Writing: The Wrong Word

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Writing: The Wrong Word

Something I need to tell you, for this story to make sense–in the real world, in my ‘real job’, I frame pictures for a living.
I know. I know. I’m the only person you know who does that, probably. But anyway.

A few years ago, a lady came into my shop. She had an oil painting with her, and wanted to get it framed fairly quickly. It was a nice painting–a landscape, I think. We chose a nice frame to go on it.

“Just to warn you,” she told me, “I only finished it a little while ago. It’s still wet.”

I touched one of the edges lightly. Sure enough, the paint was still gummy, as it is on a half-dry oil painting.

“Okay,” says I. “Thanks for letting me know.” And I wrote a few words on the ticket to let everybody else know, too.

I didn’t think anything more of it until I handed her a copy of the ticket. She looked it over.

Her eyebrows went way, way up. She was looking at the title I’d put on the piece: and, under it, at the condition.

Oh, shit, my brain said to me, as I realized what I’d done. She opened her mouth.

“…tacky?” she said. “You think my painting is tacky?”

Luckily, she was a nice woman, and once I’d explained it to her she thought it was pretty funny.

Why am I mentioning this? As a lesson, writer friends.

‘Tacky’ was, absolutely, the most accurate word to describe the condition of the painting. When an oil painting is half-dry, as that one was, the texture can hardly be described any other way.

However, in that situation, the most accurate word wasn’t the right word.

Why? Because no one wants to see a ticket with the word ‘tacky’ scrawled on it, describing their own artwork. If I’d taken a second and used my person-brain I would’ve figured that out. But I didn’t–I used my framer-brain instead, which is slow and socially inept, but really good at fractions and things like how to apply gold leaf. And my framer-brain, touching the picture, said tacky.

I got lucky. If I’d been in that lady’s place, a framer probably would’ve died that morning.

Some words, no matter how accurate they are, aren’t the right words in a story, for reasons your social-brain will tell you, if you give it a second. Tacky is probably never a good word to describe someone’s artwork, even if the texture fits that description perfectly. It’s better, in such a case, to say the painting is ‘wet’, even though it isn’t, strictly speaking. People will understand what you mean, and you don’t run the risk of misleading them with your word choices.

Another example: I’m writing a story which features twin brother exorcists (I know, I know). I wrote a scene recently in which they were debating a bunch of lies someone had recently told them, and this sentence happened:

“Oh, brother,” Deacon said.

Deacon is, of course, interjecting due to the ridiculousness. To his brother, Derek.

To his brother.

Is it an interjection? Is it a call for help? If I used that phrase, who the hell would know?

It’s exactly the phrase he would use in that situation. But it’s not the right one.

I guess what I’m saying can be summed up thusly: when you’re debating word choice, spare a moment of thought for the audience. The right word is, after all, only the right word if everyone understands you, and situational circumstances can affect whether people will understand you or not.

In a scene where someone is pooping, no one should stub a toe and say shit.

In a scene where two SeaWorld employees are feeding killer whales in a tank, neither one of them should talk about how they’re drowning in something plentiful, or how difficult it is to stay above water.

Sounds easy, no? It’s harder than you think. (A phrase which, in turn, shouldn’t be used if your geologist MC is cracking through rock strata).

The exception is, of course, when you’re going for a deliberate pun. I leave you guys to figure out when that’s applicable, as puns usually speak for themselves.

But there is nothing–nothing–more painful on this Earth than an unintentional pun.

There isn’t an easy way to avoid it, sadly–except to be on your guard, and have a beta reader or two. Other people tend to notice pretty quickly when an explorer makes ‘no bones about’ the skeleton he just found in the ruins.

Fun With Words: Electioneering Edition

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Fun With Words: Electioneering Edition

Well, guys, my little blackboard of words is full once more, so it’s tiiii-iiime…for fun with words. It’ll be especially fun for my American friends, who’re all probably just as sick as I am of election coverage…though the election itself isn’t for another year.

I noticed I was having a word-trend about halfway down and decided to go with it. After all, what makes your political opinion sound more justified than a few snappy words in there? The last one, in particular, will probably come in very handy as you debate the merits and drawbacks of our next potential commander-in-chief.

So hoist up your red white and blue, make up a brief statement about Our Great Nation, and enjoy the sensationalist and information-starved election coverage as it’s meant to be enjoyed: with a bunch of big snarky words, so you look smarter while disagreeing with everybody.

