You probably thought the title was a good thing, right? We're writers; it's our job to be creative with language. Well, there's creative, and then there's silly, and the line between them can be surprisingly fine. Today I'm going to talk about several aspects of creative language use that can bite you on the bum, as we say in Australia, a country where pretty well everything bites you on the bum, and it's usually fatal. Like so many chemical compounds, creativity with language can be therapeutic in small doses and violently toxic in large ones.
|All our creatures are deadly. Even the cute ones.|
Thing One - Far-fetched Synonyms.
|A rose by any other name is pretentious.|
I think it was Stephen King who decried the habit some writers have of writing with a thesaurus at their elbow. If you have to look up another word, he said, you ought to be using the one you first thought of. Or words to that effect. I think it was King who said this, in his valuable book On Writing, but my regular readers will know I'm too lazy to go and look it up. If it was someone else, and you know who it was, please feel free to correct me in the comments below.
For what it's worth, I agree with King on this. Here's an example I just saw in a piece of writing, by a person whom I am not going to name.
"...she could feel his nocturnal growth press against the small of her back."
Now, I'm sure we all know what body part is designated by 'nocturnal growth', don't we? But, good heavens, why do this? Why? It conjures up images of some rapidly-expanding tumour, and is altogether vile.
To be fair, of course, this person writes what he probably calls 'erotica', a genre that is famous for coining cutesy nicknames for body parts. Love tunnel. Nub. Chocolate Rosebud. Eeewww. This is one of the main reasons I can't stand reading this genre. If you're raunchy enough to write explicit sex scenes, surely you aren't such a shrinking violet that you're going to faint at the word 'penis', and that goes for your readers as well.
It's not just porn writers who are guilty of this kind of thing, though. We see a great deal of it in magazine articles, particularly in fashion magazines. The safest way is to avoid it entirely. If you mean 'dog', don't say 'canine quadruped', and if you mean 'beer' don't say 'amber fluid'. Etcetera.
Thing Two - Coining New Words.
Remember that scene in Twin Peaks, where the Man From Another World says, 'I want all of your garmanbozia'? It was wonderfully effective, BUT they still had to explain the word in the subtitles. In a book, you do not have subtitles, so if you are going to make up a word, you will have to make the meaning clear in the context.
There are valid reasons for making up completely new words. Science Fiction and Fantasy novels spring to mind. If you are going to write about something that is not a thing in the real world, you will have to call it something, after all. When you do, though, you must accept the burden that goes along with it, that of making the meaning clear in the context, without doing something clumsy like footnotes, having characters ask patently artificial questions, etc. Tanith Lee does this rather well in her book, Don't Bite The Sun. She also provides a glossary of her words at the back, but this isn't really more than a convenience; the meanings of her words are clear enough. If your glossary is actually necessary, this should be enough to tell you to cut way back on your word invention. Readers of fiction do not want to be flicking back and forth to look things up. It's annoying enough in scholarly works.
Thing Three - Inappropriate Word Use.
Now I'm not talking about swearing or anything like that here. There are situations where a word can be used in a way that's prima facie inappropriate to its dictionary meaning, to add life and colour. Here's an example I often see:
She bent down and swooped up the child.
Used just once, 'swooped' adds the feeling of that sudden, fluid motion as the woman picks up the child. However, be warned. If you use this expression constantly, not only will it lose its impact, but you will give your reader the impression that you just misspelled 'swept'.
This is what I meant about medicine and poisons - a little of it goes a long, long way, and if you overdo it, it will bite you. Even if you don't make your reader think you've confused two words, after a while, things like this get very, very irritating.
Similar to this is having a love affair with a particular word, to the extent where it hurts you. The word 'smirk' springs to mind. Quite frequently, I see this word overused to death, and used as though it were a synonym of 'smile'. It isn't. Be careful with this, and similar, words.
Thing Four - Verbing Nouns or Adjectives.
'Verbing' is quite a thing nowadays. We are constantly bombarded with verbed nouns in the business world, where pony-tailed consultants babble endlessly about 'conferencing' and the like, and 'verbing' has come to be very much looked down upon.
Back when I first encountered the concept, though, it was rich and strange. I still remember it; it was in one of Hugh Cook's novels. He spoke of a fighter 'nimbling' across the floor. Later in the same book, he mentioned someone 'greeding' into a plate of food. I found this technique absolutely captivating, and on occasion I've used it myself. It injects a jolt of colour, and provided it's used sparingly, I'm a big fan of it. However, the key word here is 'sparingly'. If you overdo this one, you are going to look like one of those pony-tailed briefcase warriors, and nobody wants that.
So, there you are. Four powerful techniques, and four opportunities to look like a massive prat if you don't use them wisely.