind of lacks that 3D dimension about their art forms and so I’m always trying to bring that, like, tactile-ness to it. And I think word choice is one of the best tools that we have to make the page seem less flat. Because, again, that’s where you really can evoke lots of different senses And I think I’m always trying to think, not just in like the visual sense, but in, like, in how things smell, how things feel, and what words they would use. And I do think that, from studying art history, even though, obviously, I mostly studied paintings which are flat and there’s not really, like, a smell I mean, there is a smell, but that’s not really what you’re discussing!
But, talking about the scene and how the artist was trying to convey that whether through like the texture of the paint they used or the color choice – and so I think from thinking about art like that, I then, sort of, pulled that and brought that in to how I think about writing.
Tara Kennedy: Do you let yourself read fiction when you’re in drafting mode?
Jasmine Warga: Oh, I do! And especially when I get stuck.
I mean, I will have a different answer to you for this, like, every book that I draft. That sometimes I’m like, “oh my gosh, I cannot read anything that’s too similar to the book I’m working on, ‘cuz I’m worried about stealing from it”. And sometimes it’s, like, “let me read everything that’s super similar because
I’m stuck and I need to see how other people who are much better at this than I am succeeded in doing this” and so I can like break it down and figure it out.
But I’m always reading. I don’t think, like, I could exist without reading. But it definitely is sometimes, like– and it kind of also depends on, like, the phase that I’m at in the projects. When I’m, like, really early drafting and still brainstorming, lots of times I like to read things that are really similar because I also view that as kind of like a character study. And it might even be, like, when I’m writing a Middle Grade novel that I’m reading other Middle Grade novels thinking about what my character would be reading. So, like, what they would be thinking about? Like, what other, like, media influences they would be having for this, like, voice that I’m trying to bring out in them? And then later on, once the thing is more of, like, a thing, I try to stay away from the kind of things that’d be more influencing. And so, that might be when I’m reading a lot like adult memoir or, I mean, I read a ton of poetry just on my own. I love poetry and I also think that it’s really great, like, when I’m drafting and editing. Just because of this word choice issue. I think poets are really the best at word choice and at, like, economy of language and making you – evoking something through that. And so, whenever I get stuck, lots of times, I like take a bath and read one of my favorite poetry books and try to just like remember why, like, I love words and what I love about them, what they’re able to do. So, yeah, I guess, again, that was sort of, like, a yes and a no – but I’m always reading something. but I definitely go through modes or I’m, like, “ah, I can’t read any contemporary Middle Grade right now because that’s what I’m writing” versus, begging my editor to send me the ARCs of every single, like, contemporary Middle Grade book that’s on their list so that I can read and see what people are doing. That’s so great. and kind of break that down.
Tara Kennedy: No, I think that makes sense, definitely. You reach different moods when you’re drafting, so you need different things.
Alright, so. Do you think that – particularly because I know your books tackle some meaty issues – do you think word choice can help you really create a good balance with going deep enough to be realistic in these issues and yet not sounding like homework or lecturing?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah, no. I think that word choice, right, is the difference between being didactic and being honest. And I also think that with issues – so, obviously, my first book dealt with mental health – And I think when you’re dealing with something that’s, like, as varied as mental health, the more specific you can be — in a ways unlocks kind of that skeleton key to universality. Like, I think that when you’re dealing with tough issues what you’re the most going for is, like, honesty and realism. And I think really specific word choice definitely brings that out. And I also think– My first two books were YA, and now my third book is Middle Grade, and this fourth book is gonna be Middle Grade and thinking about how to write about really tough things but in a gentle way. And I think that word choice is really my friend when it comes to that, because I’m constantly wanting to be honest and also knowing kids are dealing with these things, but also wanting to be mindful of how a 12 year old talks and processes those things. And so, I think, all of that. Yeah. I definitely think – I mean, this isn’t really about, like, a difficult issue. But something as simple as if your character says somebody is “uninteresting” versus “they’re boring”, like, those are kind of synonyms but they mean two completely different things in the confrontation. Like, one is kind of pejorative, and one is sort of dismissive. And knowing your character and which one they would use and what they would say that about what topic. And so, just like those – the nitty-gritty things that are sort of those, like, nerdy word choice details – I do think matter a lot when you’re trying to write about something that’s a little bit, like, as you said, like, heavier and meatier.
Tara Kennedy: And then, going sort of the other way, can you go too far with word choice? Where you’ve sort of gotten so attached to power words that the sentence gets a little diluted?
Jasmine Warga: Oh, for sure. And I think, like, I got in my head a lot while writing my third book. Mostly because I was finding it so hard to break down the barrier of worrying about sounding inauthentic because I am a native English speaker and the character whose viewpoint I was writing is not. And I was, like, very concerned about not wanting to, like, exoticize her while also honoring that difference and being realistic about it. And so it was like I was constantly talking with my cousins in Jordan, my father, who’s not a native English speaker, about different things, and, like, also really fretting about the fact that like the word in English that you would use in Arabic isn’t always perfect. And it was really my dad who was like, “look, Jasmine, like, words are words.” you know?
So, definitely. I think there’s something there. And I also think, sometimes, the best word choice is the simplest one. I don’t think it’s always about picking the most, like, complicated word I think it’s just about being purposeful in your choice and having it on your mind that there’s, like, a difference, right, between green and mint green. Like, what that’s gonna evoke for the reader and when to use which in which. Because, I agree with you, that it can be like there’s too much of it. Like it’s only kind of–
It’s like seasoning, right? It’s only great until you put way too much of it. And so, I don’t like to read unseasoned books but I also think that I never want my books just seem, like, over the top. So, yeah. No, it’s definitely like that.