A NOTE: I’m not interested in your political opinion. Really, I’m incredibly not interested. I tried to keep my examples fairly cross-party, but of course more of them stick to Donald Trump than to anyone else. Donald Trump is like the statement piece in the well-to-do living room of election politics. You might like it, you might not–but you’ve got something to say about it, and it’s damned hard to pretend it just isn’t there.

Verjuice–a sour juice made from unripe fruit, previously used for medicinal and health purposes, now mostly used in cooking.
Example: Every time someone mentions e-mails, Hillary Clinton looks like she’s just taken a shot of verjuice.

Mendicity–The state of poverty or beggardom; the state of being a beggar.
Example: Bernie Sanders is very concerned about the current mendicity of the US–however, his Republican counterparts complain his platform would make the country even more mendacious.

Cavil–A petty objection.
Example: Ted Cruz’s cavilling might actually cost Planned Parenthood some funding some day.

Bunkum–Nonsense, empty talk. Particularly nonsense thrown about insincerely by a politician. Apparently, this word originated in Buncombe County, North Carolina–I love it when my people spawn something excellent.
Example: If I hear any more of Donald Trump’s bunkum about Megyn Kelly, I’m going to become a Fox News reporter myself and be twice as mean to him.

Quisling— A person who collaborates with an enemy force, thus betraying their own people. This word comes from a Norwegian army officer named Vidkun Quisling, and his story is worth a look.
Example: I’d support Hillary Clinton more if I didn’t worry she’d wind up being a quisling to the American middle class.

Pareidolia-– Seeing things that aren’t actually there because they resemble some other thing. F’rinstance, seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, or a face in the light and bumper setup of the car in front of you. This is another word you’ll want some background info for.
Example: I know my pareidolia is getting out of hand because every time I see Donald Trump, I want to shoot the two mad muskrats currently feasting on his skull.

Snuggery–a small space made to be comfortable and cozy, such as a den or a study.
Example: It’s sweet to see the snuggery Rick Santorum has made for himself in the Christian Evangelical Right.

Bloviate–To speak at windy and greatly exaggerated lengths about something. This is a word coming back into popularity lately: probably because it’s what our politicians do a lot.
Example: I’m sick of Donald Trump bloviating about his wealth.

Widdiful–Worthy of being hanged.
Example: If our nation’s presidential candidates weren’t such a widdiful bunch, I might have more faith in politics.

WRITING: Why I Curse

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Writing: A Brief But Most Impassioned Missive on the Subject of Vulgarity

A NOTE: If you have a problem with strong language in novels, that’s just fine. It’s your right to feel the way you feel, just like it’s my right to say fuck a lot in my story. My anger here isn’t directed at you. Unless, of course, you’ve felt the need to get all up in arms with me about it. In which case: fudge off.

Dear Sir or Madam,

I hope this epistolary concoction of mine, now commonly called a ‘weblog’ or ‘blog’, finds you and your spouse exceedingly well. I hope weather in the place you currently reside is good, and your friends and family have suffered no misfortune since we last had one of these strangely public private chats.

My health is good, and my family is very well, and the weather is delightful, thank you for wondering.

You may have begun to wonder, with suspicion I fear is common to all my readers, what fantastic and whimsical Turn this missive is about to take. Why, you may ask, eyes round, is this sovereign Person, previous empress of the word F-, writing in a fashion which suggests longhand, fountain pens and inkwells, and swirling my own farts in a vintage brandy glass before inhaling deeply?

Because I’m making a point, sweethearts. Life without vulgarity–it sounds different to me. It sounds like a Victorian novel, without the occasional ‘damn’ thrown in there. The lengths a writer can go to to avoid vulgarity can ruin a novel–nothing pulls you out of a world quite as fast, after all, as a group of tough soldiers standing on a battlefield around their recently dismembered comrade, whispering ‘oh sugar’ in shocked tones.

I see this question asked a lot around the Interwebs: ‘should I use cursing/vulgarity in my book’? And my answer is, and always will be:

I don’t know. Why don’t you want to?

If the answer to that question is ‘because I’m not sure it belongs in this story/coming out of this character’s mouth’, then no. No, you probably shouldn’t. Because it doesn’t belong in the story.

If the answer is ‘because Aunt Mabel would unfriend me on Facebook/I’m worried I’d lose readers/it’s not appropriate to the age group I’m trying to reach/someone might be offended if I say ‘damn’ in it/etc.’, pull your head out of your ass and do it.

I curse. A lot. I’m not proud of this fact or ashamed of it, it’s just part of who I am. The curse words in my linguistic flow are like the exfoliating beads in my morning cleanser. A brief, momentary brightness. A typographical em-dash. Mix metaphors as you will.

