It’s Only Words, And Words Are All I Have

We are writers.  That means our tools of the trade are words.  Most of us — but not all — are more fascinated with words than we should be.

So, why is it most writing books say nothing about words, except perhaps for telling you things like “eschew all adverbs” (they’re wrong) and for the more extreme “eschew all adjectives” (they’re even more wrong) and for the idiots who imbibed the aesthetic without understanding it (older kid had an English teacher who suffered of this) “avoid pronouns.”

Because they really can’t tell you much about what good writing is at the word level.  Because it’s a matter of personal taste and a matter of fashion.Imagine that you were tasked with telling people what good clothes were.  I don’t mean good clothes for the climate, or good clothes for hiking, or good clothes for a wedding, but “good clothes.”

Other than saying “make sure they’re made of good materials” what else can you say?  Sure, if someone intends to go out wearing full nineteenth century regalia they’ll be stared out in the street.  But we know at least ONE writer who often goes out in full 19th century regalia as a way to promote her book.  She knows what she’s doing. She’s doing it properly.  Are her clothes good? Who the hell knows? More importantly who the hell cares?

But you know and I know that as soon as this becomes a matter of debate — particularly if we assume a clothing design field in which a handful of companies pick among hopeful clothes designers/makers, and only the clothes they approve of can be distributed — dogmatism will set in.  “Clothes with pleats are just bad.”  “All skirts should be exactly 25.5 inches in length” or perhaps the crackpot “Zippers are an abomination.”

In a way that’s what happened to writing.  We were all looking around for anything that gave us a chance at being published, and much of this was purely crazy-cakes, because we just didn’t know why a so so novel was picked and an outstanding one passed over again and again, and again.

For the record a lot of it was politics.  And I’m not even talking long term politics, the sort of thing people think they devote their lives to (rolls eyes.)  It wasn’t “this novel has a libertarian vibe, we’ll never buy it.” (Though it was that, too, as I heard one of my editors say she rejected all such novels and referred them over to Baen.  Which must have been a joy for Baen, since this editor’s range was far more than the straight forward SF/F Baen does.  In fact, she rejected one of my novels early on with precisely that recommendation (she no longer remembered it of course, by the time I became one of her authors) and FYI since this novel was an epic fantasy on Mediterranean lines, with a dark ending, I’m at a loss as to why she thought it was political, or in what way she might have thought it was conservative/libertarian.  Then again, who the f*ck knows? Maybe one of the characters was named something everyone in her little incestuous NYC editors group “knew” to be a “dog whistle.”)

For instance, as most — some? — of you know, who read my fiction, this thing is not precisely under my control.  I often have gay or, even more so, gender fluid characters.  My first novel had a gender-shifting elf, and several of my short stories have hermaphrodite worlds, natural or bio-engineered.  I’m not Freud — and if I were I’d only analyze myself — but I suspect being a tomboy in a society where gender behavior was strictly enforced to a point we can’t now imagine (the fact I didn’t have pierced ears made me suspect of not being a “real” girl, for instance) I developed a fascination with the way humans vary and la difference beyond the obvious, and that’s why the penny slots of my subconscious keep spitting out that particular jackpot.  Or maybe it is what it is, and this thing isn’t entirely under my control.

However, my first eight books were set in a world (the set up is a long story I won’t go into) where the dominant species are hermaphrodite humans.  They are human (again, this is part of a long setup) but they are hermaphrodite.  The story was born of my frustration with the biology in The Left Hand Of Darkness, the society she derived from it and articles I had read about how it was the fact that pregnant women can’t walk very far that created human social structure beyond the couple.

I want to point out I liked The Left Hand Of Darkness (it didn’t age well.  Reads very seventies to me now) but the worldbuilding from a biological/sociological point of view seemed crazy to me.  So I set out to write something that fixed it.

The books got rejected again and again.  Let me say right up front the world was NOT the only thing wrong with them. At least when I began I was still learning the tools of the trade and, speaking of words, I’m sure they read odd and stilted since, while I was fluent in English, mine was schoolroom English.

Here’s the thing though: even though I had no clue of this, in days before internet, (and if we were still in the days before internet, I’d still have no clue) the fact they were rejected HAD to do with the world building also, as I had extremely individualist hermaphrodites (a partnership, someone you swore fidelity to, was a shame, for ex.)  And yeah, probably the gender thing too. I know as late as 2002 an editor tried to dissuade me from making Kit Marlowe (!) “too gay”.  Succeeded too, to my shame.

