Category Archives: Language

Digging Up Jewels

diamondIts all a bit pre-Christmas mental here, and its possible you are feeling the same way, so lets share a little time avoiding writing those cards, shall we?

Lately I’ve been collecting words.

I came across this word in a novel I was reading, and fell in love:

craquelure

Isn’t that just a marvellous way to describe an old man’s face?

Then I started noticing other words when they popped up:

nurture

topaz

Words I hadn’t really thought about in years, though I knew the meanings.

plangent

planish

Words that are nice to roll around on your tongue.  Words that pop like red roses in your paragraphs.

scrum

rhomboid

As you voyage through the festive season, why not make a list of the interesting words you come across.  Its not a hard or time-consuming thing to do – I scribble mine on the scrappy little pad of paper I keep by my bed for the purposes of writing to do lists and things I have to remember in the morning.

maroon

fecund

Then I transfer them to the back page of my writing notebook when I have a moment to spare.  Easily done.

flaunt

flaxen

I’ve got a bit of a passion for F words at the moment, as you can see!

They don’t have to be on a theme or for a reason.  I collect them only because they appeal to me.  They sing out from the page.

Now I’ve got a growing resource for making my writing interesting and alluring – I’ve written a little about this before, and I’m coming back to it.  I’m thinking about creating a kind of utilitarian type prose, a la Hemingway, but studded with jewels of unusual and seductive words.

So, why not see what little jewels you can dig up?

Happy Creating,

EF

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Choosing the Right Words – An Introduction

I want to talk a little bit this week about the idea of choosing the right words when you write.  About thinking carefully about the words you use to express a particular mood, character or action.

This probably seems a ridiculously obvious concept, but to neglect it means abandoning a whole myriad of ways in which you can make your stories deeper, enriching them for your reader.

Think about a man walking.  You could say:

  • He ambled
  • He limped
  • He sashayed
  • He scampered
  • He strode
  • He marched
  • He hobbled
  • He stomped
  • He inched
  • He shuffled
  • He scurried
  • He strolled
  • He paced
  • He sauntered

And these are only a few of the synonyms you could use for the verb ‘to walk’.  Yet, they each tell us something different about the man doing the walking, and raise questions in the reader’s mind about why he is moving in that particular way.

For instance, the man who is limping – Was he born with the limp, or has he acquired it, and if he has, was it recently or a long time ago?  Does he have some physical disability that limits his movement, or has he just this minute been in an accident?

He might, for example be limping because he is very old.

Perhaps he limps as a result of an old war wound – like our friend Dr John Watson.  This introduces a level of poignancy, of heroism wrapped in tragedy, and invokes our sympathy for him.

A man who strides has self confidence.  He holds his head high, intent on getting where he is going.  He may be a man on a mission – and we want to know what that mission is!

A man who sashays might be a bit camp, might be a dancer, might be charming a companion, moving in this way to make her laugh and draw her in.  Is this the start of a big romance?

A man who ambles is in no particular hurry.  He is relaxed.  He has time.  We might think him lazy, perhaps, or more likely, a man on holiday from the usual stresses of his life, sure in the knowledge that everything can happen at his own pace.

Usually we think of ‘Show, Not Tell’, the old writers’ maxim, as something overt.  Don’t tell us how John Watson got his war wound, for example.  Better to show us.  Show us his recurring nightmare of the moment it happened (which also demonstrates to us how he is barely coping with the trauma, as well as showing us the actual trauma itself –two for the price of one!).

By using the right words, evocative and interesting ones, we can communicate to the reader so much  more, and in such a subtle way that they barely even notice being told – which is true writing skill!

Writing Exercise:

Think more about the verbs I have used in the list above, and what they communicate about the man doing the movement.  Choose one and use it as a prompt for a writing exercise.  Take fifteen minutes to free-write in your writers notebook about the man who marches, the man who scampers, or any of the others.  (Come up with some of your own, if you like.)

Make a character sketch.  Who is this man?  What does he look like?  What age is he?  What does he do – and how does the way he dresses and moves communicate that?  Why does he move the way he does?  Where is he going in this particular fashion, and why?  Is anybody with him, and are they affecting his way of moving?

When you have finished, look over what you have written.  Can you see any clichés?  Remember, while clichés are usually clichés because they are true, they don’t have to come across as clichés!  Always be on the lookout for clichés in your writing, so that you can remould them into strange, eye-catching virtues.

You could use this character sketch as the core of a larger piece.  Or you could take the character you have created and write about him moving in another of the ways listed, repeating the exercise to learn more about him.  Why would he change his mode of movement?  Is he responding to the requirements of others, or affecting a certain walk to give a particular impression?  If so, why?

Spend time playing with these verbs, and let them take your imagination where it will.  Most of all, have fun!

(If you want to read the next post in this series, click here.)

Happy Writing,

EF

The Only Two Books a Writer Needs (Part 2)

BookshelfIn the last post, I waxed lyrical about why you need a good dictionary on your bookself.  Have it to hand when you are reading.  Reading is an act of Input that every writer needs to undertake.  And no, its not stealing.  Its looking for inspiration, in the same way that artists study and copy the Old Masters in order to improve.  Reading helps you learn what works and what doesn’t, but more on that another day.

So that’s the Input.  What about the Output?  This is where the next book comes in – the writing part.

The Thesaurus

If you aren’t familiar with thesauri, my lovely Chambers Dictionary describes them as:

“…a book with systematically arranged lists of words and their synonyms, antonyms etc, a word-finder; a treasury.”

If you are serious about making your writing more vivid, you’ll need a Thesaurus.  I was introduced to Roget’s Thesaurus, probably the most famous thesaurus, while still at school, but the technique of using it is cumbersome and it completely foxed me.

