The expression ‘cabbages and trombones’ was one used by the poet Ian Macmillan at a recording of a poetry radio show which I went to see with a friend a while back, and the phrase stuck with me. He was talking about how poets seek to make language strange and startling, how they seek to use it to weave a rich tapestry of image and idea. That, after all, is the purpose of poetry, to enrich our experience of life with pattern and syllable.
The concept chimed with me again when my husband was wrestling with a writing problem of his own. Besides being an academic, he runs an online whisky company, and occasionally works as a whisky writer. He had been asked to contribute reviews of a variety of whiskies for this book. Little bottles duly began to arrive in the post every morning, and off he went at a rate of three or so per evening. Everything was fine for the first thirty tests or so. But then he began to run out of descriptors. Just how many new adjectives can you come up with when you’ve got 60 whiskies to review? They can’t all taste of TCP or green jelly babies. Can each review really be different from the last?
And today, as I busy myself with planning my new writing schedule, and working on new stories, it has come back again.
Experts say those with a college education generally have about 12,000-17,000 words in their vocabulary, but as writers we need to have far more and we need to use them in unusual and riveting ways. I realise that I have dropped into the habit of reading very little but fanfiction, and if you are a fanfiction reader yourself, you will know that there are a lot of linguistic ruts involved. Favourite words include laving, ravishing, carding (of luxuriant hair), trembling and so on. No fanfic is complete without somebody emitting ‘ragged breath’. If you have read enough of these, you begin to spot the clichés. If you read too many, they scream out of the screen at you. (I hold my hands up and say I am as guilty as any of falling into this trap!)
The trouble is that if you don’t read more widely than just what other people write on the internet, your vocabulary stays static. This is what mine has been doing. Now I am writing again on a daily basis, I have realised how stagnant my linguistic skills have become. Of course, its not just words, but metaphors and similes. I need to polish up my style, make it strange and new. I need to expand my consumption, and open my mind.
WARNING: Incoming Master Plan for Expanding Lingustic Skills:
I’m taking a two-pronged attack:
- Widen my reading
- Use my notebook at all times
I’ve been reading just fanfics and nonfiction all summer, and its been a long time since I actually finished a proper novel. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Mostly I just read at bed time, a few paragraphs to help me drift off. But I need to take Stephen King’s sage advice:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Stephen King, “On Writing”,
Hodder and Stoughton (2000) p164
Of course, I’ve got a whole pile of books lying around, waiting to be ploughed through. Top of the pile are ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan. I don’t especially like McEwan, but I am determined not to let this bloody book defeat me. It’s the third time I’ve tried to read it, after all, and I refuse to be beaten!
I have also decided to follow Ian Macmillan’s advice. Poetry is the way to go. I’m not a reader of poetry – I’ve barely read any since my degree – but if you want to know about making language strange, go to the experts. I went to the library yesterday and got out two collections, one of Ted Hughes, and one of Simon Armitage, because I had heard of them. I’ll let you know if it works.
The second prong (I love that word, don’t you?) is more nebulous. Out comes my little red Moleskine. I need to think about how I am going to get the ball rolling on this particular aspect, but just jotting down a few ideas on what the weather feels like, smells like, tastes like, or overheard conversations, or the colours of shadows, might be a good start. Again, I’ll let you know how I get on.
In the meantime, here’s to cabbages and trombones. And whisky that tastes of TCP and green jelly babies. Both of which have taught me a lot about writing.
(Incidentally, you may like to know that I am currently publishing a new fanfic called ‘A Shadow of His Former Self’. You can find it here at A03, and here at Fanfiction.net. I hope it takes your fancy.)