Just words

This post is going to be about words, starting with Maddie’s question on November 11, 2010: I have a little spell-checker on my computer. It also tells me the average reading level of the stuff that I’m writing, and it’s not huge. Is it always necessary to add in bigger words, or is it ok to not use huge words as long as your plot is suitably twisted? (i.e., I don’t want to be the next Dr. Seuss, although I do love his stuff… :D)

My advice is to ignore the reading level on your spell checker, because it doesn’t tell you much that’s meaningful. Word length and reading level based on word length and average number of words in each sentence may determine the age of the child who can read a particular book, but they have nothing to do with the age of the child who should read it. Animal Farm (middle school and up) by George Orwell is a perfect example. I read it when I was in third or fourth grade and thought it an interesting story about animals. The allegory flew over my head until my older sister let me in on the secret.

In the case of Animal Farm, it’s not a matter of plot twists either. The story is straightforward, no subplots that I remember; the book is only 128 pages long. What’s sophisticated is the meaning.

Another example is What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman, which is a miracle of a book. It’s told from the POV of a nine-year-old boy. Very simple story, also no plot complications that I recall, only 126 pages long, yet it’s a young adult book, definitely not for actual nine-year-olds. In this case, the reason is the subject, which is child abuse.

I like short words (and long and medium-size ones). Short words have power. And so do short sentences. They’re punchy. Sometimes we can get a good rhythm going with short sentences – and sometimes with long.

POV is another determinant of the sort of vocabulary that best suits a story. In What Jamie Saw, the author was limited to words that Jamie would know, and he wasn’t a child vocabulary prodigy. If you’re telling your story from the POV of a child or someone without much education, you’re stuck with a limited vocabulary. But even if your POV character is erudite, she may prefer not to show off her erudition. She may like to be simple and clear, even when she’s in a complicated situation or dealing with a difficult subject, like chaos theory. The sesquipedalian word may come to her only when it’s the sole way to express an idea.

When you’re using a third-person narrator, it’s up to you and whatever serves your story.

When I’m reading I like to come upon a few words to look up, but I don’t want to need my dictionary three times in every paragraph. When I write I don’t dumb down my vocabulary for kids. If they need to go to the dictionary more often than I enjoy as a reader, that’s okay. They’re kids, and their vocabularies need building. On the other hand, I don’t want to write an impenetrable book. Sometimes I help by making a meaning clear through context.

A convoluted plot is unconnected to word choice. You can tell a complex story using simple language or six-syllable vocabulary. I don’t think most third graders will be able to follow a tale that weaves together six subplots, for example. Adults will get lost too in a Byzantine plot. I will, and I’ll give up unless I’m completely in love with some element of the story.

Moving along to a related topic, Mysterygirl, Alexandra, April, and Marissa, all posted comments about words that were banned in school. Some teachers called these “jail” words, mostly simple words. Mysterygirl gave examples: good, bad, said, sad, mad, happy, grumpy, big, small, medium, love, calm. One of April’s teachers hated nice.

I sympathize with these teachers, who want to develop their students’ vocabularies. If this is what your teacher is demanding, I suggest going along in your school work. I’d say go your teachers one better. Wow them. For example, instead of grumpy, give them irascible, peevish, querulous, vinegarish. Use your thesaurus. It will help all your writing. For the heck of it, try for words your teachers will have to look up – unless they have no sense of humor.

After you blow your teacher away with your fab vocab, you might ask for an exemption from her rule just for you, unless everyone in your class will hate you. But if you don’t get the exemption, tough it out.

And in the stories you’re not writing for school, forget about jail words and words that are allowed to run free. The dictionary is your pasture. Graze at will on the weeds along with the grass and the flowers. Be a free-range writer.