Now I use a very nice, fat Penguin Thesaurus, which is alphabetical, and quite thorough enough to meet my needs.  I keep my Roget in reserve, just in case.  And yes, I have finally worked out how to use it properly, but it’s a pain, so I keep things simple.

The nice thing about a thesaurus is that it helps when you can’t think of a word (which for me is a lot!), or are looking for a more sumptuous way of explaining something.  You want a word like ‘magician’, for instance, but are looking for something a bit more, well, exotic.  Dip into your ‘thes’ and you will find:

Sorcerer, wizard, warlock, sorceress, witch, enchantress, necromancer, thaumaturge, miracle-worker.

Mmmm.  Never heard of thaumaturge before!  That’s pretty exotic, as exotic goes.  See what I mean?  Grab yourself a thesaurus and have a moodle about within its pages.  Yes, its perhaps just another way of defining words, but it defines around them too, enriching them in unexpected ways.  It will help you widen your vocabulary but also makes your stories more sumptuous.  As with anything rich, however, don’t go overboard.  Too much cream can make you sick.  Too many adjectives and adverbs (especially) will put your reader off completely.  Its a case of using the right word, not lots and lots of words.  Be vivid, not verbose.

The Others

Yes, there are other reference books I rely on on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t be without my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example.  Or The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary.  All of them are fascinating and deeply useful – and not just when you are wrestling with a crossword!  But they are not what I could call ‘necessary’.

A dictionary and thesaurus are as necessary to a writer as a saw and chisel are to a carpenter. On a scale of need, they are prerequisites for the writing life.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have lots of books about writing.  I promise I will tell you about them in another post.  In the meantime, ferret out a good dictionary and thesaurus and keep them close at hand.  Look up any word you don’t recognise, and also those that you think you know what they mean, but have a lingering doubt about whether you are right.  Write down the ones you really love, and use them.    I promise you’ll have no regrets.

Happy wording,

EF

The Only Two Books A Writer Needs (Part 1)

BookshelfThe bookshelf by my desk

It’s that ‘Back to School’ time of year, when I can’t walk past a stationery shop without nearly having a heart attack.  Every time I go to Staples, I feel like I want to rip all the notebooks off the shelves and writhe about in them like an ecstatic horse.  The Martha Stewart Home Office line gives me palpitations.

But there isn’t enough money to buy everything I want, and besides, I have cupboards full of notebooks and pens already – how many does a writer really need?

Need is not something we really think about much these days.  It is not a First World problem, because most of have enough to meet our primary needs, and at that point, the word morphs into that seductive, purple velvet lined entity that is ‘Want’.

Want becomes most acute for me when I am in a book shop.  It is very hard to avoid the conviction that that my life will not be complete until I have the latest edition of wotsit, or that Benedict Cumberbatch will fall in love with me, if only I buy that particular tome.  I’m too much the magpie.  I like the latest sparkling things.  It’s a terrible affliction.

My new office space, and all the decluttering that went with it, has focussed my mind on this issue.  How many books does a writer really need?  And more to the point, how many books on writing does a writer really need?

The truth is, horrible though it may be, I don’t really need every copy of every book about writing that comes out.  I can get them from the library if I want them.  I only really need two books:

The Dictionary

In my opinion, no house or building, or even tent, is complete without a dictionary.  A reasonable one.  I’m not saying you have to go out and buy the full length Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to an insane number of volumes, and which only public institutions and Russian oligarchs are probably capable of affording.  You don’t even have to buy the two-volume Shorter version, which is still prohibitively expensive.  Lets face it, you could probably look up the more obscure words that these monsters contain online.

But you need a dictionary.

A dictionary is your friend.  A dictionary provides meaning in the world.  It provides knowledge.  It makes sense.  Even if English is your mother tongue, and you think you know everything it has to offer, believe me, there will always be a seven letter word beginning with L that turns out to be a seventeenth Hungarian stomach pump that you never knew existed.  That’s why I love the English language.  In all its glory, it is like an endless adventure through the Amazon jungle, where thrilling new words are always lurking under unexpected leaves.  And you never know when they might pop up.

Best to have a dictionary close at hand when you are reading.  You never know.  (You wouldn’t believe the number of times my husband has lost his temper with me in bed at night, when I have been reading my bedtime novel and found a word I don’t know – and asked him what it meant.  He’s got a PhD, and wields words like ‘hermeneutics’ on a daily basis, so I assume he knows everything.  He gets a bit short-tempered when asked about seventeenth century Hungarian stomach pumps when he’s sleepy!)

If you are intent on expanding your vocabulary, as I am, keep a little notebook too, to scribble down new words and meanings so that you remember them.

I have a very nice Chambers Dictionary, which my mother-in-law gave me.  It was second hand, but the meanings it gives are accessible, and it has a wide enough variety of words to satisfy my needs at the moment.  It is also a chunky 5.5cm thick, with nice fine paper, and so is a really satisfying thing to handle too.  You can pick up reasonable dictionaries in stationers and book shops this time of year at great ‘Back to School’ prices, but second hand bookshops and charity shops are always a good bet too, because dictionaries are slow to go out of date, and the basics will always be of use.

(Some readers will be bouncing around in their seats at this point, and crying the praises of online and digital dictionaries.  Yes, I get that they are useful, but they do not have the browsing dimension that real books do, and therefore I still recommend you get the hard copy.)

I originally wrote this as one post, but it got so big I decided to split it.  I think it words better that way, and I hope you agree!  So the next post, on Friday, will be about the second crucial book you need to have on your bookshelf.  The thesaurus.

Meanwhile, Happy wording,

EF

On Cabbages and Trombones – Making Language Strange

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:

  1. Widen my reading
  2. 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.)

Happy creating,

EF