writing technique

Words, the long and the short of it

How many different words do you need to know in order to write a book? The works of James Joyce (excluding Finnegan’s Wake) include almost 30,000 unique words, which is a lot. You certainly don’t need that many. But not using them doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing them. According to the researchers at Test Your Vocab, an average native speaker knows 10,000 words by the age of eight, expanding to 20,000 to 35,000 words when they are adults. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker puts the number higher – 60,000 words for an adult. But as he points out, “people can recognise vastly more words than they have occasion to use.” Furthermore, the unique word criterion may not be the best, since it counts, for example, walk, walks, walking and walked as separate words. If we count lemmas, or word families, instead, we have just one there – walk – and our vocabulary knowledge shrinks accordingly. Linguist Stuart Webb estimates that an adult native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas.

In our everyday conversation, we generally make do with far fewer. With 5000 words, we can have a decent, though limited, conversation, while with 10,000 the number of topics we can discuss increases dramatically. Theoretically, then, we could make do with three or four thousand words to write a novel. Original literature is written for the EFL market using only the two or three thousand most frequent words in English. I’ve read a number myself (a character in Painter Palaver produces such books), and it’s like being immersed in water at body temperature, meeting no resistance but getting no challenge either. Kind of dull, let’s say, even when the story’s decent.

That’s not to say we need to go the James Joyce way – there’s no link between size of vocabulary and quality of writing. Or rather I see it like the link between money and happiness – there has to be a basic amount, but above a certain threshold, you get no extra benefit.

What does this mean for writers? Notably that their productive vocabulary needs to be more readily accessible to them than it is to most non-writers. If you’re anything like me, a sizeable chunk of your time is spent searching for the ‘right’ word. In fact I hope for your sake that you’re not too much like me in that respect, because I suspect I spend far more time on that than most writers. That’s because I suffer from language attrition. For most of my life I’ve been exposed to far more French than English, so although English is my native tongue, I’ve now reached the point where I’m forgetting it. Anyone who tries learning a second language knows that without regular practice, it’s extremely hard to remember, but the same can apply to a first language. Not the syntax, which is largely mastered by the age of three and remains accessible thereafter, but the vocabulary. Words are easy to learn but also easy to forget.

As a result, I experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon more often than most : you know the word exists, you have an idea of its ‘shape’ – number of syllables, stress pattern, maybe a vowel sound or two – but the actual word won’t come. But I dare say you’ve experienced it too (am I right there? Comments welcome!) My assumption is that it’s part and parcel of every writer’s experience, and is one reason (amongst many others) why writing is such a challenging activity.

How do I cope? A combination of two approaches. The first is to accept it, recognise that good books can be written without recourse to an extensive vocabulary, and concentrate on using the words I do know to maximum effect. But while that may work to some extent, there are still many occasions when the word I want, the only one that will do, plays hard to get, like a key you’re trying to fish out of a drain hole. Only one thing for it in that case – the thesaurus.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Whether Stephen King, who wrote that in 1988, has changed his mind with advancing age I don’t know, but without a thesaurus I’d be sunk. The proviso is that I use it exclusively to fish those keys from the drain hole – words I once knew and used regularly, but can’t quite reach anymore. Not for me the word that struts onto the page like a garishly dressed dandy whose only aim is to upstage all the other words quietly doing their job. I just want the word that knows its place, fits alongside the others, and lets the sentence flow. Upon which contumacious rodomontade I shall terminate.

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Ill-defined and disreputable?

novella

‘Sir, what’s the German for notice?’ ‘Notiz.’ ‘No tits?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Really, sir? None at all?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You just said, “No tits”, sir. Do mean, like, absolutely flat?’ ‘Any more of that, Bausse, and you’re in detention.’

That this and similar episodes are what spring to mind most readily when I think of German at school may well mean that my mind is as puerile now as it was back then. Nonetheless, by way of association, and with much effort, I recall other details too: the scarred wooden desks, the dingy yellow walls and the hapless features of Mr. Graham, whose life we made such a misery.

Also a book with a pale blue cover, The German Novelle, which presumably I read. Like pretty much everything else I studied at that time, I don’t remember a thing about it, except that the Germans were the first to take the novella form, originally established in Italy, and turn it into something with a specific set of characteristics, different from those of the novel. Notably – and here I turn not to my memory but Wikipedia – it is ‘restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.’

Importantly, length is not a criterion. A Novelle could run to several hundred pages. But these days, when we use the word novella in English, length seems to be the determining feature. And I must admit that when I set out to write one, what I had in mind was something in the order of 30,000 words. But to reason only in terms of length would be a mistake, and run the risk of validating Carl E. Reed’s apothegm of wince number 69: ‘A novella is a book that ran out of steam.’

