Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hello, Diction, My Old Friend

Hello, diction, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision
That was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

It's always great to crib from Simon and Garfunkel, isn't it?

So, Susan and Matt's comments in the last post got my brain churning on one of my favourite topics, and one which I think we don't always pay enough attention to as writers. And it's not that it's sneaky, or forgotten... but maybe just that it's so obvious we don't stop to give it a lot of thought.


This is what we do, isn't it? As writers we pick words, and word choice is central to the expression of our stories and intentions. Yet how often do we really talk about it? We surely jabber enough about POV and tense and prologues and flashbacks and voice... and yet what is voice but a careful selection of words to create a particular sound and effect?

We dream something, and yet we hold these silent words in the silence of the act of writing. They rattle inside our head, sounds waiting to escape, or perhaps merely the great meanings beyond sound, vibrating on some frequency we can apprehend and yet never hear.

So, we have to pick the right words. We have to pick entertaining words, powerful words. Unique words, at least in their proper combination. I think many of us often fall back on what's easy, however. It's only natural. This is the challenge of word choice. We have a scene in mind, we're inside it, seeing it... and now we need to translate it into words so that this vision can be shared. The easy words come first. Familiar words, the ones we've heard in the same context. Certain words are simply expected... the reader's brain expects it and the writer's brain provides it. Basic meaning is created and consumed. But only so much, only a little. A deeper understanding, a new undesrtanding that peels back layers and allows you to see something newly, freshly, brightly... this isn't always possible with those overly familiar words.

When you're excited, your heart... pounds, of course. But this is a cliche, it tells us very little. The character, the experience, is no different than any other that has ever occurred, its individuality lost in the endless repetitions of that phrase.

So how about a brief investigation of diction? I'm gonna use a bit of Cormac McCarthy's prose for demonstration. Now, there are lots of other interesting things about his writing, like his odd rhythms and his use (or lack) of punctuation, that people will like or dislike. But his word choice is something that really fascinates me, because he rarely accepts the overly familiar unless the overly familiar is perfectly right. Here's the opening line of Suttree:

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.

This is a single long sentence, and yet look at the word choices, at how strange and vibrant they are. Look at the "dusty clockless hours", for example. "Dusty" is an odd word to describe "hours" and yet it's evocative, while at the same time serving a dual purpose of reflecting that meaning onto the streets, as well. It provides both an abstract description and a literal one, applying to both the ephemeral hours and the physical street. And "clockless"? I think the word that most writers, even good ones, would reach for here would be "timeless". And yet "clockless" is newer, its sharp sound providing much more punch. It offers many of the meanings of timeless, and yet it also reflects again, using that interesting duality, on the nature of the town itself. These words reach beyond themselves, touching the story around them, moving beyond familiar lands to form new boundaries.

And then you have the combined words, like "watertrucks" and "lightwire". The last, in particular, is vivid, with the "wire" part bringing in the idea of a lit filament, the electric shock of an unshielded light.

Then we have the drunks in the "lee" of alley walls, a subtler and much more fluid way to suggest shelter than to simply say "shelter".

And the "highshouldered" cats, so odd and yet so right. You can picture those pointed shoulder blades jutting out as the cats slink along... slink along in the "grim perimeters about". Such a strange selection here, too, and yet evocative. The texture of "grim" against the sense of danger implied in "perimeters", the idea of conflict, of war, of areas being patrolled. And that grimness is only enhanced by the descriptives, the "sootblacked brick" and "cobbled corridors". Grim, dirty, hard.

And then we have perhaps the oddest choice of all, the "gothic harp" of cellar doors. Image, or metaphor, or allusion, or merely a capturing of mood? All of the above? It's vivid and different, the sense of the gothic perhaps summarizing all that has come before, providing a final definition for the grim perimeter of sootblacked streets and highshouldered cats.

So, what do you think? What sort of things do you think about when you're trying to find the right words? And who are some of your favourite writers who use words in a really interesting manner?


Ted Cross said...

I think it's a matter of taste, though many, I suppose, would say my taste is too simplistic. I dislike having to pause to consider what the heck a dusty hour is, and coming to the conclusion that it isn't anything sensible, at least to me. I like cliches when they make perfect sense, such as a pounding heart, when to use something else means having to stretch to something odd. But, that's probably just me with my pedestrian tastes.