As I’m the sort of person who cusses, a lot of my characters are also the sort of people who cuss. They’re ordinary people, common people, people of small means and low circumstances. Soldiers, innkeepers, convenience store clerks, fifteen year old kids (who cuss more than the rest of us. Sorry, moms.). Prostitutes. Magicians.

People who don’t, by and large, say ‘sugar’.

Of course, when one of my characters is the type of person who says sugar, or doesn’t curse at all, then they’re portrayed that way. Because story.

My language is, when in novel form, not uniformly bad. I drop an f bomb or two and, okay, sling more shits than a plumber’s supersoaker. But my vulgarity is fairly limited, and, outside of language, there’s little that keeps my book from being pretty clean. Here are some comments I’ve gotten (always in private, tch tch!) on my usage of the mother tongue:

1) ‘Vulgarity just makes you look less intelligent.’
What?

Did you not bother to read the rest of the words? ‘Cause I have a pretty big vocabulary. And I use those words too. When they’re the right word. (I’m sitting on a post about archaic words I’ve learned from my recent dive into Dickens. I am excited as fuck and you should be too. You’ll learn what a pettifogger is, and more on the best word ever: megrims.)

2) ‘It makes you look so common.’
So what. Nice attempt at shifting the blame onto ‘society’, that elusive bugbear, however.

This is the unisex companion to one girls used to get a lot: ‘it makes you look like less of a lady’. Hang on, let me check something–yep, vagina still there. However, oh my goody gumdrops goober goodness. You mean I’ll never be presented into society?

You couldn’t figure that one out earlier, like when I was born?

3) ‘People won’t like you as much if you’re vulgar.’
And there it is again! Not you, the commenter, but people. All of them out there. You know, them. The same people who, I assume, shot JFK, and rigged 9/11.

Here’s the thing, person who certainly isn’t people. As far as my novel goes, I don’t care. If someone’s shallow enough to like or dislike me based on my language choices in a novel, let ’em. It’s not like they were close friends of mine to begin with.

You read the book. You either like it or you don’t. Don’t get me wrong: I love my fans, and I respect all my readers. If someone reads my book, sees the f word, gets offended, and puts it down, well, I’m sorry we didn’t get along better. This person is making a choice for themselves and not complaining to me about a choice I made for myself, and I can respect that.

But for the person who whinges about my language to me, as though I’m a customer service department fielding complaints: I don’t take requests. You get what I give you.

4) ‘People won’t trust/respect you as much if you’re vulgar.’
Again with the people. These people. So judging, so limiting. Especially when expressing an opinion you don’t want to tell me you also hold.

And, again, the same reply: if you don’t trust or respect me, a person you barely know, because of my language choices, and you feel the need to tell me this out of some misguided sense of earthly duty, you’re a few steps higher on the ladder of pseudo-literary shame than the Grammar Nazi. You’re like the Goebbels of the English Language. And that’s your right. No one’s saying you can’t make your choice that way. Yep indeedy. Jawohl.

Also, when you’re in jail and you need to make that one phone call to someone who you absolutely know will bail you out, I’m willing to bet your first worry isn’t whether or not he says fuck a lot.

5) ‘You’re damaging your career options by being vulgar in public.’
This is the one I’ll give some credence to, because it’s true. You won’t ever be able to work somewhere superconservative if you, like I, have a filth-smearing online presence that, in addition to expressing intelligence and good communication skills through a written medium, says fuck sometimes. (And how nice of you, person who isn’t in any way people, to be so concerned).

However–how much money is it worth to you to substitute ‘sugar’ every time someone says ‘shit’ in your novel?

Answer carefully. Your sellout point is a good thing to know, just like your safeword.

I’m mentioning all this because, yes, I get a little tired of fielding it, but also as a word of wisdom for you kids who aren’t sure if ‘sugar’ is the word you’re looking for.

These people who’re telling you it’s ‘disgraceful’ to use a naughty word. These people who’re telling you it’s not what ‘well bred’ people do. These people who, in the least vulgar way possible, are implying that you’re a vulgar piece of shit, and certainly don’t deserve induction into whatever passes for proper society these days:

These people are censors, bigots, and bullies, just the same as the dickhole who cut you off in traffic and called you a cunt. They’re just keeping a G-rating on it, which doesn’t mean it’s any less bullying or censorious. It’s the same ugly thing in a prettier and more self-righteous wrapper. And, again–perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be in such a shiny wrapper when, you know, out and out telling somebody they’re worth less because of their language choices is such an ugly fucking thing.

