Category Archives: Vocabulary

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: Emotion and Character

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, 'Sherlock'

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series, ‘Sherlock’

So, in this little series, we’ve talk about using verbs and the extra information you can communicate when you choose them mindfully.

(To read the first post, click here.  To read the second post, click here.)

Today I want to talk about how you can use verbs to convey character and emotion.  Consider the following sentence:

Sherlock left the room.

This sentence tells us nothing about the character or how he feels.  All it gives us is a bit of rudimentary choreography.  Now lets play with some variations:

Sherlock swept out of the room. ‘Swept’ gives the suggestion not only of Sherlock’s imperious, and rather vain, nature but also of what he is wearing, that long overcoat swirling around his heels.  A person has to have the attention of everyone present in order to sweep out, particularly that of the narrator (and as usual with these characters, we can assume its John’s point of view).  Using this verb tells us something about John too, therefore.  It shows the amount of attention he pays to Sherlock, and his feelings about how Sherlock moves when he leaves – admiration and perhaps exasperation are implied.

Sherlock stormed out.  Sherlock wouldn’t stomp anywhere.  He’s too much of a drama queen for that.  Life with Sherlock is like being at the heart of a hurricane, so this verb implies his power and presence.

John stormed out.  John is also capable of storming out.  He’s a little bulldog of a man with anger issues and BAMF tendencies, so we can hear in this verb his impressive presence.  However, John is also capable of stomping in a way Sherlock isn’t.  There is something more down-to-earth about stomping that doesn’t fit with Sherlock’s persona.

Sherlock flounced out.  Sherlock, with all those curls, the flowing coat, the self-absorption and vanity, would definitely flounce.  This verb tells us so much about his character and attention-seeking – which of course, John feeds.  By using this verb within John’s point of view, we can actually see him feeding it!   Flounce also implies a certain degree of sulking, so we get the emotion involved in his movement.

Sherlock exited the room.  No one exits a room except in the instructions for a fire drill!  This verb tells us absolutely nothing about his character, movement or dress, or about the emotional circumstances in which he leaves.  What it does tell us  is that the writer is unimaginative and stiff.  If you are ever tempted to use the word exited, either:

  • think of something better, or
  • skip the action altogether because it is probably something so mundane that you can let the reader assume it has happened, e.g. After Sherlock had swept out, John sat back in his chair…

I hope that this little rumination on choosing words has opened a window on the methods of writing for you in a practical way, and enabled you to think about how you choose your words more mindfully.  Your writing will definitely benefit from it if you do.

In the meantime, if you are interested in thinking more about this subject, you can’t do better than reading Chapter 2 of Francine Prose’s marvellous book, ‘Reading like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books, and for those who want to write them’.  In fact, read the whole book anyway.  Its brilliant, and Prose explains things far better than I ever could.

Happy Writing,

EF

Choosing the Right Words to Convey an Action

Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in the TV series 'Lewis'

(l to r) Laurence Fox as DS Hathaway and Kevin Whately as DI Lewis in the TV series ‘Lewis’

The reason I started thinking about being mindful when choosing words is this:  the other night about 4am I was lying in bed wrestling with a paragraph for a story.  Yes, I do this.  A lot.

In one of the Universe’s most amusing ironies, disturbed sleep and insomnia are symptoms of my ME/CFS, so I can sleep for Britain during daylight hours, but can’t go for more than about 3 hours at a stretch at night.  Then I lie awake, waiting for the next bout of sleep to come, and its helpful to have something to entertain my brain in the meantime.  This is when I write.  Not at my desk, but lying down in bed.  In case you are wondering how I remember things, I tell myself the same scenes over and over again, perfecting them, until I know them pretty much by heart.  I write them down during the day, once I’m happy I’ve got them right.  Yes, its weird, but its my process, and it seems to work.

