Sunday, May 11, 2014

I Hate It When Writers Do [insert literary device]

Pet peeves. We all have them. I gnash my teeth when I hear some scientist on NPR's Science Friday uttering the phrase, "The data says that..."

A slip up like that would have earned me ridicule back when I was in grad school (which wasn't quite during the dark ages). "It's 'say,' damn it. Data is a plural word!" I growl back at the radio.

Except, it isn't. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be used to refer to a mass of information in the singular, and in fact 60% of the usage panel accepts the use of "data" as a singular word. So my advisors were fighting a losing battle back in the 90s, but they managed to instill a lifetime hatred of what, to me, sounds like an ignorant and inaccurate usage by people who should know better. Even knowing that it's not incorrect usage, it would be hard for me to be objective about a manuscript where someone educated refers to "data" as a singular word.

When you hang out with writers (in both on and offline environments), you won't go very long without running into similar pet peeves that are similarly overstated. One person hates the Oxford comma and provides an impassioned screed about why it's (usually) not needed before the terminal "and" in a series. Another person rebuts with an equally vehement excoriation of anyone who creates the potential for lumping the last two words in a series together by leaving it off.

This example is a bit silly as a defense of the O.C., IMO
It can be amusing to share rants with our fellow writers, but it can also be demoralizing, especially for those of us who are still developing our writing chops. Just today, for instance, I learned that it's (sic) wrong to ever have someone climb down a ladder (claiming that "climb down" is a pleonasm and that pleonasms are always bad writing). I've also learned that it's bad writing to italicize a word for emphasis, because a good writer knows how to create the needed emphasis via context. I've also recently learned that metaphors or descriptions that aren't literally plausible are ludicrous. One fellow writer, for instance, said that he hates it when someone "rolls their eyes" at something (says it makes him think of eyeballs on the floor).

Occasionally, I find myself sputtering indignantly during exchanges on writing forums, as I sometimes use colloquial language in my writing (characters have even been known to sit down on occasion, which really is a pleonasm), because people say and think it that way in real life, so why can't characters in novels? And sure, I'm clever enough to think of ways to write around italicizing words I want to emphasize, but maybe I don't want to, because I'm trying to create a certain voice or tone (note how I just emphasized want in the manner so derided).
New rule to me--all use of language must be literal.

Another technique that is growing more popular is present-tense narratives. Some people categorically loathe the use of present tense in fiction and will not/can not read (or give a positive crit) to anything written in that tense. I read one such comment in a blog a while ago. Something along the lines of: "I don't see the point of it, and I've never seen a story in present that wouldn't work better in past. It's gimmicky, bad writing."

A few other things some writers/readers hate and denounce as bad writing that are not necessarily wrong, depending on context:

Italicized "direct" thoughts
Sentence fragments
Any use of passive voice to intentionally place the emphasis on the recipient of an action
Flashbacks to deliver backstory
Novels with multiple pov characters
Sex scenes in novels
Swearing in novels
Novels where the pov character's voice infiltrates the narrative
Contractions in narrative
Narrative with a more formal tone than the dialog
Details about characters' appearances
Tags that follow dialog and lead with said instead of the proper name ("Let's go," said Sam)

And so on. Readers and writers are human, of course, and we all have our likes and dislikes. But it's important to differentiate between something that's pushing our critical buttons because it's not being done well or feels out of place in the context of a given story, and something that's pushing our buttons because it's one of our personal pet peeves (or even something we were taught was incorrect when it isn't, like the above-mentioned use of the word "data" as a collective singular). Opinions stated as fact can have a devastating effect on brand new writers. Inexperienced writers lack the perspective to know whether the negative feedback is because it really is categorically wrong to do something, or if they're simply not doing it well enough, or whether it's simply the critiquer's pet peeve bludgeoning perfectly sound writing over the head.

