I was trying to help a friend who was writing her first novel, a Western. I looked over what she had written and it was excruciatingly boring. I said, “Westerns have some of the most colorful language of all the genres. Why aren't you using more interesting words in your writing?”
Her reply stunned me: “I don't know that many words.”
Why in the world does this person want to be a writer? Writers work with nothing but words! It's our medium, our clay, our bricks to build a better story. We are paid to know words.
Next I wondered: why doesn't this person buy a thesaurus? Don't they come in the computer program? I don't use one, but from what I hear they contain lots of useful words for people who lack imagination or suffer memory loss. She can continue to write boring prose and then find substitutes for her limited vocabulary.
What happened to those “Word of a Day” calendars? Don't they make them anymore? How about taking a look at the dictionary once in awhile? Lots of words are found between those covers. Being a reader should have improved her vocabulary through osmosis. How can you absorb a plot but not notice the words? Wasn't she paying attention?
I'll admit, I have a love affair with words. I like how they look on a page. I like to fit them together so they not only say what I intended but in a way that delights my eyes and mental ear. I like to use words we all know but don't take off the shelf and dust off very often. I'm a little too fond of alliteration, but that's my weakness.
I don't like words that are just show-offs. I get bored with novels filled with an intricate onslaught of language. It makes my brain hurt. Reading should enlighten not hurt. When an author gets esoteric, it's like an old, fat man behind the wheel of a Corvette: we all know the car is making up for shortcomings, but the driver still thinks everyone is impressed. We're not.
When I can't find the word I want, I have no problem making one up that suits me. My favorite invention is “He tumbleweeded into town.” If you've ever seen a tumbleweed make its way down an empty street with a haphazard wind pushing it along, you know the image I'm going for.
I like the phrase I just wrote: “haphazard wind.” I nearly said “wind haphazardly pushing” but you would have expected that, right? With just a slight twist, the same words sound more interesting. I also like that I used the words “esoteric” and “osmosis.” I had fun writing them even though I had to look them up in the dictionary to make sure they were in context. Weren't they fun to read? Don't they look terrific on paper? Maybe it's because they start with vowels. Vowels make me happy.
I realize, as I'm writing my 3rd book, that I actually get a buzz when the words start flowing in interesting ways. My mind is a playground with letters coming together to create images and emotions. My hands move over the computer keyboard and words appear on the page like magic. It IS magic.
This magic has powers stronger than Harry Potter or whoever wields the bigger wand (I don't read the Potter books. Sorry). I can take a reader anywhere of my choosing as long as I can retain their interest. I can relay my deepest thoughts, my strongest beliefs, my prejudices (I don't care for rich people) to strangers holding my book in their hands. I can excite their senses and awaken their imaginations with the right metaphors and similes. I can pull them in on sly jokes embedded in my prose (I like the word embedded). I can elude readers by slipping real details of my life into stories and make it a challenge for them to separate fact from fiction.
I just got an e-mail from a struggling author who wrote, “I'm working on my word count.” My message to her? “It's not about the word count, it's about using words that count.”
I think I've said my piece. Did you get the word?