NanoBook_CoverFINALChapter Ten

Barn Words

During your adventures in Nano-land, you’re likely to encounter what I call accounting tricks. These are ways of artificially fluffing your word count, and have nothing to do with the art of storytelling.

Some examples will help explain what I mean:

Expanding your contractions. Meaning, instead of writing isn’t, your write is not, which gives you an extra word.

Give a character an extremely long title, and make him insist the other characters call him by that. For example: High Lord Exarch Captain Peter McDonald, First Class, of the Calimre Squad in New Botswani Across the Sea.

Include long, descriptive chapter titles. This is the chapter where… blah blah blah, etc. happens.

Let me be clear: none of these techniques are “cheating” at NaNo. Not too many ways to cheat at this challenge, to be honest. You can randomly generate 50,000 words of lorem ipsum (i.e. fake text that looks pseudo-Latin) and claim that as your “novel”. That would be cheating. I’m not calling any accounting tricks cheating. You do whatever you have to do to make words appear on the page.

Also, there are times when an accounting trick can accomplish a literary function. Say, if you have a character who doesn’t speak English well, you might expand his contractions to show how slow he is at talking.

But if you want to develop your voice—that raw edge that gives your fiction its own sound—I’d recommend staying away from accounting tricks. Technically you can go back and edit your contractions back down, and slice off all the references to High Lord Exarch What’s-His-Name.

But editing and rewriting are different skill sets from writing. I can’t prove that to you, certainly not in a short article like this. So you’ll have to take my word for it.

The skill you want to develop is that white-hot heat of the moment creative voice that you only get while putting fresh words on the page. Accounting tricks often polish away that uniqueness.

But… but… but… How do I get 50,000 words in a month?

I’m going to show you a trick that will not only help you learn voice, but also flesh out your characters and settings, thicken your plot, and maybe even help you move forward when you’re stuck.


What Do You Mean? Barn Words?

Early beginning writers have a common problem. I was no exception, and still have this problem though I’ve gotten better. Here’s the issue: beginners often use dummy, non-descriptive words to describe complex objects.

Dean Wesley Smith calls these “barn words”. Meaning, words that should describe something, but don’t, at least not by themselves. These are common barn words: barn, horse, tree, apple, human, hill, house, cup, etc.

We all know what a barn is? Or do we? I live in the Midwestern United States, where barns have a certain look—often red, a steep roof with a hayloft, big double doors—?except when they don’t look that way. And a barn in Minnesota looks very different from a barn in Vermont. Or a barn in Pakistan. Or a medieval French barn.

But descriptions don’t end with sight. What does the barn smell like? Depends maybe on what it’s used for. Does the barn make creaky noises during thunder storms?

Go crazy putting in all five senses, from the viewpoint character’s perspective. When you put in sensory details, you’ll develop the character far above and beyond any height/weight/eye color fill-in-the-blank descriptions you can come up with. Your novel will have words that don’t feel like padding. And you’ll develop your voice.

Let me give an example.

Random Story Prompt Time!

I flipped through the Webster’s dictionary to a random place and stuck my thumb on a random spot on the page. The nearest noun that caught my attention was library. I want to begin a story with this word.

She waited at the library. (5 words.)

The scene is clear as mud, right? You know exactly what I mean by “waiting at the library”. Well, no you don’t. I have a certain image of libraries, created by my experience of being in many such buildings all my life. You have your own image. What I gave you in the sentence above may as well be a white room for the character to float around in.

I’ll try again.

She waited at the library, hunkered down in the upper floor non-fiction section where the windows were all blown out. Only one lonely pane of glass remained, covered in handprints and dust. The sour wind whistled through, carrying the gunpowder smell of mortar to mix with the smell of yellowed paper wet with rain dripping from the broken roof.

Bombs exploded across the ruined husk of a city. Somewhere, not far away, a building collapsed. The thunderous boom rattled the library’s floor under her feet.

Books lay scattered like dead soldiers on the ugly brown carpet, pages fluttering and turning in the wind. In the corner of the reading section, a pock-marked and bullet-ridden reproduction of the Venus de Milo stood guard over the “corpses”, like a broken Valkyrie over a battlefield of dead knowledge.

Grimacing, teeth clenched on the leather strap from her pack, she tightened the dirty rag around the bullet wound in her thigh. Enough to stop the bleeding, and to make her double-over in pain. Not enough to dull the throb to a pins-and-needles ache. Cheap whiskey helped, even if it made her throat dry as the book on astrophysical teleportation she had her head pressed against.

She checked her AK-47. Only half a clip left. After that, she’d have to rely on the sniper rifle. She had a “Dirty Harry” style revolver on one hip, with a single bullet in the chamber. She was saving that for later.

(243 words.)

Not what you expecting, huh?

Not only did I add 238 more words, I also gave you a better sense of what I meant by “library”.

This deeper sense comes not from the word choices per se, rather from the sensory details I chose to convey. I threw in sight (the window pane, the Venus), sound (explosions), smell (mortar, yellowed paper), and taste (whiskey, her dry throat). Looks like I missed touch, but perhaps my eye isn’t seeing it. Four out of five senses ain’t bad.

I also have a good feel for this character, who didn’t exist twenty minutes ago. My impression so far: she’s a Lara Croft-style heroine, hardboiled and gritty, and knows what needs to be done. And I started some neat world-building. This could be an alternate reality dystopia. Astrophysical teleportation exists alongside AK-47s.

I managed to give my heroine a serious problem. She’s alone in a warzone, wounded and with diminishing resources. And there’s some mystery. Who is she waiting for? Who is the bullet for? A rival? A traitor? Herself?

I have no clue what happens next. None, at all. I won’t even know if this is a novel or a short story until I finish the first scene or two. Then I’ll have a better sense of how this story is paced, and how complex the character’s problem really is.

When I tell people I write into the dark, with no outline or plot idea in mind, this is what I mean. I often start with little more than a scene concept, or a title, or a stupid prompt like library. I then climb into the character’s head and add as much sensory detail as I can squeeze in. Often, once I’ve established my character’s perspective and her attitudes, I inadvertently give her a big problem to deal with.

Then I form a scene that ends with a cliffhanger or a twist, which leads into another scene. Et cetera.

You can do this, too. And fill an entire novel. I find adding all five senses at least once every 500 words works powerfully.

Just find your barn words and ask, how does my character experience this thing, in both mind and body?

Above all, have fun with this technique.


Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved.This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

This book has not been reviewed by National Novel Writing Month. “National Novel Writing Month” and “NaNoWriMo” are trademarks.

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