Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Right Word

My junior high students and I were studying IMAGINARY MENAGERIE, which is a collection of awesome poems about fantastic creatures by Julie Larios.

Go buy this book.
Each of Julie's poems in IMAGINARY MENAGERIE is named after the creature that inspired it. We went through them and underlined words we liked, like in "Dragon": air, bright, wild, arrow, sings

Then we decided we would each write a short poem based on an animal. The first step was to come up with a list of words that fit that animal. For an example, I wrote the word "whale" on the board and asked the students to brainstorm.

For the first few minutes, the suggestions went something like this: "Tail!" "Pail!" "Frail!" "Stale!" "Male!" "Snail!" "Hail!"

None of those words are remotely "whale." Except maybe "tail." Whales have tails. Congratulations, you've passed the seventh grade.

Now, this is not a slight against my junior high students, who are all brilliant and charming. It's about how we think about words (and poetry, which is a whole other can of worms). But the good news is, just as I was beginning to despair, there was a marked lull in the suggestion-shouting, and after a moment, one girl said, ". . . Bubbles."


Roundish but not round. Gentle. A little unwieldy. Sounds like it's underwater.

"Bubbles" is a whale word.

Use the Words You Need

A lot of the craft of writing is finding the right words. Anyone with a dictionary can figure out what a word means, and it's usually pretty apparent what a word connotes, but what is it that makes a word right?

Agents and publishers today frequently favor simplification -- or, at least, it appears that way in their advice to prospective clients. Don't over-write. Just tell the story. Two legs Adverbs bad, four legs verbs good. But their actual client lists often boast a wide variety of voices and styles, some of which are Hemingway-spare, some of which are downright flowery. So what's the deal?

Let's look at two writers with different voices, who happen to be two of my very favorite writers -- Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge.

"She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose."

There are no extra words here; every one is pulling its weight. This is the first time we meet the (wonderful) heroine of this novel, and the picture is vivid and full of movement. If I highlighted all the words I loved in these four sentences, there would be barely any left.

"Around and through the village, water seethed down the breakneck hillside in a thousand winding streamlets. They hissed and gleamed through dark miles of pine forest above the village, chafing the white rocks and learning a strange milkiness. Chough itself was more a tumble than a town, the houses scattered down the incline as if stranded there after a violent flood."

This paragraph is also about movement, but the voice is very different. The sentences flow and turn like the water around Chough. But here, too, the words do their work efficiently -- because they're the right words. A streamlet hissing and gleaming is not the same as a streamlet frothing and shining, or bubbling and glistening, and hissing and gleaming is what Hardinge wants. So even though her style may seem slightly more elaborate than Jones's, she's not using any extra words, either.

So maybe "simplification" has nothing to do with the flavor of your voice. It's about using exactly the words you need, and using them deliberately. Another step towards the reader's immersion in the world rather than the text.

That said, are there words that are almost always "right" or "wrong," regardless of voice?

Right Words

Some words, according to me, are almost always right. These include:

Said (and asked). When I see these in classrooms, it makes me want to gouge my own eyes out with a red pen. If it is necessary for you to indicate that your character "screamed" or "nagged" or "purred" in order for the reader to visualize the dialogue the way you intend, you have not been doing your job in the rest of the scene. Dialogue tags should be largely invisible; they should indicate who spoke. Context, in most cases, should do the rest.

As for unnecessary "said/asked" synonyms -- unless you are contacting an agent about your novel, no one is "querying." So cut it out.

Colors and shapes. You might be more of an "azure" or more of a "bright blue." You might be a "sphere" or a "ball." But color and shape words turn your characters and settings into clear pictures. All sensory details do, including sounds, smells, and textures.

Verbs. Stories are about things that happen. Verbs indicate things are happening. Look at all the verbs in the two sample paragraphs above -- they are awesome!

Nouns. Nouns are things that do things, or things that stories are about. Yay! The more specific, the better. Instead of "car," say "Yugo" or "vicious Ford sedan" or "Popemobile."

Wrong Words

I wouldn't call any word universally "wrong," but there are a few that make me raise an eyebrow and re-evaluate what's going on in the nuts and bolts of my narrative. Here's my $0.02, because, you know, science. Or something.

Was (followed by an emotion). Your protagonist is skipping down the sidewalk singing showtunes? We know he is happy. Your protagonist's beloved dog just got flattened by a steamroller? We know she is sad. (Also, I have thrown your book into the lake.)

If you have to tell us your character is sad/happy/angry, either you have not been doing your job, or you think we are stupid.

Adverbs. OK, so I use adverbs. It's true. And I'm not on an anti-adverb crusade like some of the more militant elements in the writing community. But I think the point of the adverb-hate sweeping our nation is that in many cases, it's the verb that should be doing the work. If you have to tell us how someone is running, for instance, maybe "running" isn't the right word. Maybe you mean loping or sprinting or scampering or galloping.

To me, finding an adverb in my writing is not necessarily an instant delete moment -- it's more of a red flag indicating that maybe other words aren't pulling their weight.

Was (followed by a preposition). As with adverbs, this is more of a "check out this spot" indicator. I find that the "to be" verb in "was [preposition]" can often be replaced by a more interesting verb, adjective, metaphor, etc. For example, "The house was at the end of the street" could become "The house lurked at the end of the street" or "The house was perched at the end of the street." It's an opportunity to paint a more vivid picture.

Walked. Yes, people walk all the time. It's probably our favorite thing to do as a species after sleeping and sitting on our fesses. But "walk" is one of those words that has such a broad definition, I find it's almost always better to replace it with something more specific to the situation (or you may find yourself sticking an adverb after it!).

