Sometimes when hubby reads my manuscript, his comments will include, “Is that a real word?” Now this is a well-educated man, but his focus is in science and the word in question isn’t part of that realm. When hit with such an inquiry, writers face a decision: Keep the word, or substitute it?
We don’t want to insult our readers by talking down to them, nor do we want to go over their heads. Striking that balance in between calls for some judgment and can be influenced by different factors.
Once upon a time in a writing course, we read two versions of one short story. The author had published it long ago in one magazine, and then many years later rewrote it (I think he also changed the title), and it was picked up by a different publication.
The characters of this piece were … well … ahem … white trash, and their son had been struck by a car. In the first story, the mother observed her child taken into the surgery room by “a table on wheels.” In the second version, the author used “gurney.”
I prefer the second version, but I can see why the writer, wishing to reflect the perspective of the characters, illustrated that the mother didn’t know what that contraption was called. So while this example may qualify as “six of one and half a dozen of another,” word choice can also be influenced by keeping your audience in mind.
Sci-fi readers won’t be fazed by statements like “I need to invert the polarity of the harmonics.” They might stop and scratch their heads, however, if someone’s alacrity is referred to (I once got talked out of using that word).
Of course, if the term is spot-on, you can employ the trick of using it in context and give the reader the benefit of being able to figure it out. “She used alacrity in confronting the problem” is less useful than “Her alacrity in getting the polarity inverted saved everyone on the ship.”
(Okay, not the best wording, but you get the point!)
Writers (and readers) love words, but some people are more like walking dictionaries than others. Every word must serve a purpose, and they can be used to both guide and misdirect. But if confusion enters the mix, that rose should go by another name.
P. S. In case you were wondering, alacrimonious is NOT a real word!
“What makes you think I saw anything?” Mr. Burroughs squinted down at them from the top step of his ramshackle porch.
Sage glanced at her husband standing beside her. Rhys’s work as a tracker numbered in the years while she was still new at this, so it made sense for him to guide this conversation.
“We represent a private organization that investigates unusual activities.” Rhys spoke in the fake Georgia drawl that he used to conceal his natural British accent. “The case we’re working on now led us to a wildlife agent in your local game department who reported that two days ago you called inquiring about a naked bear wearing nothing but your tool belt.”
She recognized that Rhys had purposefully misrepresented a detail in what the agent told them in order to spur Mr. Burroughs into correcting him.
His attempt was partially successful. “That’s not what I asked them.”
“Which part did I get wrong?”
The middle-aged farmer with gray stubble on his cheeks regarded Rhys with brows that knitted tighter together. “What organization did you say you were with?”
She didn’t blame Mr. Burroughs for being suspicious. The agent they spoke with was convinced the creaky rustic had nipped too much scrubby moonshine. She and Rhys had a good idea who he had seen, however, and his unbiased testimony was essential to their investigation.
It was time to employ some feminine charm. “We do need your help, Mr. Burroughs.” Sage smiled in a manner that flirted with being coy. “We believe your report was on a subject we’ve been trying to locate for some time. Many people would benefit if you could help us to find it.”
His gaze leveled on her. “So what do you say that I saw?”
She couldn’t tell him the truth. As ancient and widespread as these beings were, they were regarded these days as elements of myth. They sported multiple names like Anthropophagus, Pishachas, Nephil, or Teratism. Rhys had grown up calling them Fomoraig, but Sage couldn’t even use her American term Booger to this man.
When innocent witnesses like him sighted these creatures in modern days, they usually mistook them for aliens. Sometimes she would play upon that mistake while interacting with informants. But Sage ascertained Mr. Burroughs was more skeptical about such matters, so she had to tailor her response accordingly.
“I can only tell you it’s the result of some classified experimentation.” She wasn’t proud of lying. “If I told any more, you would find yourself inconvenienced. I’m sorry, but we are trying to make this as easy for you as we can.”
