When I grow up, I want to be Harlan Coben. With hair. Actually, there are several authors I aspire to be, but I just finished Coben’s new young adult mystery, Shelter, so today I want to be Harlan.
Normally, I avoid YA because several of my children are barely beyond the teen years. The last thing I want to do is relive the angst and drama in the name of entertainment. Give me a decade or two, and I might be able to wander through the YA section without breaking out in hives.
Shelter caught my eye while I was grocery shopping. Harlan Coben? Oooo! I parked my cart and tried not to drool. The cover said it was a Mickey Bolitar novel. Double-oooo! My favorite Coben character is Myron Bolitar, and he introduced Myron’s nephew Mickey in his last adult mystery. YA or not, I had have it. Screw the hives.
No matter what Coben writes, he never fails to suck me in and hold me tight. He makes every moment feel real with the clever use of simple words. I found several passages in Shelter where I paused and said to myself, “Genius! I wish I’d thought of that!”
Here are a two of my personal favorites:
The cop frowned his disapproval with everything he had. Not just his mouth frowned. All of him joined in. He had a unibrow and Cro-Magnon forehead. They frowned too.
“Hi, guys,” Rachel said with a smile that didn’t just dazzle. It picked you up and shook you hard and then just dropped you back in your seat.
Genius, right? Not only did Coben implant a visual in my head, he stayed true to the emotions of a hormone-riddled teenage boy. His descriptions allowed me to experience the situation alongside Mickey. And whenever I experience a story, I find it hard to say goodbye to the characters when it’s over. Done well, they become real and a fixed part of my imagination.
As writers, we can use all kinds of words to touch our readers, including slang, dialect, text-speak, cuss words… My critique group (bless their invaluable souls) enlightened me on the impact of stronger verbs when conveying a character’s mood and personality. Instead of using the word ‘walk,’ spin a more realistic visual with stroll, flit, strut, totter, sashay, stomp, or storm. Or add more depth to a moment by replacing the word ‘look’ with gaze, gawk, peek, glare, scrutinize, or marvel.
I’ve bonded with my thesaurus—can you tell? I also note intriguing words, names, and phrases when I hear them in casual conversation. My printer and desk are covered in post-its with the ones I intend to use. My kids refer to me as The Word Nerd. Hey, at least I’m no longer The Annoying-Nosy-Stupid-Overprotective-Pain-in-the-Ass-Nazi Nerd.
So put yourself into your scenes, become your characters, and smith your words to suit the situation. Show your readers what you’ve got. And shave your head if you have to. It helped my buddy, Harlan.