The choice as to whether you should use shit or sugar is up to you. It is your choice, and yours alone. And it has nothing to do with you, or the Neighbors for a Purer Tomorrow who’re lurking out there, waiting for something new to be outraged by.  You’re not shouting it out to the rooftops, where everyone can hear it–you’re writing it down in a book, where people can choose whether or not they’re exposed.

No. This choice has to do with your story.

Does your long haul trucker say fuck, or fudge? If he says fudge, why? Because, let’s be honest–we all kind of expect a long distance trucker to say fuck. The opposite for a grade school teacher, a pastor, Aunt Agnes with her knitting needles and coke bottle glasses. And again, if they do say fuck: why?

If there isn’t a reason for it, it pulls us out of your story. It reminds us that there’s some little person at the typewriter, plugging away, praying like hell she isn’t (or is!) going to offend anybody. It reminds us that those pious braggarts, those constant offendees, those people whose quavering constitutions are so delicate they can’t even bear the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is saying fuck, are out there.

And they call enough attention to themselves without your help.

So cuss at will, soldiers. Cuss laissez-faire. Because if it’s the right word for your story, it’s the right word, and fuck everybody else. Anything else–any adaption, modification–would make it a lesser story.

And that’s a bigger sin than saying damn every once in a while.

Writing: The Right Words

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Original stock credit to Florian Klauer, via Unsplash. It did not originally say holy shit on it. No, no.

Writing Friday: The Right Words

When I was a little Emily, growing up in the same town I’m sitting in right the hell now, I went to college for English and Creative Writing. (At some point in the not too distant future, we’ll do a blog about my feelings towards the word ‘creative’ when applied to writing. They’re quite strong. They’re not positive.)

It was a stupid decision. Stupid for many reasons. Its stupidity is best encapsulated, perhaps, by this fact: I felt like I spent quite a lot of money for not a lot of education I cared about.

There were some great classes, of course. There always are. The one I’m thinking of in particular was, of all things, an introductory poetry class–the professor, a kind and quiet man, understood words. He understood that, in addition to being pretty sacred baubles, they were also building blocks, skeins of syllables, cloth of many colors cut from rhythm and meter as well as meaning. His class, though it was supposed to cover the basics of poetry, has helped me immeasurably in everyday writing.

Why? Because the lesson he taught is important: words are not sacred. They are not unassailable. Words are merely groups of letters, and when the letters are placed together in just such a way you get rhythm and meter and rhyme and meaning. He taught me: never use fowl when chicken is right for the occasion. Or is it a poultry situation?

Forget rhyme for a second. We’re not poets here. But think, if you will, about the different flavors of those words: fowl, which sounds vaguely French but is I think Dutch in origin (not sure, and too lazy to Google), the refined French flavor to poultry or pullet, the Anglo Saxon blunt-fuckery of chicken. You chase a chicken in a yard. You wring its neck, chop off its head. You might also eat chicken, traditional meat of the poor–your child eats chicken fingers, you get fried chicken from KFC.

A pullet is a handsome little bird. Pullets roost happily in a well-insulated henhouse, are shown off by proud owners at country fairs. And a fowl is a little strange, a little out-of-context: a fowl from the sky, fowl as general birdhood. Fowl as the impersonal expanse of a bird’s pale flesh. Poultry can be eaten, or massed for slaughter in some remote location.

My professor told us a story (an old one, and one of questionable authenticity, but a very good example). When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the Saxon people were pushed into lower life-positions, peasants who farmed the land and served the new Norman gentry. Thus, a lot of our table-words for meat have a French flavor to them: pork, beef, mutton. The Normans, when eating them, would speak of them in their own language.

But the words for the animals, for the living creatures who were slaughtered and petted and raised and made much of, are pure Anglo-Saxon: pig, sheep, cow. Because the servants, speaking their own language amongst themselves, weren’t going to slaughter the master’s mutton, but their very own sheep.

Using the right word in English is vital. And it’s not as easy as going to a thesaurus and looking up synonyms–frankly, if I had my way, every thesaurus in the country would be burned, and their users would be left reading desperately, intent on developing proper language skills.

Would you say beef and cow are the same thing? No, not really. But they mean the same thing, right? More or less? Sort of?

No. They’re different words. They mean different things. At least, now they do.

I mention this because, goddammit, jubilant isn’t the same thing as happy. Nor are elated, thrilled, blithe.

They are different fucking words, and they mean different fucking things.

