Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bring On the Big Ones

I have this continuing problem when I write. (Well, actually, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I have quite a few.) This one has to do with using “big” words. I love them. As far as I'm concerned, bring on a chimera, the lares and penates, the halcyon days and effluvium and macedoine. Show your characters to be bathetic or benefic, uxorial or oneiric, full of duende, or homunculus.

So readers need a dictionary with the book. So what?

However, editors don’t seem to share this viewpoint. If an editor thinks most readers won’t know what the word means, or (heaven forbid!) doesn’t know the word herself—aayyo, bring on the red pen!

Over the novels I’ve written, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. First, in my naive beginnings, I used all the “big” words I wanted because, well, the authors I read used ’em. Result—the editorial red pens came out. So I caved. Next book—I tried not to use big words. Book after that—I tried a second time. More editorial pens. So next book—I went a little lighter on the words again. Back and forth, back and forth.

Why am I thinking about this issue now? Because the last book I completed, Violet Dawn, has some interesting words in it. They didn’t get flagged during the editorial rewrite stage, ’cause that focuses more on the big stuff. But next up (in about 10 days), I face the track changes stage. This is where the Big E (editor, if you must ask) flags words and phrases—you know, the sentence to sentence stuff. I’m afraid some of these words are gonna get flagged.

Guess what. This time I’m goin’ down fightin’.

Well, sheesh, “big” is a relative term anyway. Does it mean a certain number of syllables? If so, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would certainly be considered a big word. But everybody knows that word. (Don’t you? Suddenly, I’m wondering about you young ’uns.) Or does “big” mean not number of syllables, but whether most people would know the meaning? Take nidus, for instance. Only two syllables. But how many readers would know what it means? (A breeding place; a place where ideas originate—usually negative connotation).

Perhaps we should use the term “unusual.” Meaning not everyone who reads the word is gonna know it.

I don’t want to use unusual words for the sake of unusual words. I want to use them because they happen to be the perfect word for the circumstance. Or perhaps I’ve used all the synonyms and don’t want to repeat. Still, I compromise on some of my effeteness. I try to use only a few unusual words per book. Figure maybe that’ll keep me under the Big E’s red pen radar.

Editors aren’t the only ones who give me grief over this issue. My own family can be pretty doggone hard on me as well. There was one phrase in Color the Sidewalk for Me (back in the day when I wasn’t killing people off with every book) that made it past the Big E, but sure set my mother off when she read the manuscript. Upon returning to her home town just as dark is falling, the main character is gazing upon it from a distant hill: "The buildings and machinery of the lumber mill built by my great-grandfather jutted into the sky above the riverbank, boldly silent against a scrim of nascent stars."

"What on earth is a 'scrim of nascent stars'?" mom demanded.

"Oh, you know. When the stars are just coming out, and they're not fully formed yet, 'cause the sky's still half-dark and half-light."

"Well, why didn't you say so?"

"Um. I did."

"No, you didn't; you said 'scrim.' What'd you say 'scrim' for?"

"Because," I was sinking lower and lower in my chair at this point, "I sort of wanted to sound lyrical and, uh, poetical, and, well, you know."

"Well, what you sounded is misunderstandable. Nix it!"

Naturally, being the independent soul that I am (don't EVER tell me what I HAVE to do), I left the phrase in. While that phrase will go down in our family annals as testament to my viscid vocabulariousness, it does, indeed, appear in the novel.

The funny thing is, now I can’t even remember what “unusual” words I incorporated in Violet Dawn. I just have these memories of using a few words and thinking, “Drat, this word is perfect. Hope I get to keep it.”

I figure if the word can pretty much be understood in the context, what’s the big deal? So a reader’s eye snags on a word? This never bothers me when I’m reading. Quite the contrary. I’ll think, oh, cool, new word, and I’ll run for the dictionary.

What say you?

Happy Thanksgiving, all. I will be taking the long weekend off, and will post again Monday.


Dineen A. Miller said...

