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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Words, and how to love them

If any topic was foreordained to write, it was this one. (No, I didn’t mean preordained, although I could have used that as well. *grins*)

First I saw this quote from Roy Blount, Jr. – “The last time somebody said, ‘I find I can write much better with a word processor.’, I replied, ‘They used to say the same thing about drugs.’ ”

Then I opened a lovely e-mail from a fan, the last line of which said, “Your book was fun and refreshingly intelligent in the genre (erotica), and therefore it not only made me happy to read it, but kind of renewed my faith that you can still write romance novels using wonderful words like ‘sere’.'” Wasn’t that wonderful? I wonder what she’ll do when she finds out that in the sequel the heroine is a physics professor who quotes string theory to explain magic? (And sere is a wonderful word, isn’t it?)

Last, there was a post from what appeared to be a high school student explaining, badly, why you didn’t need to go to college.

All of which was preceded by this sentence I read in a book which I shall not name and which I’m paraphrasing - “the hustle, flurry and commotion of buildings…” Umm, with all due apologies to the author… no.

Hustle – a rapid active movement. Flurry – either a snowfall or rapid, active movement. Commotion – either noisy or confused motion. Now, I’m all for the creative use of words in writing, but if buildings start doing any of those things while I’m around, it’s time to get out of town. Especially if it starts flurrying the darned things! Or they start flurrying about. (Unless, of course it’s a paranormal or fantasy, but it wasn’t.)

Clearly someone was relying far too much on their thesaurus. As Stephen King said, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” This is a classic example. Although I’d amend that by saying only in the first drafts…

Words are a writer’s stock in trade. Oddly enough, I keep getting arguments about this – from writers – but it’s true. Words are also wonderful things, it took thousands of years to develop both language and the skill to use it. As a kid – and yes, I know I was weird – I could get lost in the dictionary, just checking out new words. They fascinate me. I love etymology – the study of the origin of words. For example ‘hustle’ – from the Dutch husselen, meaning ‘to shake’. I have a friend who studied words in college (I don’t remember the exact name of her course of study), I’d have loved that.

Words can be amorphous – “shapeless,” from the Latin amorphus, from Greek amorphos “without form, shapeless, deformed,” from a- “without” + morphe “form” (which is also the root of morphine).

And they can be concrete – constituting an actual thing or instance; real from the Middle English concret < Latin concrētus (pastparticiple of concrēscere to grow together). Which, by the way, is not the same thing as cement.

I might have mentioned this before, but someone once said to my dear darling husband on discovering that I’m a writer – “She must be great to talk to, writers know so much stuff!”

Writers should, it makes them better authors. And writers should know words, because, well, it makes them better authors. Knowing words would have made that sentence above a little different – the buildings could have been colorful, diverse, they could even have been busy – ’4. overcrowded with detail’. I was recently introduced to a ‘writer’ who actually said that she doesn’t read… well, she doesn’t read anything except by one certain popular paranormal author. *headdesk* “ouch” Some writers tend to stay within their own vocabulary. I know one writer who uses ‘damn’ as her favorite adjective – he was damn cute. Well, damn. And even the best can fall into the habit of using the same words, because they like them.

To counteract that tendency I added two widgets to my Google home page – one is Quotes of the Day and the other is Word of the Day. One of today’s quotes was the one from Roy Blount, Jr. above. My word of the day was bleb. Sounds icky doesn’t it. It means anything blister-like. So it could be a drop of dew on a leaf (but I wouldn’t use it that way) or a disgusting growth on someone in a horror story. ”It started out as just this tiny bleb on the back of his hand, and then it spread all over his body.” Blister just doesn’t sound quite as gross, does it?

Want to be a better writer? Read better books. Add those widgets to expand both your mind and vocabulary. I’ll leave you with one last quote -

“Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.” Rhys Alexander, Writing Gooder, 12-09-05

A version of this post originally appeared on http://www.indiesunlimited.com/ on January 25th, 2012