And this got me to thinking. How much of the feedback we give others about their writing is not really intended to improve their writing, but to mold them into writing to our own preferences or conceits? It's a tough call to make sometimes, since our own perceptions of what is good writing is shaped by the things our own mentors have told us and by our own reading experiences. Writers tend to read more widely than most people do, but even so, when pleasure reading, we tend to gravitate towards books written in styles that lie within our comfort zones. This can affix us with literary blinders.

Neil Gaiman famously said, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I suppose this can be taken too far. If someone tells a novice writer that she's punctuating dialog incorrectly, or that he's got a problem with comma splicing, that critter may very well be right, and he or she may very well be able to tell the writer to fix it. But for issues that are more related to tone, style, and voice in writing, I think Gaiman is probably spot on in a high percentage of cases.

The take-home message for me as someone who critiques the work of other writers is to remember that I'm trying to help them find an approach that works for them in the context of their project. I should want to help them write like their best selves, not to write more like I do, or even to write more like my favorite authors. Criticism should be given with a dollop of humility, and it's a good idea to include the caveat, "This is only my opinion."

Likewise, criticism (unless it's clearly meant to be destructive or demoralizing) should be accepted graciously, even if you disagree with it. It should definitely be considered, at least, if multiple critters are offering the same feedback. But that doesn't mean you should change your approach to writing simply because someone, or even several someones, doesn't/don't like it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Which Words Belong in a Fantasy Novel?

The short answer, of course, is it depends. Fantasy is a broad genre, and some novels are set in real-world historic times, and others are contemporary or even futuristic. Many fantasy stories take place in secondary worlds that have no connection to the "real" universe at all. With the latter kind of novel, one could argue that the characters aren't "really" speaking English, but the language used by the author can evoke a particular voice or tone that will appeal to some readers and not to others.

It's not uncommon for someone to ask questions about fantasy language use in writer's forums. Many people seem to think that writing epic or high fantasy in particular requires the author to write in a sort of faux version of Ye Olde English where no one uses contractions (except, maybe 'tis and 'twas) and verbs and nouns are inverted.

'Tis a most wondrous thing that you show me. How came it to be here?"

I'm pretty sure I'd chuck a novel where everyone spoke like this across the room in short order. To be honest, I can't think of any fantasy novels, high or otherwise, where people spoke like this. People often cite The Lord of the Rings as an example of the "old high fantasy style," but actually, Tolkien's characters did not all speak with the same voice or diction (Samwise even said ain't sometimes).

One approach is to have characters speaking relatively modern English, but to remove words and phrases that reference concepts that wouldn't exist in the world where the story takes place, along with words that simply sound too modern to most readers.

The line can be fuzzy at times. Is it acceptable to use a word like "collaborate," which didn't enter the English lexicon until the 1870s (according to the OED) if your story is taking place in a typical quasi-Medival/Classical/Reinaissance era mashup? Might the use of such a word knock some readers out of the story, even though it's taking place in a different world and is, in essence, a translation of whatever word they'd use for the concept?

I'd be inclined to leave this word out of a historic fantasy set in the 1700s or 1800s, since the people would in fact be speaking something very close to modern English, and the presence of a word that had not been coined yet in their lexicon would stand out more than in a historic novel set in, say, Saxon times, or in a secondary world fantasy.

But that's me. And this is the problem, really. There's no approach that will make every reader happy. And no matter how carefully I (who am most assuredly neither a historian nor linguist of any kind) research word use, mistakes will slip through. There's also the issue of misconceptions that are so well established they might as well be reality. For instance, some people say the use of "modern" curse words like "shit" and "fuck" throw them out of a pre-industrial setting, but they're fine with the use of the word "bloody" as a sentence enhancer. Actually, the previous two words are about 100 years older than the latter, though none are as old (in their current form) as many suppose (dating back to around the 1500s-1600s).

Here's a list of words that are more recent than most readers and writer assume. It's by no means exhaustive, but it includes some words that often appear in fantasy novels.

