Say What You Mean To Say – Pt 1

Writing is more difficult than people tend to give it credit for. Not only do you have to come up with a compelling story, you also have to write it – which means you have to choose from amongst tens or even hundreds of thousands of words to find exactly the right ones to convey your particular message.

This is difficult enough for mystery or literary fiction writers. You guys have to massage language until it sends readers down the right false trails or builds the perfect memory to explore. I can’t even imagine what poets go through in order to find their perfect words. With so many synonyms, each meaning almost the same thing, the process of luring out the right one must be fascinating.

As usual, though, I’m talking primarily to genre writers – that is, to fantasy writers, and to any other types of speculative fiction (SF) writers who have enough overlap to find me relevant.

Because for us, language has a job that it doesn’t need to do outside of SF; it’s the mortar that holds the bricks of our worldbuilding together. We use familiar language to make our readers feel comfortable, and we wander into strange and alien linguistic territory when we want to remind readers that they’re not in Kansas anymore.

The thing that writers need to remember is: playing with language comes with a cost. There’s a reason it’s so effective as a tool; as the cornerstones of communication, words have a lot of power. Just as the right one can bring someone in and bind them to a cause, the wrong one can slap them across the face make them turn their back on you before you even know you’ve done something wrong.

The farther out you go on the linguistic tightrope, the more careful you need to be.

Words Have Meaning

This maxim is deceptively simple. If you’re a writer, you know what words are and you know what they do – at least, you’d better. If you haven’t figured that part out, I can’t help you, and also, I’m not really sure how you’re reading this, so … well done, I guess.

I’m not coming in to try and explain that “ferociously” means “with ferocity”, and “ferocity” means “the state of being ferocious”, and “ferocious” means “fierce, cruel, or violent”, so why aren’t you using one of those three words instead? Although, it might be worth sitting down for a second and asking yourself if ‘ferociously’ really adds something that ‘fiercely’ wouldn’t have. Bigger isn’t always better.

I’m talking about those tricky words that seem to get thrown around without much consideration when fantasy writers sit down and get to work.

Consider, for example:

Scarlet and copper and auburn aren’t the same color, no matter how many times you want to refer to someone’s red hair – although vermillion is pretty close, for anyone who’s looking for yet another synonym. Chartreuse is neither yellow nor green (it sits between them, the way orange sits between red and yellow) and amaranth actually is a specific color (it looks sort of like magenta). It’s not just a pretty-sounding fantasy word.

A pentacle and a pentagram aren’t the same thing: a pentagram is just a star, the way you drew one as a kid, with the middle lines running through the shape before you erased them. A pentacle is a pentagram with a circle around it. Pentapox are what you get when you’re trying to escape New Ozai without getting hassled.

“Ethereal” and “ephemeral” don’t mean the same thing, although something might be both; “greaves” and “pauldrons” and “bracers” are all very specific pieces of armor that go on very specific parts of the body (shins, shoulders, forearms) and not any others. A wyvern is a type of dragon that has two hind legs and wings where the forelegs would be. A gryphon is a mythical beast with the hindquarters of a lion and the head, wings, and forelegs of an eagle; a gyrfalcon is very real. It is the largest falcon, and if you’d like, you can watch one murder a Canada goose to the dulcet tones of some truly heinous techno.

I could, of course, go on. I’m sure most readers could add a handful of their own examples to my list as well. The point is that there’s a lot of careless writing out there, and a lot of writers seem to have no problem taking words they’ve heard before and assuming that they probably know the meaning from context. When someone who does know the word comes along, the experience is jarring at best, infuriating at worst. Watching an author take something that exists and force it to mean something else feels uncomfortable to me, like I’m watching some kind of Frankenstonian experiment gone wrong.

Names are Words, Too

This is where it gets tricky, especially for fantasy writers.

We look around now, and it seems like there are two categories of names: you have names like Rachel or Michael or Katherine or Timothy – name that are, you know, names – and then you have the other ones like Apple and Blue Ivy and Pilot.

Some people know where I’m going with this.

