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Use the Right Words: Upgrade Your Superlatives For Fame and (Better) Fortune

Writers often live or die by how engagingly they convey the extreme merits of something: a character's beauty or strength, an impassioned cause, a life-altering event. But equally crucial is how convincingly writers can extol---okay, "hype"--- their own work in queries and marketing. Some editors rightly warn against over-hyping in a proposal; but a touch of deft hype may be just what wins the day, with benefits far outweighing the risks. The greater danger is to acclaim your work with feeble, tread-worn superlatives such as nerve-tingling or heartwarming, which is like a billboard saying NO DISTINCTIVE VOICE HERE.

Writers often live or die by how engagingly they convey the extreme merits of something: a character's beauty or strength, an impassioned cause, a life-altering event. But equally crucial is how convincingly writers can extol---okay, "hype"--- their own work in queries and marketing.

Some editors rightly warn against over-hyping in a proposal; but a touch of deft hype may be just what wins the day, with benefits far outweighing the risks. The greater danger is to acclaim your work with feeble, tread-worn superlatives such as nerve-tingling or heartwarming, which is like a billboard saying NO DISTINCTIVE VOICE HERE.

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

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Guest column by Arthur Plotnik, acclaimed editor and author
whose eight books include the recent Better Than Great:
A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (2011)
and newly revised and expanded The Elements of Expression:
Putting Thoughts Into Words (2012). He lives in Chicago.

In publishing, hype is the creation of interest by dramatic, flamboyant, or other exaggerating means; it is expected, even appreciated when done well. Through eight books, I've seen the best hype in my proposals picked up by agents selling the project, editors presenting it, and marketers promoting it.

In virtually all types of writing, authors need a commanding language of acclaim---an armament of fresh, inventive, attention-getting terms to describe exceptional qualities. The habitual terms won't do. Words like great, fantastic and incredible have been gnawed to the bone in acclaiming everything from nail salons to chicken wings. How, then, are writers to describe their work or themselves as something especially excellent or affecting, distinctively intense or cool? One answer: With the help of distinctively fresh superlatives.

In common usage, "superlatives" refer to terms that confer extraordinary or exaggerated qualities on something: "She's a goddess." "What a celestial performance!" When positive in value they becomes high praise or acclaim; but once-worthy superlatives like amazing are almost devaluing after their billionth indiscriminate use.

To alert agents and editors to your distinctiveness, try acclaiming your work and yourself in a strikingly fresh way. That way might call for terms that quickly signal your project's importance and impact---not clichés like major and mind-boggling, but apt choices from among such superlatives as singular, consummate, indelible, razor-edged, resonant. If you're flogging a light or comic manuscript, an unexpected term like larky, ludic, gloom-splintering, spritzy, belly-busting, and cockahooping can suggest something smart and original, rather than just another supposedly hilarious read.

In proposing fiction or memoirs, you'll want superlatives that distinguish the overall work as well as the characters you describe in your synopsis. For the work, try emphasizing a quality the book clearly delivers (unflinching) rather than predicting the agent's or editor's judgment (magisterial). Still, depending on the tone of the book, some stylish playfulness might be just the ticket. Instead of pitching an incredible story of escape from terrorist kidnappers, you might describe it as a skull-spinning or marrow-freezing story, a skin-tightening shocker, a soul-throttling, winched-to-the-limit, amen-astonishing tale for our times. For another type of story, creations such as wig-walloping, never-neverish, or all-agogging might get an agent's heart juddering.

In describing characters, it's okay to be judgmental if you can rise above cliché. Not a fierce competitor, but an unsparing, unremitting one, an avenger of there-will-be-blood brutality.

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)

Sometimes a common superlative, when intensified, works better than an alternative term. Let's say you need a superlative to introduce the femme fatale of your gumshoe novel, and the key term beautiful seems ordinary to you, as do such common synonyms as lovely, stunning, and gorgeous. Time to intensify: She was (choose one or two): arrantly, narcotically beautiful, beauty on a binge, calm-the-beast beautiful; set-your-heart-on-fire stunning; metagorgeous, I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up-gorgeous.

WHERE TO FIND FRESH SUPERLATIVES

Though limited in creative choices, the standard thesauruses and other synonym guides still uncork plenty of attention-getting superlatives. The key is: make the effort. Seek out good, underused terms such as stellar, peerless, masterly, bedazzling, incantatory, arresting, and transformative.

Explore under a variety of categories, not just obvious ones like "Greatness," "Goodness," or "Superiority." ("Wonder" yields such terms as beguiling, numinous, and stupefying.) Follow the thesaurus's cross-references. Track such concepts as Intense, Forceful, Large, High, Beautiful, and Fashionable. Browse unlikely categories for surprise finds. Under "Bubble" in Roget's, for example, I nabbed effervescent, ebullient, and spumescent.

You might also want to consult some specialized word books, such as Describer's Dictionary, The Thinker's Thesaurus, and my own scalp-scorching compilation of 6,000 fresh superlatives, Better Than Great.

Agents and editors are generally word people, roused from the fug of generic proposals by a fresh, surprising locution. Such locutions can be yours—three or four superlatives used sparingly and strategically, but nonetheless head-swerving, socko-boffo, bone-brilliant, and clangorously great.

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