Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Word About Words, and a Small Defense of the Thesaurus

You know the one thing worse than some hack giving people advice on writing? Some hack giving people advice on writing even though said hack has never published anything significant, that’s what. So blame it on my inherent, college-ingrained sense of self-worth that I’m going to talk a little bit about word choice today; but hey, if Harold Bloom can go off and declaim writers even though he’s never done real writing in his life, then so can I!

This post began a few weeks ago when I, on a whim, bought a book by a newish author who shall not be named--we'll bestow this author the obnoxious moniker of Author-in-question, for anonymity's sake. 

I try to do this--that is, buy books from relative unknowns--when I have a couple of dimes to rub together, and as an English major said times are usually few and far between. But it was a mass-market paperback and one day when I get my book deal I would want some young scamp to take a chance on my book, so with the hopes of deferred karmic recompense I bought this novel and settled down to read it…

…and couldn’t finish it.

Question: am I ruined by quality? Or—let’s be honest here—perhaps not quality, but pretension? Am I forever doomed to hold texts to a higher standard simply because I’ve been exposed to the highest of the high so many times? Maybe, yes. There’s a popular misconception about all art nowadays that everyone’s opinion is correct and that a critic’s opinion—the voice of someone who has far more experience with a respective medium—holds no more weight than a yokel who sees one movie or reads one book a year. And while Art is, of course, subjective, and while no one can say whether someone’s opinion is “right,” it certainly is true that someone’s opinion can be, shall we say, more informed.

If I was say, a plumber, and some commodities broker hired me to fix his bathroom, and then started lecturing me on what he thought was wrong and how I should fix it, I would probably be pretty miffed, right? Maybe would say something along this lines of how I was trained to do this and have experience at it and you don’t? No one would question that. But someone saying that they might have more insight or a wider perspective on art because they’ve studied it for two decades gets lambasted for being pretentious, esoteric, and haughty.

Now it doesn’t help that a lot of people who say they have insight and perspective are pretentious, esoteric, and haughty—but the point still stands. Roger Ebert’s not going to be impressed by the same movie someone who’s watched three movies in their lifetime will be. Doesn’t make the latter wrong for liking a movie, just without a wider perspective.

PICTURED: Pretension.
With that being said, what I’m about to say here is entirely in line with the classic English Major syndrome, that is a focus on language at the expense of other aspects of the novel. And the sad part is that the plot of the novel in question is rather interesting. Neat characters and dynamics, a sort of Borgia-esque internecine can’t-trust-anyone family scheme, cool stuff. Yet I still couldn’t finish, and the entire reason I couldn’t was word choice.

This is why I ponder whether over-exposure to literature has sort of ruined me for the average genre milieu. Would someone who hasn’t studied texts for years not be able to finish a book just because of word choice? Certainly the book is well-known enough to be read, so obviously someone doesn’t care, but why do I?

We have the make a distinction here: by word choice, I don’t necessarily mean “writing.” Author-in-question's writing is serviceable. Nothing special, but it does its work and sometimes comes through with splashes of latent ability. It’s not the writing as a whole that’s in question here. It’s how the author specifically moves along and describes character actions.

In an average two-spread, the main character “stiffens” in reaction to outside stimuli an average of three to four times. She stiffens to bad news, to unexpected news, to unexpected turns of events, to suspicion, to physical contact, to emotional contact. She stiffens in the cold night air and stiffens in the hot summer sun. She stiffens by land or by sea. She stiffens when alone or when sleeping with a god.

Of course that’s not the only instance. The main character and most of the supporting characters have a tendency to look surprised, be surprised, stay surprised. And they’re smiling. All sorts of smiles of all shapes and sizes and intentions. She smiled menacingly. She smiled mischievously. She smiled happily. She smiled sadly. She smiled with treachery  in her eyes. She grinned—fitfully, remorselessly, bathykolpianly. I made it through two thirds of the book reading about the variations and different kinds of smiles, and then I just could not take it any more, and the characters and story—despite being interesting, were not involving enough to make up for it as in, say, the Harry Potter series.

It’s apparent what happened here, starting with the status of Author-in-question, who is not Stephen King, George RR Martin, or even Joe Abercrombie. Undoubtedly, Author-in-question is under weight of both contract and fiduciary concerns. Author-in-question has to keep cranking out books, and has to make a living while doing it. This leads to sloppy and repetitive writing. Author-in-question has cranked out five books in a three year period. That’s tough, guys. That’s very tough. And by no means is it a knock on Author-in-question; I’m not saying that Author-in-question (Note to self: Am really starting to appreciate pronouns. --E) should be “taking the sanctity of the art more seriously” and spending three years making sure every single phrase is unique and eloquent. It’s simply the way it is. To write even a short novel—that is approx. 50,000 words or what NaNoWriMo asks for—takes about a month, and when those are finished they usually aren’t very good. A seventy thousand word novel written at even a quick pace can take two months or three, if you’re lucky. With bills to be paid and contracts to be met, there’s much less time to edit said novel before sending it off to the publishing editors, who aren’t going to call the author and say “Um, you know, is there another modifier we can use here instead of stiffen?”

This leads into the second attribute of this kind of word choice, which is the intractable rule “show, don’t tell,” a saying that pops up so many times in a creative major that they should just emblazon it over the door.  See,  Author-in-question understands that you can’t (or rather, can’t and maintain any credibility) just say, over and over again:

     She felt shock about that news. “I can’t believe the news I just heard!”
     She felt shock about him touching her. “I can’t believe you touched me!”