However, if I were sending out the same books now they’d probably be snapped up (well, if editors didn’t register the individual thing.  At least the ethos was that people who cooperated raised more kids, so… shrug.) It would be snapped up because “daring”and “gender fluid.” (Though they’d probably try — tried then too, but I was a bit obtuse — to get me to use either female or made-up pronouns.  I used male pronouns because it worked better with appearance.)

This just to mean that, yep, the ethos of those who could get your stories before the public was unknowable if you weren’t of their circles.  (And besides nepotism it was the reason that people so often went big when they came from NYC editor circles or their families.)

But wait, there was more.  A lot of the reason people were bought or not was neither political nor quality — most books published, at least in the nineties were published on proposal and no one but the copy-editor ever read the finished book — but sheer chance.  No, seriously.  You might hit the editor’s desk with your scene in which the woman had a fight with her boyfriend, and threw a latte in his face, at a time when the editor herself had just fought with her boyfriend, and wished she’d thrown a latte in his face. Sold!  Or you might, in the same way, hit the desk at a time when she hadn’t fought with her boyfriend in months, and the idea of a fighting couple disturbed her. Rejected.

Or your book about the killer mailbox who swallows authors could hit the editor’s desk on the day she got six others with the same theme. You worked on your book two years.  How could this be?  And yet, it happened.

During my apprentice years, when we didn’t OWN a television (partly money, mostly because we had toddlers, jobs, you know, the drill) I got several rejections saying I’d stolen a TV show’s recent episode.  I can tell you that I came up with stargates (same name) and a roughly similar world building (no Egyptian stuff, but never mind) in a short story, while having NO clue the show even existed, or the word.

There was no rhyme or reason for what

So people looked for the magical bullet.

Before book publishing became an oligopoly, where book distribution could be worldwide, if you got through the narrow gate of NYC publishing, there had been many fads in language.  Some of them were driven by external factors, such as the author being paid by the word.

The rebellion against this was the “minimalist” style.  Short sentences. No adjectives. Language as pedestrian as possible.

All of this is fine, for a style, and btw works best for action books and action scenes.  It is, however, not the only style, and some books written in that style will come out sounding as stilted as my schoolroom-English did.

But in the rush to divine the unknowable fashions of editors, people spent most of the twentieth century trying to be more minimalist than the minimalists, all of it a sort of rebellion against the previous flowery style whose practitioners had been dead for generations.

So first adverbs became verboten, then adjectives, and then as I said, for idiots, pronouns.  (This woman apparently misunderstood the injunction against unclear antecedents, and just banned ALL pronouns. You should just repeat proper names in all instances.  Yes, in practice this was a stylistic disaster, equivalent to saying “No zippers, no buttons, you should sew yourself into your clothes every morning.”)

Does this mean I think we should merrily, no, eagerly, even giddily strew adverbs through our books?

Only if it suits the book or the passage.

In the same way that our rebellion against saidbookisms meant I once argued with someone over whether “whisper” and “shout” were ever needed, with him telling me that you could deduce it from what’s said (no, you can’t) I think minimalism has gone too far.

I don’t approve of flowery language in general (though some is necessary in historic settings)because it makes the books harder to read, particularly for an increasingly vocabulary-poor public. And — duh — my objective is to sell books.

On the other hand, I refuse to let my tool box be taken away and things put out of my reach for no good reason.  Sometimes you walk slowly, sometimes you walk rapidly. Those should be permitted ways of describing it, particularly since amble and rush might stop your more vocabulary-poor readers more than the adverb will.  (Okay, probably not rush, though heaven knows my sons’ classmates sometimes surprised me with the paucity of their word-knowledge.)

Something else to take in account in this is that for whatever reason the buying public seems to have been out of tune with the NYC ethos, too.  Or at least the people I’ve seen making a killing in indie, often despite lack of plotting or any marketing skill, write in a very pulpy style.  Think Edgar Rice Burroughs.  So, it’s possible people like “pretty” language.  I’ve noted that’s what they often praise in book reviews.  Go figure.

Okay, this is a long theme, and this post is already too long for some of ya’ll’s lunch hours.  Next up, next week: Make your words transparent.

48 thoughts on “It’s Only Words, And Words Are All I Have

  1. “No zippers, no buttons, you should sew yourself into your clothes every morning.”

    I watched a YouTube video of a 17th-century noblewoman getting dressed and one of the notable things was getting parts of the dress pinned in place. As in, this is why certain scenes from drama at the time are so hilarious. (The dresses also had pockets, though.)

