I’ve been thinking about words this week. Why, you ask? Partly because I was reminiscing about the word I invented. ‘Frell’. It means fridge-smell. The otherwise poorly described and elusive smell that develops and pervades in your fridge if it is not cleared in a timely fashion. It can be deployed in adjective and verb form as well (eg, ‘this fridge is frelly’ or ‘my croissant has been frelled’). Personally, I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on yet and I regard its creation as one of my most valued achievements.
Aside from this, I have been considering the use of words in more depth following on from some much-valued feedback that I received on my novel. I will address the value of such feedback in a future blog, but a specific aspect involved the importance of using words effectively and, in particular, not using them when they are not needed. This may sound fairly obvious but do read on as I have not gone completely bonkers.
The more one reads about writers who are just getting started, everyone who critiques them seems to come up with a common observation – that they tend to ‘overwrite’. It is tempting for some to pull out the thesaurus and generate as many complicated and intellectual words as possible, perhaps in the hope that it will add some credibility to their writing. In reality it is more likely to send a reader off course and may have the opposite effect. It is worth noting that fancy words, particularly if not used in the correct context, have the potential to disturb the focus of anyone who is otherwise engrossed in a book. This is liable to bring a reader briefly into the real world again which is not where you want them. This can be at best troublesome for the flow of the book, and at worst catastrophic for the immersion of the reader in the story.
Unfortunately that makes it all the more painful to resist the multitude of cracking words and phrases out there which, if a little more well known, would be really useful. Take the French phrase ‘l’espirit de l’escalier’ for example. It essentially means the act of thinking of a witty comeback after the moment has passed. Quite apart from wishing I was much better at this myself, it is an excellent observational phrase that has real applications in the right situation. Likewise the word ‘Mamihlapinatapa,’ which is used in Chile to describe the look between two people that suggests an unspoken desire, is great and in the right situation could be either quite poignant or even a bit racy.
Needless to say, it would be a bit difficult to surreptitiously fit either of these into the average novel without shattering the unseen barrier between the worlds of the reader and the characters. We are therefore left with far simpler words – but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though I know from experience that these can be overused just as much as the fancier words. My use of the word ‘slightly’ is, as has been pointed out at times, criminal. A character is either jaded or not jaded – a reader is not interested in whether they are slightly jaded. I am currently hard at work trying to cut out unnecessary words from my novel and this is an important point. Anything that is surplus to requirement has the potential to disengage a reader and turn them off whatever story is underlying. The better novels – arguably – are the ones which flow and much of the time a reader will fill in any gaps subconsciously. To spell everything out is to stifle the imagination of anyone following along.
To some extent, this will vary with genre. I would say that the fast-paced crime thrillers will derive most from this minimalist approach. Only the most vital details will need to be written in the relative absence of any unnecessary and extraneous words so as to remove or at least largely avoid obfuscation. (That last sentence was on purpose).
Even the more literary and scene-setting pieces will need to avoid most of the above. So, as good as some words are – defenestrate (to throw someone through a window) being my favourite one ever – I am not sure I will ever get away with using it. Having said that, these words are still worth knowing about. For those of you that know of the ‘Googlewhack’ phenomenon (in which one types two random words into google and receives only one result back excluding word lists), you may be interested to know that several years ago, after reading ‘Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure’, I paired ‘defenestrated’ with ‘clodhoppers’ and scored me my one and only Googlewhack. If that is not using words effectively, then I don’t know what is.