So I Unpacked My Adjectives
Oh, my brain has been whirling for a few days. I recently listened to an audiobook that lit my senses. It was full of incredible descriptors and loaded with color, shape, form, shading, taste, texture, and smell. It was delicious, to say the least. It sent my mind off on a tangent of the English language and one particular component…the adjective. And this my friends, is what my weekly PCT's-Positive CJ Thoughts- do as they swirl and blow through this blog like the wind. I can attest that sometimes the thoughts come in a forms anywhere from a soft gentle breeze to the terrifying violence of a fast summer storm.
See that, I used a ton of adjectives in one sentence.
Yes, I was a child of the 1970's. The closet thing to a video game for me was 'Pong' until I got my Nintendo in junior high school. Mostly, we spent those scorching summer days outside riding bikes and creating glorious adventures from all the movies and television shows we soaked up in the evenings. This happened mostly because our parents kicked us out of the house to avoid the inevitable 'I'm bored' phrase that would trip off our tongues as easily as the other one that seemed to be non-stop, 'I'm hungry'.
Saturday morning cartoons were a two hour treat. No twenty-four hour a day cartoon channel existed. Even if there had been, our generation rarely was allowed to sit inside all day and watch tv, we were outside. Those Saturday mornings were also where I was learning just as much about the basics of the English language as I did sitting in a classroom, only this education came from School House Rock.
My third grade English teacher was frightening. I spent third grade with a great deal of anxiety as I attempted to escape the vengeful wrath of a teacher who really didn't like me. This teacher also had the misfortune of marrying someone whose last name that started with 'T', making her initials R.A.T. Not joking about this at all. I literally had vivid nightmares of a rat faced woman chasing me.
I would wake me up in the middle of the night screaming, tangled up in sweat-soaked sheets because of this woman. My Mom became very concerned as I started throwing up each morning and begging not to go to school. It got so bad, she eventually had a meeting with R.A.T. She went in with great restraint for a momma bear protecting her cub. (Yes my wife and I got to hold a bear cub one time.)
My mom let her know that she'd be back if my nightmares continued. I'm guessing the implication was that she'd be using much less restraint if a second meeting was required.
My point to that ramble is, I should have been learning the basics of grammar and the English language in school. Instead, I learned a great deal of what I remember about grammar from the short educational cartoons with catchy tunes and phrases. They were created to teach the basics of grammar, mathematics, history, and…gasp, civics. I am a product of School House Rock. Come on, you know your mind just went to, "I'm just a bill, yes I'm only a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill".
If it didn't go there then I'll make a bet that several of you reading this can 'sing' the preamble. 'We the people…'.
You're welcome… for the earworm.
One of my absolute favorite episodes, and one that has become a blessing to me as a lesbian fiction writer, was "I Unpacked My Adjectives". (Honestly, School House Rock is a gold mine of simple ways to teach what a noun, preposition, interjection, predicate, verb, conjunction...junction what's your function...I digress..again sigh.)
I'll be happy to provide you a link since, on either side of scale, you might not have grown up with it.
A young girl goes on camping trip where she ran into a hairy, scary bear and stayed at a rocky, wooded, perfect and fun campsite. She told all her friends about it after she'd 'Unpacked her Adjectives' from her giant backpack.
With the help of a turtle, she told her tale and taught me that by using adjectives, I could bring whatever story I wanted to tell, to live in vivid detail.
More than once, I've been complimented on my ability to describe things in vivid color and detail with my use of…you guessed it, adjectives. I LOVE adjectives. If I say the word blue, your mind immediately pulls up the color. An adjective helps define and specify, the desired shade. I've quipped to you before about my inordinately large collection of 'navy blue' t-shirts. I can't help it, most of the emergency services wear navy blue t-shirts because they don't show dirt like a white one or a lighter color would. I also have one or two that are more of a royal blue, one that falls into the slate blue category, and a few that I'd describe as robin's egg blue. They're all considered 'blue' t-shirts, but the descriptor…the 'adjective'… pulls your mind to the shade of blue I'm describing.
In my new book, The Bucket List, there's a passage about the water of a particular place. The water that pools at the base of the falls is a vivid blue-green, an aqua, if you will. Think about how many times you've read the phrases, "under a blue sky". Your mind forms a picture and most likely, it goes to whatever blue is your preference. When I write, I endeavor to show you the blue that I see. That might seem narcissistic, but if I'm describing an actual place, I want to portray it properly. Blue is subjective because on any given day, that blue might be slightly different, holding more tones of gray in smoky or foggy environment or lean toward pale in the earliest parts of a breaking day. When the sun is shining brightly and you live in a place without industrial influence, that blue can be vivid and more azure or cerulean. Put a cotton ball-like set of clouds in it, and the blue will pop against the contrast. An author's job, and my delight, is getting you to push past your flash of normal thought and hone in on exactly what I see.
