Monday, July 11, 2011

What's the World's Oldest Part of Speech?

Thesaurus.

Yes, I just said that.  

(Please don't leave.)

The question I've got today is this - when do you decide to dig into the literary china cabinet and break out "the good words?"

I've heard two sides to this story. There's one argument that says that using one precise word for what you mean can be so much more effective than three words that bring about almost the same idea.

E.g. 
1.  Edward walked with slow, even steps toward Bella. She waited at the bar, sharpened stake in hand.  He'd come home smelling like wolf for the last time.

2. Edward ambled toward Bella.  She lingered at the bar, fondling a sharpened stake. He'd come home smelling like wolf for the last time.

Not necessarily the perfect example - but I think the word "ambled" in the second scenario adds a little something. There are associations with the word "ambled" that "walking with slow steps" doesn't really touch.

Now - the other side of the story is - pretentious. This is the thinking that if you don't "own" the word, don't use it. (And for heaven's sake don't just go through randomly swapping 50 cent words for the 3 dollar variety. You'll come off sounding faker than a ... yeah.

E.g. #2

1. The killer drew near. His blade caught the moonlight, and in the yellow-white glare, Sarah saw madness.
2. The homicidal psychopath impended. His bodkin shimmered in the moonlight, and in the saffron luminescence, Sarah beheld dementia.

I'm being deliberately overwrought here, but you can see how easy it is to get carried away.

So - what I've come to is this - the thesaurus is definitely a tool for the editing room, and can certainly help tighten up some of those unwieldy sentences - and give you "ambled" or "sauntered" where you had a very matter-of-fact action.

But.

I think you do need to somewhat "own" the words you use. The thesaurus should remind you of words you've already read before. You need to be able to look at that chunk of synonyms and know which one you mean by what you've written.

A little while ago, I mentioned that I'm working on editing a story where the ending took off on me, and I'm just about done the second write. The process is incredibly slow this time around, but part of that is that I find myself being so much more careful this time around. I really am trying to grow my craft with everything I write, and what I'm finding is that I've been writing on a sort of plateau, and to get to the next level, I've got to work a little harder than I'm used to. Growing pains, I guess. But I'm trying, which may also explain some of my navel gazing of late.

As always, you should let your story and characters be your guide. But it never hurts to pick up and play with some of the tools in your kit from time to time.

Back to the editing room* I go.


Keep writin'.

C

*By the way - if anyone's in the mood, and has the time to offer a word of advice on this beast, I'd be more than happy to share.

4 comments:

  1. I love my thesaurus. Or whatever the plural is -- I've got a few, and to say I'm a connosewer of thesauri would be appropriate.

    Sometimes, I'm reading something and I realize the author already used a word. A character ambled. Then he ambles another few paragraphs later. I'm very conscious of that when I write, and if I've used a word that sticks out, then I go for a different way of saying it.

    That's a big reason to use one -- be conscious of what words you're overusing. Anything that may give a reader pause is bad, imo.

    Another reason is just as you said: to remind you of words. We can't all be walking dictionaries. And I want to underline the part where you say, "...know which one you mean by what you've written." Nothing worse than when someone throws up a three dollar word and it's clear they've got the wrong one.

    And last, I'd add to your "let your story and characters be your guide" that one should also be aware of tone and voice.

    Who am I to advise? I can barely finish my own story that I'm wrangling with. Unless you want to swap...

    Good luck, Chris!

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  2. Great and important examples. After a few rough drafts, my next draft is tightening the story with action and fresh description/character, and this is when I break out the thesaurus.

    Half the time, I find a word that works better, the other half of the time, I find that I just have to restructure the sentence and keep with the plain Jane word, which is good when you have other fancy words, because as you pointed out, it is easy to get carried away and not 'own' the language.

    I know what you mean by plateau, Chris. It's one reason why I haven't published anything online recently. I'm trying to craft some stories that are a little bit above my comfort zone, and getting them published. Pushing myself for greater things. It definitely comes with its share of bruises!

    Good luck and I hope to read one of your pieces soon.

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  3. Thanks Rebecca and Erin - great insights from both of you!

    Rebecca - totally agree that tone and voice are extremely important as well

    Erin - good luck with your own challenge. In the midst of everything else I'm writing - I just started a "fun flash" that I hope to finish and sub to one of my usual haunts next week. We'll see though.

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  4. I had to laugh at your swapping the .50 cent word for pretentious $3 word. I tried to do this when I first started writing because I thought that was what writers were supposed to do. Use the prettiest words, right? But it read so wrong and it was just comical. But I agree, thesaurus are invaluable, I typically check my words (not every word, but just ones I feel unsure of) against it everyday to see if I feel like I'm using the best word. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but its so nice to have that... verification. Love your posts here, chris!

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