Hey Brandilyn, I say bring it on! LOL! I get a word a day by email and make a list of words that I like and want to use. It expands my vocabulary, too. I agree. That's what dictionaries are for. Can't wait to read Violet Dawn. Happy Thanksgiving, and may God bless you with rest and peace.

relevantgirl said...

"I'm not alone," I shouted to the quiet universe. And you answered back! :-)

If a person is a reader, then he/she will develop vocabulary. It seems odd to me that folks who read my stuff mention my vocab. To me it seems natural. I'm not out to impress, but as you say, sometimes an unusual word fits like hand in glove. I say, keep enough not to convolute a sentence, but to enhance the reader's joy. I LOVE finding new words that way.

Camy Tang said...

I thought "scrim of nascent stars" was rather neat.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Deborah Raney said...

Oh, I'm LOL at this post because my family gives me the same grief over my writing vocabulary. My dad thought I was showing off by using the word "acquiesce." Come on! Everybody knows that one... Don't they? In honor of my sister, I make it a point to get the word "cacophony" in every novel. And Brandilyn, I'll have you know I beat you to using the word "nascent" (Beneath a Southern Sky, pg. 306, published 2001, if you need proof. LOL!) and my editor said nary a peep. Hey! I'll bet you GOT that word from me?? That does it, I'm using "scrim" in my wip! ;) Great post!

sherri said...

When we're children, we often learn vocabulary by reading. Sometimes we guess the wrong definition, but at least new words keep getting impressed on our brain. Why should we stop learning as adults? Reading is the one place we might encounter a new word or two. (I suppose I learn new vocabulary on TV when I happen to watch it, but most of it won't find it's way into my writing. :-)

BTW, I think scrim is a great word--being from a tech theatre background that line makes perfect sense.


ValMarie said...

I love novels that use the perfect word, even if it's not a word commonly used. I get this feeling of satisfaction when I check out the definition and realize the word is exactly right.

Gina Holmes said...

B.C., love learning some new words in a book. But, remember, if you say them loud enough you'll always sound precocious. :)

I get called on the occassional big word too. My favorite reader will get through a chapter and say, "Zephyr? It stands out like a sore thumb. If you mean breeze, why not say breeze?"

Well, because then I would have to use two words "gentle breeze". She says it sounds, well, precocious. Dum dadalidi dum didali

Karen Wevick said...

Hey, I say keep the words because I trust that you're not going to overdo them so much that the readers will back off. They'll either read over them, getting the meaning of the sentence or look them up. Of course, we're not the most objective forum for the use of the words here. I knew I had come home at my first writer's conference, when I found out that other people packed books first when they travel and read dictionaries.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving and we'll see you back on the final countdown to the birth of our Lord.
God Bless,

Tina said...

I agree with everyone above. I come across a couple of unfamiliar words per one of your novels. Even if I don't run to the dictionary, I get the feeling it was the right word to use. Now, I'm annoyed when I sense an author is trying to sound smart and only sounds pompous. I have never gotten that feeling from your books. I say, fight for those words!

Lynette Eason said...

I'm in agreement. Leave the "big"/obscure words in. Although I'll have to remember never to challenge you to a game of Scrabble should we ever meet! hehehe.

Oh, and I am halfway through Web of it yesterday...

And,'ll finish it today at some point.

And, Brandilyn, I would just like to say that my son and daughter just got an ANT farm! ARGHHH. (For those of you who are reading this post and are confused, you'll understand after you read the book.)


Lynette E

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Oh, my goodness, these comments are killin' me! I'm laughing like crazy.

Deb--You can use 'scrim' in your next book. I'll let you. But if I see 'scrim of nascent stars,' I'm comin' after ya, girl.

Gina--you're too clever. Thanks for picking up on my Mary Poppins schtik. And you being so young!

Lynette--aw, girl, baaaad time for an ant farm in your house. Take long showers.

By the way, anybody know what's happened to Ron? I haven't seen a comment from him in ages.

Domino said...