Ted Cross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Kaye Quinn said...

The words "lee" and "highshouldered" jumped out to me from that passage, as well. But some of the other ones that struck you as powerful, "sootblacked" and "lightwire" came across to me as awkward or ambiguous, and not in a good sense, more in the "what the heck does he meant by that" sense.

How's that for a rambling sentence? :)

This is where word choice becomes interesting to me, because the words we choose have to be somewhat in common with our reader. Just as you teach a child by giving him something within his grasp, but that requires him to reach just to the limits of his comfortable ability, your word choices have to be somewhere in the intersection of your ability to write and your readers' ability to comprehend. Readers are very, very smart, but comprehension is ruled by some commonality of language, or understanding. The root of our common experience. This is why cliches are so powerful - they tap into the common understanding. And maybe I'm a radical to think they can be artfully used.

But back to Cormac. I haven't read The Road, or his other works, but just from this passage, I think I would find him diffcult to enjoy, unless the story compelled me through. Because I would keep stopping to say "now, what in the world does he mean by that?" And if it's going to be that way, I'll go read Ayn Rand (again).

But there are works for everyone, some more demanding, some more entertaining, some that sneak up and make us think. Writing accessibly, yet powerfully, I think is quite a challenge.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Ted - You and I must have posted at the same time! I just now saw your response - we must both be pedestrian. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

p.s. reading Ayn is, to me, like reading philosophy - which I adore and will pore over in some kind of deep-thought trance. Maybe if I approached Cormac with the same mind-set, I would enjoy him.

Ted Cross said...

I haven't read The Road yet either, though I bought it. If he writes like this all the time then I may not finish the book.

Bryan Russell said...

Cormac's later books are much more accessible. The Road, for example, is very stark, almost simple. And yet the word choices are still interesting, but more subtle in their use. He uses very simple word choices, spotted here and there with something strikingly different.

Suttree is one of his earlier books, and more difficult. And that's a large reason why his popularity has grown so much, the increasing accessibility of his writing. No Country for Old Men, for example, is extraordinarily filmic - which is why it made such a good movie. Something like Blood Meridian, however, is much more dense. It might be his most brilliant book, but I think it will always have a small audience. The Road, I think, is an absolute classic, a perfect mesh of story and style. Challenging, in a way, and yet very accessible.

The Border Trilogy would be somewhere between his early works (like Suttree and Blood Meridian) and his later ones (The Road and No Country), which mirrors the order in which they were written.

So I certainly agree with the idea that a writer's voice will intersect with specific readers ability to comprehend it. Very few readers will probably jump on the Blood Meridian bandwagon, while millions have already hopped on The Road.

But what I think is interesting about the little snippet I used is its uniqueness, the vividness of the voice. No one else but McCarthy would write this. Lots of people won't like it, of course, but I think it makes a writer think very carefully about word choice. Do things work for them? And why? Or why not?

I mean, what is happening in this sentence of his? Not much, really, and yet it's brought alive by his choice of words. It's the language that carries the reader through, makes them think and feel.

Familiar words, I think, are always going to be useful (even cliches, though their use can be very tricky). Sometimes you want to focus solely on the action of the event, and the most familiar and clear language will best allow that. But sometimes language is needed for more than that. It needs to shape the story, to reveal it, to colour it, to make of it a wonderment. Word choice, I think, is what allows you not just to see something, but to see it in a new way. We're used to seeing the world from head height, but sometimes the right word will make us stoop to see things from the floor, or fly to see things from the ceiling.

Bryan Russell said...

Maybe I should have used Tolkien! Just for Ted. ;) He also makes interesting use of word choice (and word invention). Certainly his choices are not pedestrian. Really, they are quite elaborate.

"Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air. From mead to mead the bridge sprang. Figures stood there at its head, carven with cunning in forms human and bestial, but all corrupt and loathsome."

Not pedestrian! The repeated use of archaic terms like mead, and complex usages like "charnel-smell" balanced against simple ones like "rottenness". The over-abundance of punctuation as opposed to Cormac's lack (ol' John liked his punctuation, let me tell you). The "carven with cunning" not so unlike "cobbled corridors". And he likes his opposites, his seeming contradictions, the "luminous beauty" that is somehow also a "horrible shape" like the "demented forms in an uneasy dream."