    “No adverbs” is a writing exercise, not a long-term process. If you are forced to work without them for a period of time, you find other ways of phrasing things—and then you can let them back in on an occasional basis, as actually needed.

    1. Izabel at Prior Attire? Yes, I was a little boggled to see that some elements were actually pinned in place…

      As an attention-getting and marketing device, the full 19th century drag works marvelously!

  2. I’d long been told that “he said” and “she said” disappeared on the page so using other words in an effort to not be repetitive was usually a bad idea. But disappearing on the page isn’t the same thing as disappearing in an audio book.

    Styles change, but so does the medium, which is also something to keep in mind.

      1. But infinitely preferable to bad writing.

        If it isn’t immediately obvious who is saying what, to whom, at the time they begin speaking, then I become quite irritable.

        If in doubt, use the tag.
        Audiobooks are adaptations, anyway. Dropping the tags and using distinct voices in their place should be part of the basic translation.

          1. Of course you can.
            (Shrug) It’s just done poorly quite often. At least half of the books I’ve read over the past couple decades have at least one instance where the speaker isn’t clear.
            Not to mention the contortions some authors seem to go through to eschew the tags.

            Moderation is good.
            Where there’s a more dynamic option easily available, use it to advance characterization or heinlein in setting information.
            But when they’re helpful, use them, and let them disappear into the background.
            (At least, that’s my take on it. But I freely admit that dialogue isn’t my strong suit. )

              1. “The door irised open.” That sort of thing where you use an unusual verb or noun construction to convey a lot of information about a setting.

                I’ve seen it more often as “to Heinlein it.”

                1. “She dimpled and curtsied.” in Glory Road.

                  A lesser author might spend a page detailing the way her smile transformed her face, or the way her reaction was so different from that of a “modern” woman and ruminating on the cultural differences.

  3. From my perspective as an ESL the “he said, she said” or “John said, Jane said” does not disappear at all. One of the few things I did not like with Harry Potter. Particularily grating in the translation which I read aloud to the kids of my friends.

    1. I agree that other languages do not use “he said” very much. And personally, I find it frustrating. It usually gets added to fan translations of Japanese light novels, because it drives almost everyone nuts. Yes, English prose dialogue requires more tagging. Heck, you see it in Old English and Middle English.

      Ideally, audiobooks in English should be read in such a way that “he said” is part of the prosody of the sentence. Not all narrators know how to do this. (Because they stink at reading.)

  4. Also. What are good words in a cookie cutter feudal fantasy setting? Or rather, what are bad words. Avoidance is easier than inclusion ya know. I have this reaction to words with origin outside context, but most people don’t seem to care.

    1. Ah! The thing to do there is to read a lot of older English books. Back to Jane Austen, Shakespeare if you can. (Start with recent stuff and work back. That way you pick up vocabulary on the way.)

      Thus, you pick up an ear for whether a word is modern, or used in a modern manner.

      Metaphor is particularly important. No, your Stone-Age hero does NOT have steel-blue eyes. Your archers do not fire arrows before guns. No one has a strong suit — or a weak one either — until bridge is invented (which means cards, which means cheap paper).

      When dealing with magical matters, it’s also wise to avoid terminology that calls up connotations of Science And Technology — assuming, of course, that you want to separate your magic thus cleanly.

      1. Actually, I had a bit of physical description trouble when I set something in a southern hemisphere. What does that do to “sunwise/clockwise” and “widdershins”? I ended up dodging the question entirely, and readers may miss entirely that it’s southern hemisphere (it gets colder as you go south and the gardens are on the north side), but oh, the things you never realize that you have to explore…

  5. > “No zippers, no buttons, you should sew yourself into your clothes every morning.”

    Wildly off-topic, but I read a lengthy article about home laundry appliances a few years ago. It was British, and Britain was a bit slower to adopt washing machines as standard household equipment than the US, but the showstopper was in the comments, where several people mentioned their mothers sewing them into the winter clothes in the late fall, then picking the stitches out in spring. That being the early 1950s. Presumably some provision was made for bodily functions, but wearing the same clothing 24/7 for months at a time was a novel concept for me.

    1. It was also a bit of a surprise for some of the families who housed evacuees from the East End during WWII. I don’t know if someone raised in America, like me, will ever “get” the extent of the class divisions in Britain at that time. I still giggle when I read an English novel from the thirties in which someone is described as “poor” and the translation is “had only one servant to do the cooking and cleaning.”