Out of curiosity I just did a word search on the word nice in one of my Princess Tales, Cinderellis and the Glass Hill. In that book I used nice eleven times, which I was aware of and did deliberately. The main characters in this book are simple people, even though one of them is a princess. Nice appears in the thoughts of the two mains. It’s what they’re both looking for. I used pleasant once, amiable not at all. Amiable wouldn’t have fit the tone I’d set.

Having said that, I am alert to word repetition when I write and when I edit. If I think I’m overusing a word, I write it in a list above my story, and when I’m done, I search for the word. If it is showing up too much, I hunt for synonyms to substitute. My editor is amazing at picking up word repetition too. She catches the ones I miss.

Obviously there are words we have to use again and again. Prepositions are unavoidable, for example, and we can’t do without the appearing a million times.

Marissa’s teacher didn’t let her students use the word said. Again, if you have to listen to your teacher, you have to. But said is a special case, and it should be used repeatedly. I devote an entire chapter to said in Writing Magic. In brief, said (and ask, too) disappear. We see who’s speaking and move on. Substitute words, like exclaim, question, state, just draw attention to themselves and away from the action and what’s being said. What’s more, exclaim and question and query are unnecessary because the punctuation tells us everything. Words like vocalize and express are simply awful, in my opinion.

Sometimes repetition sets up a rhythm that’s pleasing, and sometimes you want to break the rhythm. Sometimes you’re not sure and just have to pick, and sometimes both choices are equal. Aaa! Writing is hard!

Here’s a prompt:

I learned to read on the Dick and Jane books, which were heavy on repetition and low on excitement, but they did the job for me. Below are four sentences from one of the books. I don’t know why each sentence gets its own line within a single quotation:

Father said, “Down, Spot.
Run away, Spot.
You can not go.
You can not go in the car.”

There’s drama here. I wouldn’t want anybody’s father to tell the family dog to run away. Your challenge is to rewrite the dialogue at least three ways, fooling around with vocabulary. Father’s speech can go on for four pages. He can be a vampire if you like or whatever else. Spot can be a talking dog or a werewolf.

If you want to, turn the situation into a story, a novel, a seven-book series.

Have fun, and save what you write!

When a Word

On February 3, 2010 Inkquisitive wrote, I noticed that in Ella Enchanted your characters’ vocabulary isn’t as flowery as what we might find in, say, Shakespeare. I am writing a book for young readers and it is set in a small, fictional kingdom. I tend to think of kingdoms as “way back when” because the monarchy system has fallen out of vogue. So I see my book as a (sort of) period piece and I want the vernacular to reflect that and be believable. However, if this is really going to be a kids’ book, how do I get that “not this day and age” feel without going over the kiddos’ heads? How did you handle this/what was your rationale in Ella?

I used the word wench in Ella Enchanted and Fairest, but I’ve abandoned it, possibly because one of my teachers didn’t like it, possibly because it has a bit of a fake Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe feel to it.  She didn’t like lass either, felt it sounded Scottish.  Lately I’ve substituted girl.  Simple.  Timeless.

Timeless is what I’m going for in my fantasies.  Nobody is going to say LOL or even laugh out loud, dude.  Even the phrase going for sounds too modern in my mind’s ear, although the expression may have been around in Chaucer’s day.

Timeless doesn’t mean formal.  I’m copacetic (not a word I would use in a fantasy fairy tale) with short sentences and even sentence fragments.  I want my characters to feel real, to have thoughts that we can understand today, although most people in actual distant history may not have had inner lives much like ours.  I was particularly aware of this when I wrote Ever, which is set in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia.  I did a fair amount of research, and the lives of people then were vastly different from ours.  If you or I could time travel back then and were imbued with the language, we would still be likely to misunderstand events, actions, meaning, intention at every turn.  Mesopotamian medicine, for example, makes clear that ancient Mesopotamians lacked a modern notion of causality.  On the other hand, they were marvelous mathematicians.

Now take a deep breath and prepare to enter the wonderful world of word geeks.  Some of you may already live here.  I invite all of you to pitch a tent.