These are odd and unfamiliar choices, in many ways, and yet they're striking for that. They form a specific voice, and create a specific texture to the reality of the world being described.

I think one of the difficulties is that interesting words are challenging. Familiar words are easy, for the reader and the writer. We fall back on invisible words, on good enough words. They don't stop you reading. And this is good, in a sense. But they also fail to open up something new, something real. Sometimes, I think, it's worth the risk. And great writers, I've always found, are willing to take risks (Tolkien took all sorts of strange risks in how he structured and told his story).

Anyway, good discussion here! Thanks for coming out to play on a Saturday. :)

Unknown said...

I recommend Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. To be sure, he overdoes it, but it's quite amazing in its way.

And read poetry. Any poetry, really. Teaches a writer to use words more concisely.

Bryan Russell said...

Oh, yes, Peake certainly has his own style and makes odd use of words. I could never decide if I actually liked his style, but it was certainly fascinating. Or maybe I liked the style and it was his plotlessness that drove me crazy...

Ted Cross said...

That may be part of my problem - I have no poet in me. I can't read poetry, absolutely dislike it.

I agree with what you wrote about Tolkien, but at least none of his word choices there made me go "Huh!" as Cormac's did. I think that my job has interfered with my ability to write in any way other than simply, and perhaps that will keep me from being published. I do know that I have a distaste for anything that approaches snootiness, so I often give up on literary fiction (with some exceptions). I guess I'll have to see if twenty years from now I am still unpublished.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Just finished 'Cloud Street' by Tim Winton and his use of words is both inspiring and a little intimidating. Clothing and locations are never described by colours or shapes but more by moods and influences.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm going to have to agree with Ted about the accessibility of Tolkien vs. Cormac (in the quotes above). But I will put The Road on my TBR, just to see what I can make of it.

And Ted I don't think writing simply will keep you from being published! If anything, there seems to be a push towards simplicity now (more than I'd like in kidlit - the reading level of teen books is atrocious!). Sophisticated, yet accessible, (and of course a master storyteller) - it's no wonder Tolkien is so loved.

Mira said...

Interesting post and discussion. You're right - this isn't discussed often. It may be because it's hard to teach....choosing the right word is about the internal world of the author.

When I'm searching for the right word, and finally find it, I have a physical reaction - it's like something clicks. If it's really, really, really the right word, I can even feel tingly.

I write humor, so a writer I really admire for that is Janet Evanovich. Her books are humor, wrapped up in romance and mystery, and she's whip smart, crackling on target with her word choice and pace.

Bryan Russell said...

Yes, Tolkien is more accessible than early McCarthy, certainly, but it's certainly not a simple style. His mix of archaic with a more modern lyrical style (with lots of punctuation thrown in) is kind of interesting. Certainly it's not invisible prose (which is one of the reasons I like him), and can be dense in places. I know lots and lots of readers who've tried and failed with Tolkien just because of that (relative) lack of accessibility.

In many senses, The Road is much more accessible than LOTR. It's language is simpler, though the effect it creates is not.

There's always a continuum, a range of accessibility. Early McCarthy is fairly far down the one side. But Tolkien isn't exactly close to the simple end, either. I think a lot of readers are drawn to an area on that continuum, to voices and styles that appeal to them in terms of accessibility. Of course some people are more omnivorous, too, and will read whatever. I'm currently into reading a lot of food labels. Dramtaic stuff! The rise of the polyunsaturates...

Raquel Byrnes said...

I didn't realize until my husband read my ms that I often use alliteration during arguments or stressful scenes. I also tend towards the staccatto delivery...huh...wish it was intentional.

Matthew MacNish said...

Great analysis Bryan, as usual. I was going to mention Tolkien too. I do notice a mild similarity between the two, although McCarthy seems more genius, less lyrical. He's a far better writer but then Tolkien may have been the better storyteller.

I've only read the one McCarthy novel but I loved it something powerful.

On the other hand Ted I don't think there's anything wrong with simple writing. Simple can be beautiful too.

Carl Grimsman said...

For lack of a better word, I think of the music when I am writing, or maybe more accurately, the resonance, not of individual words, but of the cadence of words and meanings together tripping along. The effect must mesh over paragraphs and para to para, not only within a sentence. Overall, there must be an overall chime as well, a theme of not only the ideas of a piece, but of its sound, its particular ringing set in motion in a reader's body.