He stared at her for a few seconds before responding. “At first I thought it was a man, which was why I never shot it. It was after dark, you know, and the dogs were freaking out and barking right at my workshop. So I went to see what the commotion was all about.
“The door was still closed like I leave it every night. I did think maybe some hooligan had slipped in there to steal power tools, so when I went inside, I was expecting to see a person.” Mr. Burroughs inhaled deeply and scowled again. “If that was a person, he’s got serious issues. But a mangy bear doesn’t open and close doors, either.”
“Could you tell what it was doing in your workshop?” Rhys asked.
“Dancing the Macarena, for all I could tell. It was just sort of darting all around the shop, and it was carrying my tool belt around. Only … its head was all shaggy, like it needed a shave and a haircut. But the rest of its body was smooth, though I’m not sure if it was skin or a tight jumpsuit. It kind of woofed after I came in and shot out of there like a greased cannonball … with my belt.”
Her train of thought slammed to a halt and derailed a few cars in the process. His description of the Booger’s behavior didn’t match their other leads. “Did it take anything other than the tool belt?”
“Only what was in it, which was just a hammer and some nails, and a pair of pliers. Believe me, I looked through the place to see if there was anything else missing, while I still thought it could be a person. So, can you tell me if it was a witty bear or a half-wit man?”
What Mr. Burroughs described was unlike any other encounter she’d ever heard of involving these creatures. And considering they’d developed familiarity with this one already, the shift in his behavior made her wonder if this was the same one they’d been tracking.
Considering the description matched that of their target, it had to be the same. Or maybe there really was a stash of tainted hooch on the premises, except it was the Booger instead of Burroughs imbibing nefarious spirits.
There wasn’t much left to this interview, and after they thanked the farmer for his cooperation it was time to head back to the car. Sage was haunted by a nagging sensation that their pursuit had taken a turn for the worse.
“Knickers.” Rhys resumed his native version of English as he started the engine. “This one just had to go and make things interesting.”
Her heart fluttered. “Do you think he knows we’re following him? Could he be trying to lure us into a trap?”
“I’ve seen traps before.” Rhys frowned as he backed the vehicle down the driveway. “It always gets more serious when the hunter becomes the hunted. This is when you embrace the belief that nothing is what it appears to be.”
Burroughs stepped back into his house as they drove away, and glanced at the shadowy form lurking in the far corner.
Its voice was a guttural rasp. “Did you tell them what I instructed you?”
“Of course.” Burroughs smirked. “And the idiots believed every word of it.”
This month the prompt word for #BlogBattle was Shift, so here is my contribution. Follow the link if you want to check out more short stories inspired by this idea!
It’s common for a writer to sit down and begin crafting a book while filled with joy and enthusiasm. It’s also common, somewhere down the line, for that same writer to stare at the unfinished story with dread and contempt.
The honeymoon has ended.
Whether it’s self-doubt or time constraints or that God-forsaken plot twist that contaminated the whole enchilada, all authors can develop a love-hate relationship with their work. This is one of the ways that ninety percent perspiration becomes an annoyance. And good writing, like a good marriage, doesn’t just happen. You got to put some effort into it.
For example, over the last couple of months this blog flowed quite smoothly until this week. It’s been one of those weeks. As my deadline approached, I realized I wasn’t prepared with a topic, and flirted with the notion of skipping out (had lots of practice in that). But I’d made a vow to crank something out each week (barring various disasters), so I determined to see it through.
You’ve heard it before: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
The blog and I were at odds, but in itself that presented a topic. Granted, the next time this happens I may be up a creek without a paddle because I’ve used this idea already … or I could come up with an allegory about writing even when your preferred tools are missing.
(I’d better jot that down so I can use it for later!)
So when the shine has gone from the story and instead it looks like something the cat dragged in, don’t give up hope. Sit down with a glass of lemonade and tackle the problem, and then you’ll remember why you wanted to write this in the first place.