Tag Archives: Word Choice

Grunts, sighs, whistles and….

How do you deal with denoting who is speaking and how their voice sounds?

I’m currently writing a short story, that’s growing into a novella, about a widowed hedge witch meeting a newcomer to her village, a handsome widower, who appears to have arcane knowledge, but is reluctant to engage in conversation about it, when she makes hints. To write their interplay, a lot depends on the tone of their voices—only so much can be conveyed by word choice, for them talking and me as the narrator.

Dialogue is one of the trickiest areas of writing to make realistic. Much of everyday conversation is full of filler words, delaying tactics, pauses and irrelevancy. For example, in writing crime novels, I’m well aware that when my detective interrogates a suspect, he gets results quicker than would happen in real life, where questioning can go on for days.

Mark Twain highlighted this dilemma well:

Image result for The right word may be effective, but no word was ever so effective as a rightly timed pause.

There’s also the problem of accents, for writing them phonetically looks patronising and can be awkward to read. Many writers, including me, drop the occasional colloquialism into a local person’s speech. In Cornwall, a greeting might be “Awright, me ‘andsome?”—meaning “How are you, my friend?” I’ve met some Cornish men and women, whose accents were thick enough to cut with a bread knife. Transcribing their speech accurately would be tricky to do and to read.

Recently, I came across a television spy drama where the writer, or maybe the director, hadn’t bothered with accents at all. It was an episode from Callan, a series that ran from 1967-1972. Well-written by James Mitchell, with great characterisation and brilliant acting, the episode I saw had David Callan captured by the Russian secret service. None of the KGB agents sounded Russian, rather their British accents made it easy to forget that Callan was imprisoned in Moscow. However, the skill of the actors conveyed with one shift of expression, what would have taken a novelist a dozen words to describe.

Curious about how audiobooks deal with this side of drama, I listened to several extracts from novels set on foreign shores, finding variable results. Should my Cornish Detective series ever reach audiobook format, it would be treading a fine line between authenticity and listenability.

It’s a common bit of advice from writing gurus, to only use said to delineate who is speaking, partly because ‘said becomes an invisible stepping stone to the reader. Emotion can be conveyed with judicious use of verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives—The suspect moaned “I didn’t do it”—but, this runs the risk of looking like stage directions in a script if it’s done too often in a novel.

Maybe I have too literal a mind, but I always imagine a character blowing up into fragments when I read he exploded. I have a running joke for my own protagonist Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle, who’s alert to finding out if he’s been given a nickname by his team, worried that his habit of whistling with amazement will see him called Neil ‘Whistling’ Kettle. He still whistles, a mannerism that’s hard for him to break, as he grew up whistling commands to sheepdogs on his family farm.

Things could be worse, for words often have more than one meaning, some of which are a bit rude!

The Language in Rejection Letters

I’ve completed a third campaign of querying agents and I sort of got into it, in a masochistic way.

Initially, I fired off a salvo of 13 submissions, including a couple to newly promoted agents who are looking to add to their roster of clients. To my great surprise, one answered within 48 hours, which is the second fastest response I’ve had from 650 queries made in the last three years! It’s also only the fifth personalised reply I’ve received, the rest being form letters or nothing at all.

Her reply was polite, though contained a strange choice of words:

I’m afraid this isn’t for me.  The writing didn’t quite pull me in and the plot seems a little too outlandish, for my tastes.

I’m unsure what she means by a little too outlandish”would slightly outlandish work? Or should I go for the opposite of outlandish, which is conventional? And, what’s a conventional crime plot anyway? Do readers want something predictable? Strangely enough, although the book I’m querying The Dead Need Nobody contains some strange incidents, they’re mostly based on real-life crimes that have occurred in Cornwall in the last five years. I worried that I was being too humdrum, not too weird!

Image result for literary agents cartoon

I almost didn’t query this particular agent, as of her seven clients, only one has written a crime novel, but she said she was looking for crime or thrillers driven by a compelling lead so I thought I’d offer her my mesmeric Cornish Detective.

This rejection had me wondering if there was some form of coded language used by literary agents, so did an online search, finding this amusing article, which ranks replies from agents on a scale of 0-10.

Digital publishers look to be more open-minded and flexible in their approach than conventional agents and publishers, who come across as hidebound. Ebook publishers are more hit and run in their marketing, whereas approaching a conventional operation somehow makes me feel like I’m a raw recruit trying to join an army who’ll slowly manoeuvre their ranks into a campaign to capture readers. I used to be dubious about digital publishing—why give away 50% of your royalties when you can self-publish and keep most of it? But, I’m coming around to their maverick ways.

Whatever option I choose, including self-publishing, I remain undaunted.

Have you ever received any peculiarly worded rejection letters?

Horrible Words!

A while ago, I posted about unpopular words, after ‘moist’ was voted the least-liked word in the English language.

One word that’s come into common usage in recent years, which irritates some people, is ‘ongoing.’ I think it’s replaced ‘continuing’ because it sounds more proactive—a mini example of spin—as the speaker or writer is ‘on’ something that’s ‘going’ somewhere…whereas ‘continuing’ implies that something is dragging on, with no end in sight.

Euphemisms can be used politely to spare people’s feelings or diplomatically to obscure the true ghastly meaning, which is public relations for governments. As writer and critic Isaac Goldberg observed: “Diplomacy is to say and do the nastiest things in the nicest way.”

Thus, we get odious terms like ‘collateral damage’ and ‘friendly fire’ to denote people killed unintentionally in war zones. These days, those who are meant to be targetted aren’t killed, they’re ‘neutralised.’

I dislike the way stars and celebrities are described as “rocking” an item of clothing. It’s an extension of another silly phrase to “rock up” somewhere.

“Flaunting” gets overused, usually inaccurately. If someone is flaunting themselves or something they own, they’re doing so in an ostentatious way to attract attention. A movie star sunbathing on a private beach wearing a bikini, unaware of paparazzi with telephoto lens 400 yards away, isn’t “flaunting her considerable assets.” The prurient and judgemental Daily Mail do this a lot, pretending to be disapproving of some bimbo flashing her boobs, while displaying her flesh for the delectation of their readers.

Word choice is crucial for writers, to create the right feeling. It’s sometimes tempting to use posh words, that prove how vast our vocabulary is, but often a simple choice carries more impact. However, giving your characters linguistic quirks, through their use of slang, technical or fancy words describes them as much as listing their physique and clothing.

When reading, I’ve become alert to the author or journalist’s word choice. Yesterday, I came across what looked like a horrid way to describe pumping water from a flooded mine, that I thought must be made up. It was in a Cornish newspaper report about plans to reactivate an abandoned tin mine called South Crofty. They intend to ‘dewater’ the mine. That’s a horrid way of saying drain, but to my surprise, it’s a long-established term.

I still don’t like it as a word, and it had me wondering if adding ‘de’ to other words would work—could it be said that a medic who revived a drowning victim had ‘dedeaded’ them? If I threw up after eating a meal, have I deeated it?

Are there any words or expressions that aggravate you?

Describing Words—Adjective Generator

If you’re fumbling for the right word to describe a noun, then this useful tool could be just what you need:

Describing Words – Find Adjectives to Describe Things

I put in ‘Author’—it came up with many describing words, including ‘French homosexual’ (!), ‘ambiguous royal’ (?) and ‘often dull’ (never!).

Then I saw ‘blasphemous and bloody minded’—that’s me!

Put together by Joseph Rocca, check out his eerie word counter and analyser called Count Wordsworth.

Image result for adjective cartoon