Words, words, words

Thanks to a couple of days in the pottery studio, and the responses of some friends, I’ve calmed down considerably and lost most of my jitters. I also had a look at the calendar for September and realized that I wrote that half-novel not in one month, but in two weeks. I found out about the deadline on September 5th, but because I had family commitments for the following week, I didn’t actually get to write until September 12th. That was a looooong week, believe you me!

Anyway, I’m back on the ground – mostly – and thinking about the rewrite, which now seems much more manageable than it did. I’m thinking, too, about language, about words.

My mother is responsible for starting me down the polysyllabic path. She taught me never to say “enough” where “sufficient” would do. I acquired a love of language and grammar from her that has never faded.

Since I took up writing, however, I’ve acquired also a deep respect for plain talk, simple words. Part of this is a reaction against what I call “newage speak” (“newage” rhymes with “sewage”, and I wish I could say I’d thought of this, but I didn’t). Why are there suddenly no problems, only issues and challenges?

Part of it is because I see that fancy words get in the way of the story. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use “juggernaut” or “trapezoidal” or “ineffable” where they are required. What I’m saying is that when a reader is thinking, “Wow, that’s a beautifully written sentence!” they’re not thinking about what the sentence said. Plain language, well chosen, can create an unforgettable picture of what’s happening in your story, and that’s what you want.

Charles Frazier’s  novel Cold Mountain is one of the most poetic pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long time, and yet most of the language is clean and simple. Take this quote:

“By dinnertime the meat was falling off the bones, and gobs of dough the size of cat heads simmered in the yellow broth.”

Except for “dinnertime”, “falling”, “simmered” and “yellow”, it’s words of one syllable, but the image is vivid, rich and sensory, even alone like this. When it’s placed next to Ada’s (the heroine) experience of slow, genteel starvation, it becomes almost like a vision of paradise.

English is a language rich in nuance, in shades of meaning, in the perfect word for the moment, but it’s also a language well-suited to plain, straight, meaningful talk. Purple prose, or writing which is self-consciously elaborate, both wear on the reader. Unadorned straight talk with no hit of music, alliteration, imagery, can be just as bad. Writing is a balancing act between  the two extremes.

As writers, we need a vocabulary that will express what we want to convey to the reader. Sometimes that vocabulary needs to be fancy – sometimes not. I love adding new words to mine, especially quirky, one-purpose-only words, like “ferroequinologist”. That’s someone who is a train enthusiast – an “iron-horse-ologist”. Maybe someday I’ll be able to slip that one into a story in a place where it fits.

Until the right spot comes along, I’ll just take the train.

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