The problem is that on some level, there’s really no such thing as a name. At some point, every name that we now think of as being sensible and appropriate used to mean something else. “Michael” originally traces back to Hebrew, and a sort of awesome rhetorical question: “Who is like God?” Having an archangel with that name is kind of fantastic; his mere existence challenged everyone to reflect on the ways in which they could never measure up to God. “Michael” is a nice enough name, and it’s come a long way since then, but it’s interesting to keep in mind that it’s sort of the ancient equivalent of naming your daughter “Can you set as nice a table as Martha Stewart?”. Two thousand years from now, that might not look as ridiculous as it seems today.

“Rachel”, incidentally, means “sheep”, “Katherine” does not mean “pure” in spite of what a lot of babyname websites will try to tell you. It doesn’t come from “katharos”; the “h” was added in later. The root name is actually the Greek or Russian “Ekaterine” and roughly means “something to do with Hekateros, the Greek god of a weird rustic dance”.

Timothy” is a type of european grass, making “Apple” and “Blue Ivy” look pretty reasonable, all things considered.

And then we get to names like Autumn, or Joy. Both of these names are just flat-out words that we still use as a regular part of our everyday speech; we’ve just decided that it’s also acceptable to use them as names. Some months like “April” and “June” get a free pass when it comes to that, while “August” and “January” are under closer supervision. “Joy” is acceptable, but “Ire” seems like a bizarre thing to name a baby, and I think naming a kid “Frustration” might actually count as cruelty.

Many common surnames are either simple descriptions of their bearer’s profession (think: Cooper, Carter, Fowler, Howard, and Thatcher) or identify a parent (O’Donnell, MacCleod, Ferguson, Johannesson).

Even completely artificial names, like the names of companies or products, have meanings and history and souls. If this listicle is to be believed, Canon cameras and Reebok shoes both chose their names by modifying existing words whose meanings they liked. Pepsi’s brand name comes from the word “dispepsia”, meaning “indigestion”. The name seems like a nonsense-word to us today, given validity only because generations before us accepted it, but when it first originated it did so in a culture which understood the context. It’s sort of like “Lyft” makes sense as a sort of a taxi service because we’re used to the idiom “give me a lift”. If the company remains successful but the idiom dies out, future generations will just think the company has a strange made-up name.

We’ll get to be smug about it – but we’ll also be dead, so I’m not sure if we come out as winners on that one.

There Are No Rules

The point is, there is no room for complacency where word choice is concerned. Every name, every word, is a reflection of the culture and the people around it. Common, beloved language is common for a reason, and taboos or curses get people’s backs up because they represent cultural disharmony. Every society is going to have some words that they hold as sacred, and some that cut to the bone – and those harsh words aren’t always going to be “damn” or “curses” or “a pox on you”, no matter how safe and familiar those curses might seem.

Just because another author did things a certain way in the past doesn’t make it the right answer. After all, the only person who can really know the context of your story is you.

When it comes to making choices as a writer, you have to start thinking about what judgment calls are being made by various groups of people. You have to ask why they’re making these calls, and to what extent various members of the culture that you’re writing will follow or break away from these trends.

When you’re naming people, or places, or things, you have to start wondering what your characters would value as a culture enough to be naming their children after it – and then ask yourself how long these names have been around, how much they’ve changed. Does the person, place, or thing like the name it’s been given?

When you’re describing someone or something, think about all of the different ways that someone could look at this thing. Remember who your narrator is, and ask yourself: what words would they be using right now, given all of the options available to them?

There are of course no objective universal answers; if it were that easy, everyone would be a writer. But it’s time that more people stopped taking words for granted, and remembered that they’re just as important as characters, or settings, or plot twists. If you take care of them, they’ll reward you with breathtaking works; but if you ignore them, abuse them, the resulting swampy disaster will be nobody’s fault but your own.

Stay tuned for Part Two, whenever my turn comes up again on the blog roster!


how i learned to stop worrying and love the…

Fanfic is pretty similar to but also really fundamentally different from original fiction. It’s similar in that you’re writing about things using words, but the way you write about them is completely different because you’re using characters and a world that has already been established; you have to make your fanfic fit into that world, or be a plausible offshoot – or you should just write original fic. With original fiction, you’re starting with a blank page in every sense of the word, even though you can obviously draw inspiration and ideas and information from the world around you. And you’re also writing to a completely different audience; generally speaking, people who like the already created world and who want to read more.