So anyway, there I am, lying in the dark, wrestling with a scene in which Detective Sergeant Hathaway has phoned Detective Inspector Lewis from his hospital bed for a reassuring chat.  The two have just admitted their feelings for one another, but none of the talking and working things out has been done.  Things are still delicate, tender and vulnerable between them.  Having had a quiet, romantic chat, Hathaway ends the call, and Lewis, from whose point of view the scene is told, lies in his own bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating how he feels for his colleague.

So how to convey that moment of transition from phone call to meditation in a single sentence?  Here are the possibilities I came up with:

“He hung up.”

I don’t know, it just sounds too abrupt, as if Hathaway has rung off in a rage.  I reject this option.

“The line went dead.”

Even worse.  This suggests not only anger, but perhaps even peril – maybe an assailant has disconnected the phone or snatched it from beloved Hathaway’s hand, or there was an accident or an explosion that terminated the call prematurely.  I reject this option too.

“He terminated the call.”

People don’t actually think like this.  Its as bad as saying:

“He exited the building.”

Nobody uses this tone inside their own head.  Verbs like terminated and exited are too distant and clinical.  They contribute to what is known in the business as the ‘Authorial Voice’.  In other words, the reader is aware that an omniscient storyteller-author is telling them what is happening, and what to think, rather than opening a door through which they can view the experiences of the characters themselves.  If you want to read authorial voice done well, read Dickens or Thackeray, who are always commenting on their characters in this way.  Its old-fashioned, and uncomfortable for most modern readers.  Don’t do it.  It just looks like you don’t know what you are doing.  Always tell your stories from inside your character’s heads, regardless of what tense you are using.

And incidentally, words like terminated and exited are too formal.  They should be kept for technical manuals and academic papers.  If you are in doubt about whether a word is too formal, think about how you use language inside your own head.  Would you think ‘I terminated that call’?  No, I didn’t think so.

“He rang off.”

A little gentler than “He hung up”, but still a bit too brusque, as if there has been a tiff.  I reject this one too.

I try to think of another verb for concluding a call, concluding again being too formal, but can’t think of one, so I decide to go for my next option, which is to skip the obvious:

“After Hathaway rang off, Lewis lay on his back and stared at the ceiling.”

You see what I’ve done here?  I don’t really need to tell the reader that the conversation ends, because all readers know that telephone conversations end eventually, so I nod to the fact, and then concentrate on Lewis’s reaction.

If an act isn’t noteworthy in terms of action or emotion, if it doesn’t move the story along, then you can safely leave it out and allow the reader to make their own assumptions about the obvious. 

After all, I don’t need to tell my readers everything Lewis did when he woke up that morning to get to the phone call, from the first yawn, through using the loo and scratching his bum, to noticing that the instant coffee in the jar has gone lumpy and that he’s almost out of bread for toast.  What is important is not which toothpaste he uses, but the phone call from his future lover, and its aftermath.  That is what moves the story forwards, and that is what the reader is interested in.

“Lewis dropped the phone handset onto the covers and lay back, Hathaway’s richly textured voice still echoing in his head.”

This tells us a bit more about Lewis’s reaction to Hathaway, and the effect of their conversation, but dropping the phone sounds a bit too abrupt as well.  He would be too dreamy and relaxed by this point to drop anything!

“Afterwards, he lay back, allowing the memory of Hathaway’s richly textured voice to flow through him.”

This doesn’t mention ending the phonecall at all.  It entirely concentrates on Lewis’s response, emphasising the sensual effect it has on him.

By iteration, I have completely removed the need for solving the original problem, which was finding a way to communicate the end of the call, and I have added to the emotional impact of the moment as well.  So this is the version I will go with, at least for now.  After all, first drafts always get changed.

I hope that by walking you through the process of wording the paragraph, I have been able to show you how much choosing your words mindfully can enhance your writing, and how you communicate emotion and action to your reader.  It might take a bit of time, but thinking through the effect you want to achieve will make a huge difference for your reader.

If you want to read the previous post on this subject, click here.

To read the next post in this series, click here.

And if you haven’t come across the delicious TV series Lewis (called Inspector Lewis in the US, I believe), I highly recommend it.  You can read a fanfic I wrote for it here.

Happy writing!

EF

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 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