When I write, I tend to stay away from unusual words because they're not a normal part of my natural language. When I read, I read sentences. If a word stands out from the sentence, it stops the flow of the story and I don't like it. However, if an unusual word (one I don't know) makes sense in context based on knowing the root word or a similar sounding word, I can fly right on without stopping for it. It especially helps if it is onomatopoeic.

So go ahead and use your big funky (sorry, I mean unusual) words. I don't have to know every word if I get the sentence. Most good writers are able to capture my imagination with a few words I don't know.

I wasn't going to comment until after Thanksgiving, but I had to put in my two cents about not stopping the story to find the dictionary.

Now I'm off to eat turkey.

CHickey said...

Um, if I don't know a word, I look it up. You use whatever words you want...just don't overdo it I guess is the trick.

Lynetta said...

I love learning new vocabulary words. I say, put 'em in. :-)

Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Wayne Scott said...

I like having my vocabulary stretched some. SOME. But I think some authors (not you, BC!) sometimes throw big words in for no other reason than to sound more intelligent. Last year I read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Wonderful book (which would explain it winning a Pulitzer), but I have to heartily disagree with the reviewer who called it "An effortless read." Yes, the words were usually perfect in their usage, but I had to keep a dictionary on hand to read the darned thing.

C.J. Darlington said...

Sometimes I find it distracting in a work if the author uses too many unusual words, but I do like to learn new ones. If it's a particularly strange one, I can benefit from having the character muse about the meaning, or even outright explaining what it means (especially if it's one used in their profession). I know there's a balance with that though.

There are times I'll read a piece and surmise the author reads nothing in their spare time but the Thesaurus. Not a good thing. Then other times I'll be reading along and the author uses the correct technical term for an object or part of an object, and I'll be thinking, "So THAT's what it's called." I always enjoy those moments.

Hope everyone has a great and relaxed Thanksgiving!

Nick said...

I loved your blog today, Brandilyn. I sent it around our editorial department and it evoked some great feedback. Most of us would be kind to you as we wield our red pens (and we all loved "scrim of nascent stars"), but two remarks from my colleagues are worth repeating. One said, it's fine to do this, providing you don't break the bubble for the reader. You have the reader buying into your story and you don't want to break the spell, so to speak, by sending them to the dictionary. The other comment I liked (from a copyeditor) was, "I appreciate writers who can make plain words sound like magic."

Happy Thanksgiving!

Becky said...

Some of us not-so-young-'uns even remember dociousaliexpisticfragicalirepus. Hahah!

I love when a piece of writing challenges my vocabulary and makes me think. I don't mind pulling out the dictionary a time or two or three, but Nick is right--I'd rather not have those times come when I'm absorbed in the story. If an unusual word comes in the heat of action, say, then it needs to be clear in context. If that is so, then I say, Sheathe those red pens!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Bonnie Calhoun said...

Ha..LOL this was great...I just kept saying, "I agree," as I worked my way down the page.

I always get that 'mother' type of response from my Pastor. I said he was facetious. His response, "That isn't a word!"

Gina said...

Just had to add my two cents to the gazillion other comments. Is gazillion a BIG word?

With homeschooling my four kids and writing, the only time I have to read is while on the treadmill 2-3 times a week. If I came across “a scrim of nascent stars," I would just SKIM over it and move on. A couple of BIG words wouldn’t bother me if I understood what was going on.

I have a limited vocabulary after eleven or so years of conversing in toddlerese. When I come across the same BIG word several times, I might pull out a dictionary, but it’s frustrating and if an author continues to frustrate me, I probably won’t read them again.

And Brandilyn, there’s no frustration here with me, so I hope you get to keep your BIG words in. And for fun, I might just look them up!

Pammer said...

Oh I read with a dictionary beside me! I absolutely LOVE new words. My kewl words rarely make it past my crit partners. Sometimes I leave them in anyway, but I wonder. After searching for the perfect word it is rather deflating to have to go with something that doesn't quite describe it as well.
Don't worry. I understand you and if I don't I get a dictionary. Then I wow my husband with the new word I learned (he loves words too, lol).
We'll pray you through the edits. :0)


Pammer said...

Happy Thanksgiving!!!