When a word seems too modern for a middle ages sort of world, I look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which is expensive but which might be in your local library.  The OED is the authority on etymology, the history of a word.  It provides the first-known written appearance of the word and a selection of later appearances – for each meaning of the word.  I just looked up the word blue and was astonished at all the subtleties of meaning.  Blue as a color first showed up in writing in 1300.  Blue in the sense of feeling unhappy, to my surprise, goes all the way back to 1550.

In an age of general illiteracy, a word may have been used long before anyone wrote it down.  Today, on the other hand, a word could appear in print before anyone spoke it.

I cannot find a really old word for funny.  Ha-ha funny (as opposed to peculiar funny) dates from 1756.  The earliest synonyms for funny began to be used in the sixteenth century, which isn’t yesterday but isn’t medieval either.  I’m sure people had senses of humor then, but whatever they called it isn’t in use anymore, or I missed it.  Of course I use the word funny, and any of the others, because they don’t ring new in my ears.

The OED has come out with a thesaurus, which I’m salivating over, but it’s not in CD form yet.  It’s in two huge volumes, and I’d guess the print is as tiny as bacteria.

If you don’t have easy access to the OED, your ordinary paper dictionary won’t have space for etymology, but there are pretty good free online alternatives.  This site is very good:  http://dictionary.reference.com/.  Once you’re there, ignore the ad and type in the word you’re interested in and you’ll get to a new screen with the definitions.  Below them you’ll find word origins for various meanings of the word.  There’s also this online etymology dictionary:  http://www.etymonline.com/, which doesn’t have every word but is still helpful.

Please don’t think I check the age of every word I use.  I only look when a word feels too recent.  Sometimes I’m right.  Often I’m wrong and astonished.

As far as reading level goes, I don’t worry much about that.  We are doing kids a kindness when we introduce unfamiliar words.  As a child my vocabulary grew through reading (still does).  If I came across a word I didn’t know, I asked a parent or looked it up or, most often, guessed at the meaning through context.  By the time I’d seem a hard word several times in different books I’d sussed out a working meaning.

Of course you don’t want your writing to be impenetrable, so don’t pack your sentences with abstruse, recondite, cryptic, esoteric morphemes!  (I had to go to the dictionary for some of those.)  Anyway, the excitement in a story is more important than vocabulary level.  If your story has hooked your reader, he will persevere even if you lob a few morphemes his way.  Ella Enchanted was recommended as a book for reluctant readers despite its sometimes tough vocabulary.

You also don’t want to throw in anachronistic (not of the time) technology.  Obviously no cell phones in the middle ages.  Messengers undoubtedly, but what else?  For example, when did people start to use carrier pigeons?  I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure I could find out online in a minute or two.

There are daily-life books that cover just about every period.  For my mystery novel, I primarily used three sources:  Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies;  Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman; Castle by David Macaulay, a kids’ book and the best of the three in its limited topic, the construction and architecture of a thirteenth century castle.  All of these are fine (if not fascinating) for readers from upper elementary on up.  Anything I couldn’t find in my books I supplemented with online searches.  And, since I was writing fantasy and not historical fiction, I felt free to invent when I couldn’t discover a fact or when the fact didn’t please me or suit the story.  Still, it is quite wonderful to have enough of a sense of a long-ago place to be able to imagine dressing for the day, walking down a street, entering a house, shopping at a market.

Here’s a prompt:

Without much research, maybe just online sources, write a scene at a meal that includes family and guests.  Include description and dialogue.  The topic of conversation can be love or politics or duty of a child to a parent or anything else.  Write a scene from two or more of the choices below.  You can introduce fantasy elements, but set the scene during these time periods:

• pre-history or the very beginning of written history;

• ancient Egypt;

• a non-Western society before Europeans arrive;

• before the sixteenth century;

• during the late nineteenth century;

• the 1950s;

• today.

Notice how your language changes as you time travel.  Have fun, and save what you write!