On the use of big words

Short version? Do it.

Long version? Use all the big words your heart desires.

Now here’s the tricky bit: making sure you don’t loose your audience. You want your readers to understand what you say. That’s the most vital part of writing. So, when you use the big, or unusual, words, you want to be understood. Like so many bits of writing advice, this one is so much easier to say than it is to implement. But I’ll do what I can to make it easier.

All you need to do, is the use of context clues. You want your readers to be able to divine the meaning of your fancy words without them needing to stop and pick up a dictionary. Not only are they unlikely to do so, it breaks the flow of your story as they blink down at your word and go, “wait, what?”

Context clues usually comes down to simply rephrasing the word in the same or a following sentence. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“The villain was downright diabolical. He had no respect for children or old ladies, and was frequently seen kicking kittens.”

Now, even if your audience doesn’t stop to look up diabolical to find out that it’s, “of, concerning, or pertaining to the devil” they still got the idea that it’s a bad thing to be.

This may seem simple, or even childish, but it’s one of those little things that can get away from us as writers as we get going. This way, you can pick the word that best fits your situation without worrying that you’ve lost them. You don’t speak down to them, but you also allow people who may not be familiar with the words to continue to read and enjoy your story.

A final bit of advice? Look up the word yourself before you use it. Because, if you’re anything like me, you learned the meaning of words through context clues. And as you see above, they’re great for getting the general meaning across, but things can get lost.

Deep Water Prompt #1267

This is a writing prompt created by deepwaterwritingpromps on tumblr. Hit reply and give it a go!

 

A very small deity lived in my kitchen, in the shape of a praying mantis.

Link to original material here.

Here is my submission to the prompt:

For a time, a very small deity lived in my kitchen, in the shape of a praying mantis. In my defense, didn’t know she was a deity when I rescued her from the ditch. I had been walking home in the rain and looked down to see her clinging with her little arms to a twig barely sticking up above the flow of water. I’d reached down and encouraged her to climb onto my fingers, utterly shocked when she’d climbed on promptly and willingly. In hindsight, that should have been my first clue that she wasn’t what she seemed. She’d clung to me carefully with her pincer arms, and climbed delecately down onto my kitchen counter once I made it home. I didn’t think it terribly odd. Then, she’d held utterly still as I dried her carefully with a cotton swab. I didn’t figure it out then, either. Honestly, I only really started to suspect that something strange was going on with my little house guest refused to leave.

I’d taken her carefully onto my fingertips once the rain had stopped and taken her outside to the bushes outside my home. She wouldn’t climb off. Then, after I’d carefully scraped her off with a leaf, she took wing and landed back on my hand. After five minutes of me trying to get her to stay and her refusing to, I eventually just went back inside. It was only once I’d deposited her back on my kitchen counter that she spoke and I knew for sure that she wasn’t normal.

“This is my temple, and you are my first worshiper. Kneel before me and be blessed.”

My knees gave out in shock. She accepted me on my butt as supplication.

“Be blessed.”

And green obscured my vision.

When my vision cleared, I saw myself as if I was looking in the mirror, sitting on my butt on my kitchen floor. Looking down, my arms were those of a praying mantis. I tried to scream, but only made a strange clicking noise with my mandibles.

My body smiled.

Reply with your own fill for the prompt!

The Danger of Fanfiction

I’ve spoken before about the value of fanfiction. Of the way it allows you to play around in an established world, getting a feeling for the way you want to tell your story, allowing you to craft your author’s voice if you would. But there is more to it than just a medium to allow for expression and learning. There are habits learned in the world of fanfiction that must be unlearned once you begin to cross over in the world of paid publishing.

The first of which is world building. As previously stated, the joy of fanfiction is that it allows for you to ignore world building in favor of characters and relationships. But that means that  you don’t get the experience with world building. This can mean that the worlds portrayed in your original stories lack depth.

The second issue is that you can fail to show the reasons behind relationships. Most fanfiction tends to revolve around the relationships of the characters from the source material. And that’s both expected and fine. But the problem here is that you (and your readers) are already invested in the relationship between the characters – whatever form that relationship takes. This is not the case in original fiction. All the people your readers are meeting are new to them. They have no reason to prefer this person to that, or have any opinion on the relationship between them. You must form the attachment (or antagonism) between the people through your writing. No longer can you assume that you want to people in a romantic relationship and jump straight to the pining. You must make the reader understand the desire and sympathize with it.

The third issue is this strange tendency of having all the interesting things happen off-screen. This is something I’ve seen multiple times by authors who are very good at fanfiction, but their writing looses something in the transition to publishing. When you write within someone else’s playhouse, so to speak, you are operating with a list of things and events that have already occured. Given the nature of fanfiction and that it is assumed that any readers are already familiar with the source material, fanfiction focuses on the things that either happened off-screen or didn’t happen at all but what if they did? This does not translate well to original works. Fanfiction authors get so used to just casually mentioning the interesting things that have happened elsewhere that they forget that readers want to know what those interesting things are.