Finding the Right Word

Some friends and I were arguing recently about the word "decimate." They believe it should be used only as it was originally intended -- to mean the slaughter of one in ten soldiers by their own leaders. For other scenarios, one of them suggested we simply replace "decimate" with "annihilate." Sure enough, "annihilate" is the first synonym of "decimate" listed in the online thesaurus.

But here's where the idea of a "right" word comes into play. As a writer, would you use these words interchangeably? Here's "decimate," in my head:

And here's "annihilate":

Those are just the images my brain, cultivated by immersion in the living language, responds with. But there's more: Which word is more devastating? Which is more powerful? Which is a better length for the sentence I'm writing? Which is funnier? Which feels more like it belongs in the world I'm creating with my narrative? Any or all of these questions could influence which -- if either -- of these two words I choose to use.

I use my thesaurus a lot. Not because I'm looking for a fancier way of saying something, but because, even though there are many supposed synonyms in the English language, there's often only one word that really means what you want to say.

Take the word "vicious." Here are the entries under "vicious" in my thesaurus: brutal, ferocious, dangerous, violent, savage, remorseless, ruthless, merciless, heartless, callous, cruel, harsh, cold-blooded, inhuman, fierce, barbarous, barbaric, brutish, bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic, monstrous, murderous, and homicidal. 

Now go through the list and think about the feel of each of these words. None of these words are perfect synonyms for "vicious." It's not about what Merriam-Webster tells us, it's about a hundred little facets of experience, aesthetics, culture, and connotation that color our perception of each word. Some words are bloody, ripping-apart, madness words -- ferocious, brutal, savage, murderous. Some have a literary detachment, safe for sensitive audiences -- violent, dangerous, cruel. Some are cold and calculating -- ruthless, callous, merciless. Some are twisted and purposeful -- bloodthirsty, fiendish, sadistic. And within these categorizations, each word has its own sound, flavor, and shape.

So do fiction writers need to take the same care as poets when choosing words?

How about yes?

What do you think?

Saturday, March 17, 2012


This week, an online friend of mine exacted vigilante justice on a stranger who threw eggs at him from a moving vehicle. While it is not my story to tell, let's just say it ended with a punch in the face.

Today, I also felt vigilante anger.

As you know, I lead a stressful and important life. On any given day, I may have to write something, get dressed, stay in a crappy hotel, or take pictures of my cat.

Sometimes I just need to get away from it all. This is why I do pencil puzzles in the bathtub. But today, internet friends, my relaxing pencil puzzle bath time was absolutely basulaned.

You see, I was working on a puzzle called "Letterbox." You're given several boxes with two letters each, and you must combine them to make words in a box shape.

Here's my progress:

I'm usually pretty good at word puzzles. Not a master, but no neophyin either, and it frustrated me that I wasn't getting this one. I puzzled and stared and rearranged and puzzled some more. The bath water grew tepid, then cold, as I made no move to remove myself to more comfortable surroundings, like a reverse lobster. The lavender bubbles died small, quiet deaths. Still I puzzled. The dog and her gas decided to keep me company, and I puzzled on.

Finally, immersed in flat, cold water and surrounded by dog farts, I decided to do something I never do.

I decided to look at the answer.

It's not that I never give up. I often come across puzzles I'm too stupid to finish, but I just leave them incompleteUtterly baffled, I turned to page 89, and the truth was revealed to me:
It's enough to make even a mild-mannered person like me go into a neckspin. Or punch someone in the face.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Indefatigability is Inspiring

As I work on my next post, in which I have, like, actual stuff to say about words, I thought I would fill you in on the heroic life I have been leading this month. First off, yes, I used the word indefatigability in the title of this post. That in itself is inspiring, even though I got it from the Thesaurus under "perseverance," which I spelled wrong. You're welcome.

I got so much stuff done this month. I did a bunch of freelance editing. I designed some ads for clients. I went through my fonts, and you should know that I have amassed awesome fonts. Don't even talk to me unless you have the Thundercats font, and we'll start from there.

I took this picture of my cat, Bert. I Gordon, who just sneezed cat boogers all over me as I typed that.
It kind of looks like he has five legs.
Then I got plague, which my body decided to fight by coughing up everything inside itself, including what I believe were a couple major organs and possibly a femur. And because comedy is everything, my body decreed that this process would be accompanied by the whimsical call of the Canada Goose, emanating from my ravaged esophagus. But fear not, dear ones -- because of half a bottle of Ny-Quil my indomitable spirit, I realized that, instead of being diseased, I was actually being enhanced.

I was being granted the powers of the Canada Goose.
Ah, the majesty.
Then Goose Plague and I went to the city to sing the Beethoven Missa Solemnis at a copyrighted location I like to refer to as "Flarnegie Hall."
It was kind of a weird couple days.
We sang in the back row of the chorus, right on top of the enormous speakers for the organ.


Then home again, jiggity jig, at which point I decided to play Mass Effect 3 broker world peace, which I think we can all agree is working out nicely.

My latest triumph in the face of adversity has been dusting off my bootstraps, or whatever the young people are saying nowadays, after possibly having been rejected by my favorite blog.

That's right. I submitted a portrait to Nic Cage As Everyone, and it has yet to appear. In fact, I have yet to even receive a response to my inspiring email: "This is Nic Cage as a molecule of adamantane."

And yet, my friends, we persevere! We indefatigate! We suffer the honks and arrows of outrageous organs!

Yeah, Bert I. Gordon says it's bedtime.