This is in clear violation of the “show, don’t tell” policy. So instead, the character stiffens. She stiffens in reaction to every shocking turn of events. Or the characters smile/grin. They smile/grin so much that you could replace them with Disney mascots and probably no one would notice. This is all in an effort to find a way to display the characters sudden surprise without “telling” us, but ironically it’s overused to the point that it’s basically what the Author-in-question's doing anyway. “She stiffened” basically becomes a stand in for “she was surprised,” which defeats the whole purpose of saying “She stiffened” in the first place. 

Question: how could Author–in-question have fixed this problem?

Answer: I don’t know if Author-in-question could.

Writing is hard, people, as I have elucidated in previous posts, and it’s especially hard when you’re under contract, and especially especially hard when you have bills to pay, and especially especially especially hard when you’re not Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe or David Foster Wallace.

The greatest writers somehow create an atmosphere without speech modifiers, but where you understand how the characters are speaking anyhow. A sort of tacit adverb. Which is what “stiffening” in the case of this novel amounts to. It’s an adverb by another name. To wit:

I stiffened. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”

Is just a different way of saying.

“That’s not a nice thing to say,” I said, surprised/angry/confused.

And the true geniuses out there find ways to make the dialogue work without over-reliance on these types of modifiers. They use them, but as a tool and not a means to lean on to describe character action without violating the inviolable “show, don’t tell.”

But this author, and 99% of all authors/writers/pretenders (the last one including yours truly), don’t have the luxury of such an inherent grasp of language and cadence.  Instead, we have to make do with other tools and tricks of the trade, and one of the most overlooked is the thesaurus.

PICTURED: Making a comeback.
The thesaurus has really gotten a bad rap in recent memory. It used to be a go-to tool for people concerned about word choice, but too many pedants ruined it. Now it’s almost anathema to use a thesaurus, because, of course, people who do are trying to impress others. Or don’t have the chops to come up with words on their own, and no writer should admit that they can’t come up with words on their own.

Of course, most writers can’t come up with words on their own, not at will, not in the manner Saul Bellow can, and in this way a thesaurus can prove invaluable.

That’s not to say it isn’t a delicate situation to use one, so be forewarned. Because you should not aspire to subsist in the comportment of individuals who utilize the lexicon in regard to every particular utterance transcribed to papyrus; those are the people who ruined the thesaurus to begin with. But when you’re writing and you discover that you’ve used the word “stiffened” to describe character reaction for the fiftieth time? There are worse things to do than pop open a thesaurus, even if just to inspire another turn of phrase, or a means to get across what you’re saying in a different and perhaps more effective way.

Stephen King, in On Writing, advises that you should use the first word that comes to your head, if it’s vivid and descriptive. And while that’s for the most part true, a lot of people eschew the second clause. Sometimes a word pops into our heads, and it’s adequate—but we know it’s not getting across the full oomph of what you’re trying to imply. It’s a subtle nudge in the back of a writer’s head that the word they’re using, while it gets the point across, doesn’t quite hammer it home.

For example, say you’re writing a character whom you want the Reader to know is an inveterate, creepy skeeze. You do this through dialogue and action. And so you have him say:

“That dress is very becoming on you,” he said, smirking.

Now certainly this line characterizes this guy as a schmuck at best. But that’s not what you’re going for. You want a creep factor too. You want the Reader not only wary of the character, but to possess a specific type of wariness. A smirking guy commenting on a woman’s clothing is something a douchebag you need to watch out for would do. But it’s not getting across the creepiness factor—and you’re drawing a blank. You know there’s a better word for this, but you can’t think of it. Don’t worry. It happens. So you open up your thesaurus and—

Bam! Perfect!

“That dress is very becoming on you,” he said, leering.

Both words mean basically the same thing; but one is stronger than the other, and implies something totally different. Now, the guy’s not just a worthless playboy, but a worthless playboy who also carries an insidious air of predation. The word “leer” even sounds creepy—off, somehow. It’s a sound an animal would make while being brutally and slowly killed. Much more effective, condenses the narrative, and in one word characterizes the guy perfectly.

So don’t be afraid of the thesaurus if you’re facing deadline and need to get a draft to the editors. Don’t overuse it, of course: that defeats the purpose, and simply using a synonym for “stiffen” every time will become just as noticeable as simply using “stiffen” every time. But as a spice, it’s a great, easy way to vary the writing, and could possibly remind you or inspire a turn of phrase or a means of getting across your characters actions that’s better than anything you’ve thought of before.

Until next time,

Mr. E

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered your blog while looking for info on "Salem's Lot" and I'm really loving your posts. I think there is no shame in not being able to finish a book. Some books are not written well. I don't need to be a published author or even a lit major to feel this way. I forced my way through "Twilight," mostly because I felt that I could only fairly make judgment that it was not a good book by completing the whole thing - in spite of the fact that it became clear within the first chapter that Stephenie Meyer is a terrible writer. The story may be good (though I didn't find it compelling - the dysfunctional relationship and lackluster heroine kind of ruined that for me), but ultimately it was the writing style that made me swear to never pick up another book in the series. Not just the style, but the lack of creativity or any literary finesse. I consider myself a writer, though I am unpublished, and I am an avid reader. I will slog through far more mediocre fare then my brother will. However, I think we all have that line we will draw. Those of us who read more, or think more about reading and writing than others, will have a stronger opinion about whether a book is good or bad, or whether a book should be finished or tossed aside. I don't think this is a bad thing as long as we keep our criticisms to our own opinion without being pompous. There is a lot of crap that gets published. This is less unfortunate than the fact that there is a lot of good stuff that does not get published.