Here are the three steps to Using The Right Word Every Time:

1) Read.
It’s the only real way to increase your vocabulary, and increasing your vocabulary is crucial to Using The Right Word Every Time. Reading gives you the opportunity to find new words in a multilayered context: yes, you can check the dictionary to get an idea of what that word means, but how is it used? Happy and blithe, for instance, have a nice wholesome context very often. (F’rinstance–did you know ‘happy’ was originally closer in meaning to ‘lucky’? If you’ve ever wondered why happy looks so similar to things like happen and happenstance, something to think about). Elated and jubilant are more grand and heraldic in nature than a mere happy. Returning heroes are jubilant, their lordly fathers on their thrones elated. Thrilled has a delightful hint of sarcasm to it (think of the last time you told somebody you were thrilled. Were you? Really? Or were you pissed off?)

2) Listen.
Maybe this is a synesthete thing, but I don’t think so. Listen to your goddamn words. What sounds like the thing you’re trying to convey? Jubilant sounds like golden clouds, triumph, and stout wide strength, thanks to that first syllable. Elated is sharper and narrower, courtesy of that nasal a. Blithe, due to that prissy th and that old-school bl, sounds like a Victorian picture postcard. This might seem a little woo-woo to you, a little more poetry than novella, but trust me, it’s important. Your readers hear your words as they read them, at least a little. And if they don’t sound good, nobody’s going to believe your story.

3) Work.
Learn something about your language. No, not so you can sound clever at cocktail parties.

English, maybe more than any other language on Earth up until the advent of global culture, is created largely of borrowed words. It’s Germanic–nominally. We’ve got those crunchy Anglo-Saxon derivatives, like shit and piss and spit, for most of our bodily functions. But we’ve gotten a lot of Latinate language from French and the brief Roman occupation of England, as well as Spanish from our neighbors to the South here in America (who’ve, after all, been speaking the Romantic language for over four hundred years). A few oddjob words here and there, like bazaar and alchemy and gauze and, interestingly enough, alcohol, from Arabic. Sprinkle in some Dutch, Russian, etc., etc. A lot of our Arabic words tend to deal with medicine or trade. Perhaps because, while we were busy applying leeches and balancing the four humors, the Arabs had crazy things like medicine and science.

It’s important to know where your words come from, long story short. Linguistic history is, for me at least, the true history of a people–where they’ve been, where they’ve borrowed, where they’ve fallen short. And it’s important to consider, as exemplified in the sheep/mutton example, how different word origins make words feel to us. You’ll find, if you look up enough of them, that words of different origins often (but not always!) have distinct sounds. Beautiful, for instance, is more or less Latinate. As are pulchritudinous, fascinating, attractive. Whereas lovely and pretty come from Germanic roots. Don’t those words feel different, sound different? Wouldn’t you use them in different contexts?
So no, using the right word isn’t easy. No, there isn’t a ‘trick’ to it. There’s just a lot of work.

Fascinating, fascinating work.

A final note:

The purpose to increasing your vocabulary and learning how it works isn’t, and should never be, learning bigger words. If you use pulchritudinous where pretty suffices, I’m going to assume you’re:

A) Sixteen
B) Studying for the SATs, and
C) Doing a very good job. Gold star for you.

However, big fat F on keeping me involved in the world of your story, and not taking me out of it with a knotty chickenshit unnecessary word. Because the point of all this, in a writing context, is the same as all of my other posts: you want to make your story believable, its world livable. And you can’t do that with the wrong language.

It would be like trying to knock in a nail with a screwdriver, or raising a barn made out of styrofoam. The results won’t be pretty, because you aren’t properly prepared for the job. Stories are made up of words, and before ANYTHING else, words are your tools and your building blocks.

So respect them, and learn something about them, before you start talking about plot holes and info dumps and all the other shibboleths that riddle the online writing community.

Thanks,
EFR

PS–I know, I know. But I haven’t gotten to say ‘shibboleth’ in years. And it is, again, EXACTLY what I mean.

Want to take a little time and play around with words? Here’s the cream of the internet crop:

Profanity Listand you thought it was easy. Over eighteen thousand naughty words–see if you can add a fresh ‘un.
The History of English–though I’m little inclined to trust anyone who uses the word ‘rollicking’, this is very informative, fun, comprehensive, etc. I’m not a serious etymologist, obviously–I’d be making more money if I was–but damn, they’re right, it’s entertaining.
Fun With WordsWhile the design of this website maddens me, it’s a great collection of all the fun shit you can do with English. Especially nice if you, like me, enjoy terrible puns.
9 Dirty Everyday Words–While I can’t speak directly for the accuracy here, it gave me tee-hees until I queefed glitter and dried remnants of My Little Ponies. Also useful if you ever wondered about the origin of ‘bollocks’, which some of us have, for entirely too long.