“Oh, can I watch?” she said. And Dympna, who never got her hands dirty, could nevertheless name every cylinder and valve that was lying on the floor, and let Maddie have a go painting the new fabric (over the fuselage she’d kicked in) with a mess of plastic goo called “dope” which smelled like pickled onions. After an hour had gone by and Maddie was still there asking what all the parts of the plane were for and what they were called, the mechanics gave her a wire brush and let her help.

Maddie said she always felt very safe, after that, flying in Dympna’s Puss Moth, because she had helped to put its engine back together herself.

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

Writing starts with reading. We learn by example, by reading something and thinking, hey, I could do that – this is why a lot of new writers end up writing really derivative stuff at first; they’re trying to imitate something great they read. Some new writers go straight to fanfiction, which is why there’s a lot of wish-fulfillment-y self-insert fanfiction out there to go along with all the wish-fulfillment-y self-insert original fiction. Early efforts at fanfiction are often pretty simple too. This is the kind of stuff that goes viral to be mocked around the internet – an authorial self-insert goes to Hogwarts and ends up with everyone falling in love with her, etc. Simple=/= bad, by the way – I think this kind of fanfic can be great fun and well-written, and even if it’s not what I personally want to read, someone had a lot of fun writing it, which is good – but that’s a topic for another time. At some point, the new writer starts having more and new ideas of their own, and the rest is history.

Anyway, most fanfiction goes a bit deeper than the stereotypical Mary Sue fic and starts deconstructing the canon world. Even modern day alternate universes, the “what if the characters of Harry Potter were teenagers who worked in a coffee shop”-type stories are doing this – they ask things like: what character traits are intrinsic? What are a result of circumstances? How would things be different or the same with these characters in different circumstances? These are (some of the) questions that I think most fanfiction attempts to answer, whether or not the particular fic does it well. Essentially, it’s literary analysis but way more fun. By writing fanfiction, you can take apart a story, a world, a character, and put them back together. Maybe even put them back together better! This helps with writing in a few ways. First, you learn why authors decide to write things in the way they do, and second, you learn why you write things in the way you do. You learn from where you disagree with the authors, where you think the writing is weak, what you would do differently.

You can learn all this from original fiction too, but I myself think that if you’re going to learn how to build something, first you should learn to take apart a functional model and see how it works. As much as I hate the “training wheels”-style metaphors for fanfiction, I do think that in this way it can be like a sandbox; you get to mess around at will and get better at writing while writing stories about Hermione being awesome.

Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.

Henry Jenkins

Just kidding, that’s not actually what he said, it’s a misattribution. Anyway, someone said it, and I completely agree. There’s a view of stories, books, etc., these days – that they belong to someone who owns the rights, to Disney, to the writer themselves. Legally, that’s entirely true, and also plagiarism is bad. But on another level it’s just completely off base of the point of telling stories. Stories change, get retold, misinterpreted, and are rewritten all the time. As they should be; a story is a living thing, like language. And as with language, the only unchanging stories are dead ones.

One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act, but a lot of times you’ll read these stories and it’ll be like ‘What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?’ And of course the point is that they don’t, and they wouldn’t, because they don’t have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There’s a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there—which I find fascinating and interesting and cool.”

Lev Grossman

It’s not all about my new age-y feelings on what a story means; fanfiction is also a way of challenging the dominant culture, a culture that prioritizes the narratives of white, cisgender, heterosexual men above all others. Is fandom activism? No. But it can overlap with activism. It can challenge assumptions and start a dialogue. And a lot of people get very upset about people writing straight characters in gay relationships, imagining characters as a different race than their canon one, writing about if a cisgender character were actually trans. There’s a feeling of “get your icky hands off my characters” about this kind of distress, like those of us who belong to marginalized groups should just be happy with what we get. And fanfiction challenges that. And it challenges the “image” of characters like, for example, Captain Kirk as a straight man. Fanfiction asks: what if this man, who is brave, and strong, and smart, and a cultural icon, was actually gay? What if gay characters didn’t just get assigned to the role of sassy friends, villains, and women who get killed before their time? And what if straight men could identify with and admire a gay character without the world ending?

Fanfiction is fulfilling a fundamental need that people have: to see themselves in media, as whole people, and maybe even with a happy ending or two.

No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.

Erin Bow

Ending on a happier note than my eternal rage about every lesbian character ever getting brutally killed off, writing is good! Writing more can only help you get better, so keep doing it. And maybe check out fandom, if you have the time. You might find something you like.