      1. Come to Silicon Valley, and I can introduce you to a crowd of very entitled Chinese women (e.g. “3 kids is too many to handle, so I’m sending 1 kid back to the grandparents in China”)

      2. Official and serious studies of the Victorian classes did draw the line with “has servants” — between the poor and the very poor, who didn’t.

        True, the actual poor hired the elderly or the children, but they hired them.

  6. A bit of lore I was taught had it that pregnant Australian aborigine women [are those words still allowed?] on “walkabout”, paused, birthed their child, latched it onto a breast, rested a while, and then jogged on to catch up with her group. I believe I read that in the ever-so-PC NatGeo; maybe not.

    1. I know of scandinavian peasant women doing about the same. Walking alone to the midwife, delivevering, then walking back home later in the day.

    2. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s grandmother. She was herding goats, gave birth, and brought child and goats home that evening. The child was a girl, much to the disappointment of the family.

        1. Walking around a lot during labor actually relaxes a lot of the relevant muscles and pain hormones, and gives mechanical advantage to others. Same thing with birthing chairs/stools.

          I do not know all the relevant mechanisms, but it is more about midwifing than about being tough or hardworking. I mean, if you gotta walk anyway, why not get something done?

  7. I understand the conventional wisdom behind eschewing adverbs because they rob a verb of its force.
    I don’t necessarily agree with the rule, but most of the time it is more true than false.

    I tend to agree with being somewhat sparing in the use of adjectives, but that’s mainly because I like the thought of the reader projecting themselves and their experiences onto the story.
    Unless the plot, setting, or characterization provides a reason, let them imagine much of the detail. If the bar is dark, the smell of cigarette smoke is thick in the air, and the jukebox tells you that “you need to know when to fold ’em”… Well, there isn’t much to be gained by obsessing over the tablecloths.
    If you want them to think fondly of a cat, encourage them to imagine their cat in the role.

    And of course, robbing yourself of opportunities to play with pacing, alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia, is just plain mean.
    Sure, you could draw things out showing the character sneak across the room in short staccato sentences and really build the tension. But if the focus is to be the conversation he’s eavesdropping on, IMO it’s better to break out modifiers to slow the pacing just a bit (with the word choice and punctuation suggesting more) and simply tell “he softly, slowly, snuck”.

    As to not using pronouns…
    Are you frelling kidding me?

    1. I just finished reading _The Savage Worlds of Solomon Kane_ by Robert Howard. Lots and lots of adjectives all over the place. Because the world-building demanded it, and it worked, oh how it worked! He also has very little dialogue as compared to description, but the times and the man are laconic.

    2. Somewhere I still have papers from Robert’s 12th grade with him and her crossed out.
      This woman also had weird fetishes with some words. You weren’t allowed to use “show” for instance, even in non fic (as in “I hope to show”) because it reminded her of a flasher.

    3. In my experience, you need to be warier about auxiliary verbs than adjectives. Not only the passive voice* but the progressive, and every other, like “could smell” when “smelled” might be fine. Or phrases like “managed to do.”

      What it really helps develop is the habit of questioning what words to use.

      (I go on at length here)

      *And if you critique someone’s story, DO NOT say that the sentence was passive voice because it did not have much go on in it. Or because it’s in the progressive voice. (Immortal in my memory is the critique of too much passive voice in a 5,000 words story that used it ONCE.)

      1. ON the other hand, if you do have a lot of passive voice — which I do when I’m exhausted — people perceive fast-moving, action stories as “nothing much happens.”

  8. Most of us — but not all — are more fascinated with words than we should be.

    LOL! Yes. I must plead guilty. As a kid, I read the dictionary for fun, and I still do so now.

    …I once argued with someone over whether “whisper” and “shout” were ever needed, with him telling me that you could deduce it from what’s said (no, you can’t)…

    Hah! I saw a blog post arguing this exact point not too long ago. I completely agree with you: context is not enough, unless the writer adheres firmly to clichés. And even then…how does the reader know this for sure?

    On the other hand, I refuse to let my tool box be taken away and things put out of my reach for no good reason.

    Absolutely. You may pry my words from my cold, dead hands… 😉

    1. Exactly. When I am seriously annoyed, I am likely to shout. But if I am truly enraged, you need to be very close to have a chance of hearing me. (Which is not a smart thing to do, if you happen to be the cause!)

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