Tara Kennedy: Okay. And have you ever had to take out a word or phrase that you just loved?
Jasmine Warga: Oh, yeah. I’ve had to kill things that I loved.
I mean, actually, the most heartbreaking editing experience was on my third book, because one of the things I did — early on the book was actually just in prose. Like, my first two novels were in prose. It never occurred to me that I would write a book in verse. I’ve always loved poetry, I wrote poetry as a teenager. Like, really bad poetry. But.
And then, because of the natural, like, inherent lyricism, like, lyrical-ness of Arabic I thought, “hmm, maybe I’ll just try, like, a couple of pages and bursts. Just like see if I can get into her head more — to sort of convey what I’m trying to say.” And it worked so well it kind of, like, unlocked it. And, sort of, settled my nerves, too. About all the problems that I was having with the voice. But I wrote all these vignettes, that I loved, and then when you’re editing – because it’s still a novel – my editor would say things like, you know, “this scene isn’t working”, or, you know – all your general editing notes that you get.
And it’s not like editing prose, where you go in and you just, like, fix the scene. It’s like, I would have to kill this whole vignette that had this rhythm that I loved. That I’d, like, painstakingly worked over. And so, definitely, I’ve had things. But, at the end of the day, the book is a novel. And so that was in service of, hopefully, having a more satisfying plot arc. Better character development. All these things because, like, pretty words are only pretty words. Like, at the end of the day we’re all trying to tell, you know, a meaningful and satisfying story.
So, definitely. I’ve had that. I mean, that isn’t to say it only happened to me in my third book. I mean, in my first and second book I had moments too, where it’s like, I painstakingly worked on this one sentence and loved it so much in every edit was trying to sneak it through, sneak it through, sneak it through. And every time, it kept coming back. That it was, like, just too much, or out of left field, or didn’t fit. And it doesn’t.
But, you know, I delete everything. Like, I don’t save lines that I’d loved, but I cut. And I know some people do, but, lots of times I, like, almost have them so memorized by that point that I feel like I would be able to reuse them again if I wanted but it’s almost like that’s how I know I’m really saying bye to it.
Tara Kennedy: That’s interesting. Yeah, I was at a book discussion recently where one of the authors was calling that the KonMari method. That he just – if it has to go it just has to go. Don’t try to save it.
Jasmine Warga: Yeah. Yeah, no. I mean I think that that’s true. I mean, that’s how I am. I think that that’s how I made the decision. Because I think you’re kind of, like, cheating yourself a little bit if you’re, like, “okay, I’ll cut it here, but that’s ‘cuz I’m gonna use it in a future book”. I want it to be, like, “I’m cutting it here because that’s the best thing for this book. And this book is actually better without this line. Even if I love this line”.
Tara Kennedy: Alright. And then, did you want to share some recent favorite reads?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah, sure! So, in the YA space I recently read Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay. It’s gorgeous I love that book. Talk about, also, I think, like, excellent word choice that evokes both a character and a place. Everything about that book – I loved it. It’s mental health rep. Everything.
I also really loved Tradition by Brendan Kiely which, I think, has flown a little bit under the radar. But, I think it’s a really important book for, like, talking with boys about sexual assault. And also boys who might think “well I’m not that person – like, that crazy person who’s gonna chase somebody down in the woods. So, like, I’m not told, kind of, about rape culture as a whole”. And how they might not even realize the ways in which they’re participating. And, like, encouraging and creating the space for other people to feel empowered to make those choices.
And, I’m currently reading The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu, which is a Middle Grade book, and I’m obsessed with it. I love it so much. I don’t have twins, but my little girls are 16 months apart, and I think the way she evokes sisterhood is this, like, magical, subversive, force. It’s, like, so well done. I don’t know. Ever since becoming a mom, like, the biggest compliment I can give to a book is that I can’t wait until, like, my kids are old enough to read it. And that’s how I feel about this book. I love it so much. And I also think Anne is just such a master at narrative voice. Yeah, so.
I’m sure I’m missing, like, a bajillion books that I’ve loved. But those would be, like, three favorites that come to mind. Off the top of my head.
Tara Kennedy: That’s great! And then, you said your next two books coming out are both middle grade?
Jasmine Warga: Yeah, so, they’re both Middle Grade. So, well — My third book, it will come out in May, at the end of May. It’s called Other Words for Home. And then, this next book that I’m working on is, like, very fragile. But it will be coming out — at some point. Whenever I get this draft to my editor. So.
Tara Kennedy: [laughing]
Jasmine Warga: I mean, I would love for it to be sooner rather than later but as you know, uh-huh, that’s all kind of with how it comes together. So, that’s — I have really loved Middle Grade and I see myself wanting to stay in Middle Grade for a while I’m sure if I have a YA idea I could see myself returning to that space. But for now, I’m really excited about Middle Grade. I think some of the worst years of my life were junior high, and, in this bizarre way, that makes it the time – the age range in which I feel the most passionate to want to write for.
Tara Kennedy: Yeah, I think that makes sense. And I think almost everyone agrees that middle school was terrible.
Jasmine Warga: Yes!
Tara Kennedy: Alright! Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Jasmine Warga: Thank you!