Stephen King has called the novella ‘an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic’. This hasn’t prevented him from writing several himself, though he points out the difficulty of selling them in the commercial world, being too long for a magazine and too short for a book. While this may indeed be a drawback, it makes the novella an ideal candidate for self-publishing, where a common strategy is to make it free in order to draw readers in to the rest of a series. This was indeed my reason for writing Closed Circle. I’ve read of that strategy many times – now I aim to test it out myself.

Not for a while, though. Because although I’ve finished a version that might pass muster, I’m not satisfied yet. It needs a good dose of improvement, for which I’ll need to let it simmer subconsciously – or whatever books do when we’re not actually working on them – for a couple of months or so. Basically, I didn’t realise when I embarked on it how hard it would be. All writing, of course, turns out more difficult than the initial vision promises, but I grappled with this one a lot. Not that it ran out of steam, on the contrary – it’s got a bit too much. I need to tighten the valves a bit, fix a gasket or two. It might gain a few thousand words in the process, but that won’t matter. It’ll still be a novella, because strangely enough, without thinking about it, I ended up with something close to the definition in The German Novelle. Maybe I did remember something more than the German for notice after all.

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reading

Apothegms of Wince: The Masses Speak of Things Bookish & Grammatical

For over three decades now I’ve been recording in a series of journals the most astonishing utterances one could ever hope to hear as one goes about the daily business of surviving on planet Mayhem. Some of these were said directly to my face, most were overheard as I eavesdropped on the conversation of others. I have winnowed down thousands of quotes from young and old, educated and miseducated, the intelligent and, err . . . somewhat less intelligent in order to focus on 100 jaw-droppers primarily concerned with writing, reading and literature. If you think most people hold these subjects in high regard, well . . . all I can say is that you haven’t been listening very closely to your fellow man or woman.

Although not notated as such please understand that every brain stem utterance, non-sequitur, reality-wrenching misstatement, microburst of ignorance and/or illogic reproduced here is to be understood as being end-capped thusly: [sic]

And if some of these ring familiar (see especially those utterances coming from the mouths of novice writers), all I can say is that the complexity and uniqueness of human experience apparently only goes so far: certain patterns repeat, so it would seem—everywhere.

In no particular order, then:

