Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Four Letter Words

It's hard. Writing is hard any time, under any conditions. Not as hard as handling a jackhammer in 110 degree city heat, mind you. And not as hard as chasing toddlers around the house after working all day. And not as hard as dealing with a boss who's dumber than a bag of hammers. But it's still pretty hard.
You know what in the English language is the dirtiest four-letter word? Hope.
Because we always have that hope, don't we, as writers? Hope that our project will outshine all the other work out there. Hope that we'll outshine our past projects. Hope that a big success may come our way because it's got to happen to someone, doesn't it? I mean, look at all those TV series and movies. They all started with the thing we do: a story.
But my post isn't about Hope. It's about the single basic building block of writers: words.
I just finished one of the best writing books I've read since Donald Maass--and if you've followed my posts, you know I'm a BIG fan of the Man. This book is The Writer's Portable Mentor, A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long.
A lot of stuff in that book. Good stuff. Hard stuff.
Like doing Lexicon Practice.
Long teaches that collecting words should be a regular, definite and specific habit for writers. She suggests buying a blank book--something with nice paper, something you want to keep for a while. Put two words per page, half a page each. Now this is not a typical vocabulary list full of words you learned for your high school English class. These are words that you find irresistable. Words that are, as Long says, juicy and hot. When you run across a word you like, put it in your Lexicon and later, when you make time, look it up and write down the definition and the root.
Put down words you know and like. Don't order your list. When you come across a word you like, add it to your Lexicon. Long suggests using concrete words, words that can be sensed. These are the words that make your writing "click" with a reader. Either nouns or verbs.
Words I have in my Lexicon so far: spindle, carroty, fissure, crawlspace, pockmark, felled, muck.
Nothing glamorous here. No movies or TV series.
Hard work.
Good work.
See all those four-letter words?


Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh, muck! Great word. I haven't heard it since I left New England. Thank you!

Fun post:) And good idea, collecting "juicy" words.

Anonymous said...

Since I started doing this, all kinds of cool words have popped into sight! Thanks for the comment, Terry!

Terry Odell said...

Excellent advice. I note ways other authors use words and phrases and then try to add them to my writing (see, I never thought of lexicon here!) Then, of course, you have to remember not to get too attached to them -- frisson was a favorite--or they'll overwhelm your prose.

I loved miasma, but was told it was too 'high-brow' for too many readers. By an editor and another well-respected author who said she was an English major but had to look it up. Sigh.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I was more aware of this in college and during the years I was teaching. But vocabulary is crucial to writing. Never pays to get lazy!
Also, use of vocabulary is vital in differentiating characters' dialog and thought processes.

Anonymous said...

Terry, I agree. Over-using words is not a good thing! In the book I mentioned, THE WRITER'S MENTOR, Long talks about how doing lexicon work will help to inhibit that. I have to admit, though, if an editor told me that the word miasma was "too high-brow" I'd badger my agent for a new editor. :)
And Jacqueline, I also agree that using vocabulary to differentiate characters is part of the fun of writing--and very effective!
Thank you both for your comments.

Helen Ginger said...

Very good advice. Creating your own list of words is better, I think, than browsing a thesaurus.

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