Color Cues

Nancy J. Cohen

I can see colors fine except when I have to write them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. What is wrong with this picture? Rainbow colors don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So how do you get more specific? Here are some helpful aids. Think in categories.

Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, lavender

Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, blueberry, avocado, strawberry

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Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—slate gray like a thundercloud, leaf green, walnut, coal, ivory


But sometimes my mind goes blank, and so I turn to the most creative resource of all—a department store catalog. You can’t get any more imaginative than this, whether it’s towels or tops or sweaters. Here are some descriptive colors from a recent newspaper insert:

Heather gray, apple green, aquatic blue, berry, coral, cornflower blue, charcoal, navy, banana, raspberry, tropical turquoise, sky blue, stone gray, violet, burgundy, claret, evergreen, marine teal, sand, ocean aqua, pewter, snow.

You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing descriptive adjectives under each basic rainbow color. Here is one example:


chestnut, auburn, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sand, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, coffee, rust, earth, dusty, mud, toffee, cocoa

Thus when I am stuck for a particular shade, I can hop over to my color chart and pick one out.

Colors descriptions also convey emotions. For example, mud brown, toad green, or cyanotic blue have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown, sea green or ocean blue. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene.


What’s your secret to describing colors?


Don’t Belabor Your Prose

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Today, in honor of Labor Day, I wanted to cover something that has been bugging me all week. It began last Monday when I started a new book and within pages the prose was already starting to annoy me. The words, or at least the author’s choice of long, lugubrious, often archaic words were already getting in the way of the story – and I wasn’t even at Chapter 2!  As soon as I started to read I got the impression that the author was trying way too hard to impress the reader, rather than focusing on creating a compelling story. In some ways the writer was confusing style with content and in so doing, this reader at least, was no longer interested in reading. It had become too laborious. The words themselves had got in the way.

So why was this? I think in this instance it was the result of a naive writer hoping to show-off their linguistic prowess (or something like that – it felt like dictionary gymnastics at times!) and hoping perhaps that this somehow created an aura of literary validity (it didn’t!). What frustrated me the most was that the word choices detracted from what could have been a pretty strong start to a cozy mystery. It got me thinking about why – for someone like me who is drawn to perhaps the more wordy novels anyway (I love Dickens!) – was the prose was so off-putting? I decided it was simple – it was because it was unnecessary. And this at the heart of most things that go wrong with the start of a novel. Anything that feels unnecessary to the reader creates a barrier between them and the page. It stops them from wanting to keep turning that page. Instead, I like to think that a writer should go through a checklist, when reviewing their work, asking themselves a series of questions – something a little like this:

  1. Can I use a simpler word, phrase or description? When I substitute that, does it propel the story forward, or dilute it? (If it dilutes the power of what is being described or being said, then maybe the original word, phrase or description should stay).
  2. What is my reason for using a long/obscure word instead of a more straightforward one? Does it serve as mere affectation, or provide something more nuanced and appropriate in the circumstances? Am I using it because I think it makes me sound more erudite or because it’s the right word to use?
  3. Would most readers have to look the word up? (if so, why use it? It only stops a reader dead in their tracks).
  4. Does my writing sound like I just ingested a thesaurus? (If so, edit now!)
  5. When I read my writing aloud does it flow or do I find myself stumbling over the word choices I’ve made? (I find this an invaluable tool – because if I find myself tripping over the words I know I reader will find it hard to read the piece too).

Basically, don’t belabor your words. Let them flow, simply and easily. Readers will thank you.

So TKZers, tell, me what was the last book that you felt the author belabored their words? Any of your own advice to add to the checklist?


Like, Ya Know?

by James Scott Bell

Words matter.

I am not a grammar snob or the vocabulary sheriff, but I do care about language because that’s what I use to tell a story or make a point. A culture needs both compelling tales and right reason. That’s why It’s important to educate the young about words lest the whole edifice of our human interactivity rot from the bottom up.

When a society’s stratum of inarticulate goofs expands, the ability to cohere as a people necessarily contracts. Eventually you’ll end up with competing tribes who only understand their own particular mode of grunting.

Our current trend line is not a happy one. High school dropouts of the 1950’s were better able to communicate than most college grads today. In fact, read the Civil War letters of soldiers. Written by farm boys in their teens and twenties, they are positively Shakespearean compared to today’s glut of emails and tweets. Don’t u agree?

Soggy language begets soggy thought. When that happens, emotion replaces reason as the sinew of communication (just watch the screaming-head opinion smack downs on TV, or any randomly selected brain softener tagged, euphemistically, a “reality show.”)

Words matter.

Disinterested does not mean uninterested.

“Begs the question” does not mean “Invites the question.”

And “ya know” does not add a convincing note to what you’re trying to say.

I invite you to listen to slam poet Taylor Mali on this topic. Then talk amongst yourselves: Do words still matter? Can language be saved?


A boy and a dog

By Joe Moore

boy-dog I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words.

If you strip away all the words that you can’t change such as proper nouns, character’s names, conjunctions, prepositions, and other necessary parts of speech, what’s left are words that the writer can consider changing to strengthen the story.

And here lies the true craft of storytelling: choosing the right word.

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Choosing the right word helps create a stronger visual image in the reader’s mind that should closely resemble the image in the writer’s mind. And the closer those two visions synchronize, the more intimate, meaningful and thrilling the experience can be for the reader. The first words to fall target for change are descriptive words.

Here’s a short exercise in choosing the right descriptive words. It’s a one-sentence story I call A Boy and A Dog. As the writer, I see the action clearly in my mind, but do you see the same scene?

The dog ran toward the boy.

Pretty simple, right? Do you have a clear image of the dog? The boy? Do you see what’s happening with the action? Maybe, but there’s a great deal of room for interpretation. Our collective visions are not synchronized because the descriptive words—dog, ran, boy–are vague and general. Let’s try again.

The big dog ran toward the small boy.

Any better? Do you see the same dog and boy in your mind that I do? Are we talking about a poodle or a collie? Boxer or Doberman? Does small mean that the boy is short or young? Let’s revise.

The big black dog ran toward the small frightened child.

OK, now we’re using some better descriptive words. Are you starting to get the same picture in your mind that I am? Can you see the big black dog? Is it the same dog and child I envision as I write the story?

OK, let’s get serious about using descriptive words.

The pit bull charged the screaming toddler.


Watch for Sunday guest blogs from Robert Liparulo, Julie Kramer, Anne Hawkins, and Grant Blackwood. And coming July 26. James Scott Bell joins the Kill Zone as our new fulltime Sunday blogger.