I’ll make other posts later where I will go into more detail about how to keep an eye out for these problems in your own writing. For now, keep an eye on the content of your story and consider the things you are emphasizing and the things you are de-emphasizing.

Painting a Picture with Words

A common phrase used when speaking about writing, “paint a picture with words” is one of those familiar axioms that holds almost no meaning.

When told to paint a picture with words, some authors can get frustrated – and I don’t blame them. It’s advice about as useless as ‘get good’. Okay, thanks. How?

The problem lies in the format of the advice itself: it’s wrong. Yes, I just went there. You should not be painting a picture with your words. Why? Because a painting is just one of the senses. And the best writing pulls you into the world of the book, immerses you in the story and lore and characters. The best way to do that is to make this world as real as possible.

Now, there is an argument that the painting a picture advice is just a metaphor, since you can’t actually paint with words. Yes, fine. But it still leads you to focus on sight. What about scent? Or touch? What about smell? And yes, taste is important, too. I read a story once, where the main character is being told off by his boss. He’s got a cup of coffee in his hands while this conversation is going on. The author focused on the dialogue, on the way the main character was feeling, on the setting and movements, all those very important things that should not be ignored. But there were a few things that were added that made this scene stick with me ten years later, when I cannot remember the name of the book or the author. They talked about the coffee cup.

The main character felt shame, and while he was listening to his boss rightly chastise him over his actions, he pressed his fingers to the hot ceramic of his cup and felt the slight burn. When she asked him what he had to say for himself, he lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip, focusing for one brief moment on the bitter taste of coffee without sugar, the heat of it in his mouth and down his throat, the smell in his nose. He took just a few seconds to collect himself before answering. It was a very powerful moment for me, because I was able to connect with the main character in a way I’d rarely done before, simply because he took a sip of coffee. It was more than just the main character taking a fortifying sip of coffee – it was a sliver of a moment in which I could recognize the humanity of this person. All because the author described the scent, taste, and feel of this cup of coffee.

These three senses are most often ignored by authors, but the ones who take the time to incorporate them into their stories find them richer and more believable for it.

The Value of Fanfiction

What a controversial topic!

While fanfiction has gained in popularity and notoriety over the years, one thing about it remains: it is still something to be ashamed of. To hide. I find this to be a very sad thing, because I believe that there is tremendous value to be found in the creation and consumption of fanfiction. And that value can be summed up in a single word: practice.

The most common sound bite of advice that a prospective writer can get is to simply write. There are so many successful writers, how-to books, and advice columns that spout this simple idea. When asked, “how do I become a better writer?” these sources inevitably respond with, “just write!” Well, okay then. Write what? Standard answer is, “anything and everything.” While this advice is all some writers need to jump into the deep end and start telling tales, others want a bit more guidance, a little more detailed advice. For those who seek just that little bit more, I submit to you the idea that you should be writing and reading fanfiction.

Fanfiction has such a bad rap, I understand if you are a little bit uneasy or suspicious of this suggestion. But consider the following facts about fanfiction:

  1. There is an established world.
  2. There are established characters.
  3. There is an established plot.

No matter which type of source material you are talking about (and there are a lot!) these three things remain true. Beyond them, there are usually a lot of readers willing to read your stories and then comment on them for free, and fellow authors/readers who are willing to edit (beta) your stories before they are published to help clean them up. You can use this completely free resource to learn the basics of writing and hone your skills.

Do you struggle with keeping characters in character? Write a character study about a particular individual and get the opinions of the readers as to how in character you managed to keep them.

Do you struggle with plot holes? Find a source material with a complicated (or not) plot and ask yourself what if? Then submit it for mass consumption and specify that you’d like the readers to help you find plot holes. I assure you that they will!

Do you struggle with world building? Pick a source material where the world is well developed with lore, and then see what you can do to develop it further. This will also help if you struggle with plot. After all, you  need a reason to talk about all this world building you’re doing, right?

Do you struggle with plot? As I said, all you need to do is ask yourself what if? and go from there. What if this person had died? What if that person had lived? What if the hero had taken the shot instead of sparing the murderer? What if?

Fanfiction is one of the best resources for the developing writer and editor because it allows for the practice of skills without the danger of isolation that leaves us making the same mistakes over and over. You can play in someone else’s sandbox, build castles and rip them down, and never have to use up your own original ideas learning. Then, when you are done, when you’ve developed your own personal writing style and learned the techniques to make you a top-quality writer – then you use your original material.

And write your story!