Thursday, January 12, 2012

Words

Recently, I was hornswoggled coerced invited to play Words With Friends, which, if you haven't heard of it, is an on-line Scrabble game, where you play against another opponent. As time sucks go, it probably has slightly more redeeming value than Angry Birds.

I also subscribe to the "Word of the Day" from Dictionary.com, and I get a random vocabulary word in my email each day. I post these to my Facebook wall, and some of my readers over there have fun coming up with alternative definitions.

Now, knowing obscure words might help when you're playing Scrabble. (Especially if you're savvy enough to understand the strategy of using all those bonus scoring spots on the board—I'm not.) And what about knowing the meaning of those Words of the Day?

Other than playing Words with Friends, am I really going to get a lot of mileage out of words like Xi, or Qat, or Tench? To be honest, a lot of times I just put words I've "made up" out there to see if the game's dictionary approves them. I've been surprised many times. And how would I work in words like paregmenon, heterotelic, or anamnesis into my stories? (Side Note: I'm typing this post in Word, and it's giving me lots of red squiggly lines.)

As writers, aren't we supposed to know lots of fancy words? Maybe, especially if we're writing literary fiction. And even in genre, or commercial fiction, knowing a variety of words can keep us from having to repeat the same word over and over.

But…

If our readers aren't familiar with the words, we've lost them. If the words aren't appropriate to the characters, we're pulling readers out of the story. I remember very early on when I was learning the craft, I had a young character trapped in a dark basement. My scientific background came into play as I tried to figure out what he would do in that situation. However having him "walk transects of the room seeking a method of egress" brought forth immediate and vehement protests from my beta readers. Transects? Egress? What teenaged boy would know or think in those terms?

Another example: The protagonist in a best-selling author's series had a vocabulary which didn't seem to ring true to the background the author provided--until the 4th book (or so) into the series where the character explained having spent long hours in the library as a child. For me, it would have made the first 3 books clearer had the author tossed that tidbit out there in book 1, because until that point, it sounded a lot more like the author talking than the character.

Lesson learned. Vocabulary has to be true to your POV character. And even if your character is an erudite professor of literature, or ancient history, or physics, if you have him speaking in his own jargon, it's probably not going to fly with your readers unless you make sure it's in context and somehow explained in the scene.

Tomorrow, we're going globe-trotting with my mom.

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17 comments:

Donnell said...

Well said and explained, Terry. My daughter plays Words with Friends. She's addicted!

DeAnna said...

Oooh, you should take a look at A Word a Day with Anu Garg: http://wordsmith.org/awad/

I got one of my favorite words that way--borborygmus.

Terry Odell said...

Donnell -- beware! Your daughter is right! (But if you discipline yourself, you don't have to spend a lot of time at it. My cousin and I had a game that lasted about a week. One or two moves a day.)

DeAnna - another source! Thanks. That's a great word.

Paul McDermott said...

Very astute observations, Terry, with which I wholeheartedly concur...

Sometimes the opportunity to utilise a sufficiency (or even a superfluity!!) of "Sunday words" is irresistible...!!

The richness of the English language gives those of us who are privileged to claim it as our native tongue an incredible tool which I (personally) take enormous satisfaction in using.

I recently had the pleasure of proofreading a piece of historical fiction, set in the late 19th century. The dialogue AND the narrative descriptions were thoroughly 'authentic' and had a genuine "feel" of belonging to 19th Century England: the author had chosen every word carefully, and the Vocabulary of the extract made it a real joy for me to read.

We all need to stand back once in while, and ask ourselves: "Is that word I just used REALLY he best/most appropriate/effective in the context of that sentence ...?"

Terry Odell said...

Good points, Paul. Nothing like reading a piece of historical fiction and finding 21st century vocabulary in there. Our job as writers is to find the best words to use, as you so wisely pointed out.

Kathy said...

Good points Terry and I play Words with Friends as well. I am often amazed at the words it allows. I go through and play all the ones people have played and it is my move. Then I'm off to something else.

Kathy said...

Oh and when I was writing a historical I was joking with my aunt how I was trying to watch not slipping in modern things.

Judy said...

I agree that vocabulary MUST fit your POV character. Some great food for thought here. Thanks!

EileenHamer said...

Absolutely! I recently started a book where the protagonist perused a book, then exited the room. She was not supposed to be a literate person . . . I didn't finish the book. When the author's more interested in showing the extent of her vocabulary than in fitting the words to her character, I lose interest fast.

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I'm the perfect reader for historicals, because unless something is blatantly wrong, I'm clueless as to what the 'rules'of society are, much less whether the details are right. But that doesn't mean authors should avoid getting in right. Avid historical readers DO know all that stuff!

Judy - thanks - if what I've learned helps others, then I'm not simply taking up space here.

Eileen - I'm a firm believer that the author has no business being visible on the page.

Karen C said...

I wish more authors remembered they need to keep the reader in mind. I really hate reading books when I have to keep my dictionary close - easy to lose interest....

Terry Odell said...

Karen, I agree. Even though my e-reader has a built in dictionary, I hate to be pulled away to look something up.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good points here, Terry!

A friend of mine tried to pull me into Words with Friends. :) I just said no! Had a feeling it might be addicting...

Anonymous said...

I learn new words in context. I rather like it when an author throws fanciful words at me. Either I will figure out the meaning or I will look it up in a dictionary. I agree that vocab has to be consistent and understandable for particular characters' speech and thought. However, I urge authors not to underestimate their readers' abilities to interpolate the meanings of new words.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - at least with WWF, you don't HAVE to make plays until your schedule permits.

Anon. Yes, context is a valuable tool. I figure if I get the 'gist' that's enough. Of course, I suppose I should look things up to make sure I wasn't totally off base. There are a few best-selling authors who make me feel like they're talking down to me. A lot depends on the genre, too.

When I volunteered for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando, their stats said 1 in 5 adults read at or below the 5th grade level. Not sure what the national stats are.

Leona Raisin said...

As a sometimes writer myself, Words With Friends seems a more appropriate time-waster than, say, television. My manuscript has fewer pages being churned out. But I can even justify my TV time as long as I can tie it back to wordplay. Blame my love of Scrabble, WWF and TV trivia for spawning my blog and the word game that resides therein. Still, all these distractions keep me away from my writing.
Leona

MSBjaneB said...

As a WWF addict, I found the pro of this games is improving my vocabulary, the obvious con is the time spent playing!