As authors, we do this with more than color. The texture of something is also a place we can frequently, unpack our adjectives. A character can reach out and touch the rough bark of a tree with a gnarled hand, probing the deep ridges of the course bark. Or in the case of something like a young poplar, touch the smooth bark marred by small pocks and irregular imperfections. Fabric can be downy soft or irritatingly scratchy with the coarseness of unprocessed wool.
In lesbian literature, we rely heavily on the senses to relay the intimacy of a kiss. We might describe it like this- 'feather soft as lips lightly brush together' or- desperate hungry kisses drowning them as their mouths crashed together in a furious maelstrom of teeth and tongue.
We coax our readers to feel skin beneath our characters fingers, creamy, buttery soft, hardened, rigid, damp or cool. We bring to life the movements and actions lovers take, tentatively slow, rough and demanding, earnestly grasping and timidly approaching. We build that character with monikers and descriptors like, long legs, almond eyes, bow shaped lips and luscious curves or in contrast, square jawed, broad shoulders and athletic thighs, sporting a brooding attitude. Notice I didn't use the words butch or femme but the connotation is there. Both set of descriptors might be a character of either persuasion. We do this with the incredible world of adjectives.
I often use this technique when I describe the differences between the wonder that is my wife, and little ole me, the ying to her yang.
She thinks in a world of straight lines, cascading columns, precise figures and mind-numbing data.
She is brilliantly intelligent in my mind, and relies heavily on her analytical left brain. She's sexy smart, trust me. I'm pretty fond of the beautiful package that her left brain resides in too.
On the other hand, I see things in colorful descriptions and abstract concepts.
I can describe a scene in a hundred different ways using descriptors…adjectives.
I can create a character from a 3D image I see in my mind, what they look like, what they're wearing, and how they sound. I can write out their mannerisms, ticks and tendencies. In 'The Bucket List', I have two sisters. One is my main character, Jordan, and the other is a secondary character, Dava, that plays a critical role in the book. This was just one of the descriptor passages. "Jordan's sister, Dava Armstrong, was her go to expert when it came to all things in puzzle form or code. Born with Spina Bifida, her sister had a powerful intellect that was in stark contrast with the physical impairment that confined her to a wheelchair. Outside of the US military, Dava was one of the east coast’s premier cryptologists." From this passage, I've described a woman in a wheel chair that works as a cryptologist. That's the main point. Without the adjectives enhancing the characteristics, powerful intellect, premier cryptologists, the description is flat. Add those adjectives in and it's like the magic of brewing beer.
If you don't add in aromatic hops and malted barley, it's just bacteria filled water. See what I mean? (Not sure what sounds better, bacteria filled water or yeasty water? Either way it's ick and I wouldn't drink it until all those delicious components are added in.---- Squirrel...shiny thing, but I still used my adjectives.)
One of my favorite ways to use adjectives lie in the description of scents. (I'm particularly fond of coconut and vanilla.) We describe earth as rich or sweet soil. Perfumes, lotions, and shampoo can be citrus or flower scented, subtly alluring. Some things can be cloyingly pungent like the scent of a pine candle or the sulfur when you first light a match.
Describing the smell of the air is also a favorite. 'The air smelled like warm summer rain…the air was crisp and sharp with the frigid temperatures, causing your nasal passages to stick together when you drew a deep breath', she stepped outside into a warm fall morning, the air smelling of downed leaves and rich earth.
The pages of a book come to life when we use rich descriptive adjectives to describe what we see, feel, taste and smell. An author's job, is to make that happen as we weave a tail of a haunting mystery, a passionate romance, or a pulse pounding adventure.
Our world is full of rich texture all around us. Seeing that world however you do it, straight lines, charts and grafts or colorful landscapes rich with texture, light and shadow, opens our eyes to the world around us. In each of those perspectives, there are descriptors, if we just 'unpack our adjectives'.
I can't wait to share with you my adjective filled novel, "The Bucket List". We continue to work through edits. Truth be told, it's a very long book. If you enjoy getting more than you expected with an extra two hundred pages or so, I hope you take a chance on it when it's available. Until then, my Goldie Award Winning debut novel, 'frame by frame' is packed full of adjectives as well and is available at your favorite retail outlets.