………………………………

  1. “Reading?! I’ve no time to read; I’m in college.”
  2. “I decided to be impressive and use a semi-colon.”
  3. “I hate any book that has more than 300 pages in it; it’s so unnecessary.”
  4. “If you really want to call attention to a word or phrase tilt it.”
  5. “Unless your name is Virgil or Julius Caesar you shouldn’t be writing in Roman.”
  6. “Reading is so gay.”
  7. “The problem with most contemptible bourgeois literature is that it shamelessly propagandizes for autocratic hetero-normative values.”
  8. “I never read books written before I was born; people were so stupid then.”
  9. “I’m suspicious of science fiction; it keeps coming true.”
  10. “You know the symbol I mean: the ‘a’ with its tail wrapped around itself, like a dead possum?”
  11. “I like gun violence in the books I read; shrapnel is so random.”
  12. “The Canterbury tales weren’t written in modern English; they were written in Old English–which is French.”
  13. “I can’t read books by women; their names on the cover stop me.”
  14. “Of course women now comprise 70% of the book-buying public. Why is this so surprising? Video games do a much better job of scratching the male itch once catered to by Conan comics and Mickey Spillane paperbacks.”
  15. “The greatest writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  16. “The worst writer in the world is Stephen King.”
  17. “I can’t read fantasy; it’s so unreal.”
  18. “The thing about a good western is that all the right people die in it.”
  19. “All characters ever do in Shakespeare is talk, talk, talk.”
  20. “Greek mythology is perverted; no wonder they died out to the Mongols.”
  21. “Reading ruins your eyes and everything else.”
  22. “I only read books I can’t understand. I believe in improving myself.”
  23. “You think you’re a writer just because you use words?”
  24. “You can’t call it a mystery if you’ve finished the book.”
  25. “Libraries are arrogance centers.”
  26. “The Bible is the only book anyone needs. The correct version, of course; the _____ version.”
  27. “The only punctuation I use is the period, comma and question mark. Oh and those two little talking slashes.”
  28. “I don’t like to be shouted at by exclamation marks.”
  29. “My boss was mad at me because he thought I was mad at him: I typed in all capital letters. I told him I knew his eyes were bad.”
  30. “I couldn’t finish the book; my mother stole it.”
  31. “I caught my boyfriend reading my romance novel. He said he was jealous and wanted to know what I was up to.”
  32. “Did you read those Anne Rice s&m novels? There was so much bisexuality in them! I didn’t.”
  33. “Boldface is helpful if you want to move beyond subtlety.”
  34. “They call it literature because teachers like it. If kids like it they call the principal.”
  35. “Books are a blunt instrument; there are much faster ways of inducing clinical depression.”
  36. “I thought I would like Poe but then he Frenched me.”
  37. Moby Dick is boring! Boring, stupid and boring! I wish I was dead.”
  38. “My dad says I’ll appreciate books like that once I’ve lived long enough to understand what the author is trying to say. I said why doesn’t he just fucking say it?”
  39. “I don’t like authors who use flowery words. Like containment.”
  40. “I don’t understand a thing about poetry. Or why it’s called poetry.”
  41. “Norman Mailer’s not so tough. He’s dead, isn’t he?”
  42. “Your story needs a rape scene.”
  43. “The book exploded my brain.”
  44. “I’m going to write a bestseller next summer when I start writing. Like Tom Clancy.”
  45. “I guarantee you this story idea will make you rich; all you have to do is write it–then give me half the money you make. I’ll need you to sign a contract, of course.”
  46. “Say something in writing.”
  47. “You’re a very good writer. I didn’t read your story.”
  48. “I don’t have time to worry about lining up every dot and letter; that’s what editors are for.”
  49. “She criticized me by helping.”
  50. “What’s the fastest way to get an agent if you don’t need one?”
  51. “Will you read this and tell me what you think? It’s great! My first story. And it’s all true!”
  52. “Is the book fiction or nonfiction? Hmm . . . Neither sounds right. I think it’s that other category; they’re reading it in school. History?”
  53. “She marked my paper up to belittle-ize me.”
  54. “It’s a word that sounds like another word: a hama-nuh-nah-muh-moon.”
  55. “I couldn’t stop reading the book so I put it in the freezer.”
  56. “My dog hates that book.”
  57. “The teacher was very clear on this—if you have a parenthetical thought, forget it.”
  58. “I never read footnotes; they’re Aunt Celery to the text.”
  59. “Dictionaries are full of something, alright.”
  60. “Smug people buy thesauruses.”
  61. “This book shouldn’t be on your shelves; it’s offensive. Call the manager.”
  62. “The thing I’ll never get about writers is why they keep writing. Don’t they understand they’re irritating people?”
  63. “It’s a very good book; you’ll like it. The words are so normal you don’t even notice you’re reading!”
  64. “The whole thing ends with sharks eating the goddamn fish and I was so disgusted I started sobbing.”
  65. “The elves in Tolkien are meant to symbolize the Irish.”
  66. “A good Lovecraft tale ends in a dead professor and a muttering elder god.”
  67. “I think Andre Norton is a woman. I’m serious.”
  68. “Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is the greatest book I ever read. It was so short; I really appreciated that.”
  69. “A novella is a book that ran out of steam.”
  70. “Sure you can read a book and not be a dork—it’s called sports or mechanical.”
  71. “He insulted me with words I’m going to look up.”
  72. “I started reading and woke up on the floor. You see what happens?”
  73. “And the ironic thing about Dante’s Inferno is that you get to the center of hell and you’re just glad it’s over.”
  74. “Yeah, but if Huckleberry Finn had kept going into Mexico, Mark Twain would have more Hispanic readers, that’s all I’m saying.”
  75. “You know what they say: use a bookmark, not a small rock.”
  76. “I never read the author bio before I start reading the text; I’ll lose respect for the book.”
  77. “Novelists think they’re so clever.”
  78. “The title The Red Badge of Courage should be re-appropriated for a YA feminist novel of menstruation.”
  79. “Every time I see the words The Naked and the Dead I think about zombie orgies.”
  80. “I don’t waste my time on short stories; the author didn’t.”
  81. “She’s like, _________ and I’m all _________. I know, right?!” [Repeat this sentence structure five times in a row.]
  82. “John Gardner was a brilliant writer who crashed into a tree.”
  83. “When someone writes a screenplay it’s called a movie. When they turn a movie into a book it’s called desperate.”
  84. “It’s amazing! They’re just letters on the page, but when the letters turn into words and the words attack you . . .”
  85. “I never remember what I read. So why read? Waste of time.”
  86. “I abhor sexist language like his, her, policeman, cock.”
  87. “How did a crucified Jewish messiah wind up with a Greek name and a Roman Empire? God’s will.”
  88. “Emily Dickinson hid in an attic because she didn’t know what her poetry was talking about.”
  89. “It’s an oxymoron, like Burger World.”
  90. “What’s that word for a sentence that reads the same backward or forward? Hippodrome? Emperor Palpatine?”
  91. “I turned all the books in his library around so that the titles faced the back of the shelf.”
  92. “You never read anything by Rudyard Kipling? You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?”
  93. “The essay is a form better left unwritten.”
  94. “I don’t call it cheating; I consider it rapid studying under pressure.”
  95. “I don’t need to read the book to know what I think about it; I’m educated.”
  96. “The book is called—what’s that title with three words in it?”
  97. “The problem with Shakespeare is that he wrote in Elizabeth Town dialect.”
  98. “It’s supposed to be a dirty book but it’s all cultural. I sweated buying it for nothing.”
  99. “She insisted I read the book. We’re not talking now.”
  100. “They said the book would change your life. So I read it. Same ‘ole life.”
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