Sunday, December 12, 2010

Employing novel verbiage

I get a newsletter of writing tips from David Farland called "The Daily Kick." It's great advice, and normally I read it, nod my head, and agree.

But I got one the other day about choosing the "right" words: the words that help place a reader in the time and place of a story, pandering to their expectations. For example, if you're writing a classic sword-and-sorcery adventure story, you'd want your characters visit a "tavern," not a "restaurant." This way, your readers know where they "are" in the universe-of-the-read.

This is really great advice if your goal is to write something as exciting as a pile of logs.

I read some pretty conventional stuff from time to time, but the stuff I really enjoy is the stuff that surprises me. In Steph Swainston's fantasy novels, the protagonist wears a T-shirt. A T-shirt! Similarly, the first Iain M. Banks novel I read, "Matter," began in a feudal/steampunk-type society and gradually leveraged its way up to epic, space-opera proportions. The mix-and-mingle of concepts, technology, and vocabulary literally blew my mind (I actually had to put the book down for, like, a month to digest the insanity).

There've been times when I've written explicitly for clarity and to meet people's expectations - to give them the tavern and the star-cruiser where taverns and star-cruisers are due. But if you never try new things - if you never put a roller-skate waitress, burger-and-root-beer drive-in restaurant in your fantasy stories - then what are you doing?

Honestly: what are you doing?

David Farland is a great writer and a great writing teacher. I'm actually glad that I finally received a Daily Kick that revolted me, because it gave me a chance to think about my preferences when it comes to reading and writing. How do you Internet-folk feel about word choices? Would you rather "not know" where you "are" when you read (or write) a piece of fantastic fiction (of whatever genre)? Or do you prefer the tried and true cues of the genres?


  1. 'Tis my feeling that you make a good point (I get the newsletter too). In the matter of choosing an "appropriate" word, though, if the Setting has T-shirts, that is the appropriate word. Not T-jerkins (please gods no). Likewise with "hotel" vs. "inn" and other Modern terms as opposed to Tolkienspeak.

    Of course, WHY the setting has T-shirts is a more important question.

  2. Ditto to David. If the t-shirts and restaurants fit into the world created, then all the better to get the reader thinking. And it is important to at least touch on why your word choice is correct, so the reader doesn't feel left out. If, however, they really ought to be called jerkins and taverns, then rather than intriguing the reader, you'll just jar him/her out of your story or annoy him/her. You'll just seem sloppy for having one word out of place with the rest of your world. It all comes down to presentation!

    Happy Birthday, by the way. I just remembered your comment on my son's party post and realized I missed it by a day (well, two if you look at the time, but I haven't gone to bed yet.) Hope you had a great one!