Doll: While the term was used as a female nickname from the 1600s, it wasn't used to describe the familiar children's toy until the late 1700s. The word "poppet" is much older and was used to refer to human-inspired figurines and toys (and I am guessing is closely related to the word puppet).

Feudalism/feudal system: This term and historic concept only dates to the 18th century. That's right, it's a term that was coined by historians to describe a social system that existed centuries before. People living in the middle ages did not refer to their sociopolitical system as feudalism. Makes me wonder how future generations might refer to our society.

Improvise: early 1800s. I have no idea how people referred to making things up on the fly before this word entered the English lexicon. Did the concept even exist?

Interested: Only from early 1700s. The term interest to refer to a legal claim or a concern dates to the 1500s, however. Interesting (as in something that arouses interest) only dates to the early 1700s as well.

Leggings: Dates from the 1750s, and originally referred to an extra outer covering that protected the leg, but it's often used in place of words like trousers, pants, britches etc. in fantasy or historic novels. I think Ayla and Jondalar were wearing "leggings" in the Earth's Children books.

Nice: An old word dating to the 13th century, but it originally meant foolish. By the 1300s, it meant fussy or fastidious. Its modern meaning only dates to the late 18th century.

Slums: The word came into use sometime between 1805-1815. It's not clear that the concept of slums as we know them now, or the strict stratification of neighborhoods along socioeconomic lines, existed in Medieval or Renaissance cities, but slums are present in most of the fantasy novels I've read in recent years.

Smallclothes: Also dates from the 1750s and referred specifically to a men's undergarment, but it's often used as a generic term for the underwear of both sexes in medieval-type fantasy settings.
Stake, as in to stake a claim: mid 1800s. Stake out only 1940s era.

Uniform (as in a noun to refer to something worn in a military or professional context): From the mid 18th century. The use of the word as an adjective to denote sameness is older. Yep, prior to the mid-18th century, soldiers did not wear uniforms.

Vaguely as an adjective for doing something in a vague manner: only from 1780s, though the word vague is much older.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using these words in a fantasy novel if they describe something that does exist in your world. Unless you're shooting for a very historic feel.

Words that are a lot older than many people think. 

This list is no more exhaustive than the other one, but it includes words that might cause some readers of a Medieval to Renaissance-inspired fantasy to raise their eyebrows.

Booze: From the early 1600s.

Committee: Dates back to the early 1600s, and could either be from the word "commit," or could be a revival of an earlier Anglo-French word. This came as a surprise, since committee seems much more modern to me than words like collaborate or improvise.

Funk: To mean bad smell (from a dialectical French word for smoke) dates back to the 1620s. Referring to a bad mood from the mid 1700s. Referring to a style of music, from the mid 1900s. However, the word is so strongly associated with the music (or the concept of quirky coolness) in people's minds, that they often assume the original meaning is modern too.

Obtuse: Dates to early 1500s, and of course means dull or blunt. However, the use of the word to mean stupid or dense is nearly as old.

Quirk (meaning a peculiarity) dates to around 1600, though quirky as an adjective for someone with lots of quirks only appeared in the early 1800s.

Snot with reference to mucus: 1400. Using the term as an insult only dates to the early 1800s.

Warp (meaning to bend or twist out of shape): 14th century.

And finally, a vanished word, I wish were still in the lexicon: snite, which was an Old English word meaning to pick or wipe one's nose, and very possibly the ancestor of the word "snot."

Sources of word ages:

 Can anyone think of any other words that are much older or younger than most people assume?

Oooh, I just thought of one I completely forgot to put in: Escalate. Now I always assumed that Otis Corporation named their movable staircase (invented circa 1900) an escalator because it escalates things, but in fact, the word escalator was coined from scratch to refer to the invention, and the verb "escalate" was back formed from this noun sometime in the 1920s. So it really is an anarchistic anachronistic (though it well may be anarchistic too :)) word.

It's a darned good word, though, and another example of a really new word that references something that wouldn't exist in a fantasy world, yet it feels old.