Word Use

Last night was one of those nights where I just couldn’t sleep, so as soon as I’d turned over a few times I knew it was inevitable that I’d end up reading until I fell asleep. I didn’t have my Kindle to hand and couldn’t be bothered with trekking downstairs over cold floor-boards, so remained where I was and reached out of bed for the first book that took my fancy. I always have a number of books splayed out next to my bed, resting on their open pages. I don’t like book-marks too much. I like the way a book holds itself open after a long rest during the day-time. (Update: I’ve received a few emails from very distressed people who have found the way I treat books distinctly alarming. One person said she would never lend me her books, ever. Well, don’t panic. I don’t treat other peoples books in this manner, and I buy most of my own books from Oxfam, so many of them are almost falling apart anyway. If you think that’s a poor excuse, and still wish to take action, I suggest you call the RSPB — that’s the Royal Society For The Protection Of Books, not Birds, by the way.)

Next to my bed was:

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai. A humorous tale of a boy who ends up stuck in a tree. It’s a wonderful first novel and I’m really enjoying it.

That’s as much as I can remember, which is slightly concerning. And now, just to make sure I get it right, I am mooching upstairs to see what else is there. Or I will in a second. I really should know what is and isn’t next to my bed, the amount of times I’ve reached out for a book in the night-time…

Here I am I’m back.

Also next to my bed is Coraline by Neil Gaiman, because I keep picking it up and reading his miniature master-classes in simplistic passages, and I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (the book which, if you didn’t know, single-handedly kick-started the zombie / vampire craze that would eventually explode). You really should read all three books (I’ve not finished Hullabaloo yet but I can tell it’s going to be good). Regardless of where your taste lies, you can learn something from them, something good.

But last night I didn’t pick up any of these books, because Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro was still lying there half unread and it was bugging me. I decided to do something about it.

I must confess, a few months ago I started Never Let Me Go and didn’t get past the first 3 chapters. Although that wasn’t all my fault – I’d thought the digital copy I’d bought online could be read with my Kindle and it turned out it could only be read on a Sony e-reader or computer. I’m already a slave to my desk, so I decided to leave it for a while and come back to it later.

Nocturnes, for the unknowing, is a book of 5 short-stories revolving around “Music and Nightfall”. It’s a romantic book which sounds like it should be romantically predictable, yet it strikingly isn’t. I was glad to find that out, as for a while I’d been thinking Ishiguro’s writing was the plain kind which can have a tendency to the mundane and the “every-day”.

The first story was intriguing, the second was quite funny and entertaining, and the third story – entitled Malvern Hills – was, in my opinion, exceptionally well structured. Not only that but, at risk of sounding like a fan of stalking magnitude, the characters were exceedingly well drafted too. But more than anything, I admired his word-use.

This picture of a happy-go-lucky LOOK AT ME! Peacock demonstrates graphically what you are aiming for with good word use

This picture of a hiding, WOE-IS-ME Peacock, on the other hand, demonstrates graphically what you are not aiming for with good word use. Take your pick, make your choice…are you a happy-go-lucky or a woe-is-me?

But first, a confession: as with all the reading I do, it always ends up as more meaningful than reading, and last night was no exception. I wish I could just sit there and take in the words and get lost as though writing mattered to me no more than anything else I enjoy sporadically – a walk in the cool night when it’s been warm all day, or playing ball with my bitch, Jojo – but sadly that is never the case, and once you’re a writer then you’re always searching, always investigating. Like a movie obsessive who sits there examining every scene and how it slots together, with writing I always end up analysing the sentences and looking at the words. Studying the intention. A never-ending puzzle where a hundred new possibilities to solve it appear with every passing paragraph.

Reading Malvern Hills — a tale of a musician going to stay with his cafe-owning sister and her husband in the Herefordshire country and what transpires when, by chance, two hikers come into the cafe – I couldn’t help but think about word use and how it is so crucial. This, I feel, is something which many beginner writers overlook. It’s certainly something which I overlooked, and something which I find myself constantly contemplating.

One particular sentence triggered this, and it began like this: I left the back way without encountering anyone…

Of course,  I don’t need to tell you that there is nothing unique or incredible about that one particular half-sentence that makes it stand out from any other. It is not beautiful or seemingly impressive in any way. But what it is, within the confines of the story, is functional and right. And not just those things, but able to answer a whole slew of questions instantly which would otherwise have gone unanswered.

The key is with the word encountering. He could have said any of the following and it would have had a similar meaning:

I left the back way without seeing anyone.

I left the back way without bumping into anyone.

I left the back way without anyone stopping me.

Yet encountering is really the only one that absolutely fits, when you really think about it, and here, without me preaching too much, I just thought I would explain this further as I’m not sure if this kind of thing is something every reader picks up on:

The way I see it, If he’d said I left the back way without seeing anyone, I’d have garnered from that that he meant the cafe was empty. This would have undoubtedly set a different tone and altered my perception of the way the main protagonist was feeling – what with the sentence meaning either a) the cafe was just empty, fact or b) the cafe was empty and I was sad about that.

If he’d said I left the back way without bumping into anyone, I’d have got from that either a) he was actively avoiding seeing or speaking to anyone or b) he just didn’t bump into anyone, fact.

And equally, if he’d said, I left the back way without anyone stopping me, I might have concluded from that that he was in no mood to be stopped, and that there was some resistance against his leaving which was somewhat un-written. This is why encountering was the correct turn of phrase to use — because with that word in place I got the strong feeling that he was slightly sad about that fact. Or conversely, I could have read into it that he was very happy about it, or that it just didn’t matter. But whatever the case, what I knew from that one sentence was that he probably had seen people in the cafe, which was an important point, and told me how he wanted to avoid people. The point is that one word, sometimes, can set the entire mood of a story. Get that one word wrong, or somehow off-kilter, and you have a land-slide on your hands which you may not be able to stop.

Not to make you paranoid about people reading your work, of course! (And the truth is that every person reads and perceives things anyway, so there is no one absolute rule. Not ever.)

And that is why word use is so vitally important. It’s not enough to just sling any old word in there and call it a story or a finished novel. Life is full of tiny moments and nuances that pass so quickly — often without us even noticing, as I’m sure you’re aware — that it’s hard to make sense of them all, let alone transcribe that into written form. The best we can do, when we try to recreate all this on paper or in digitial ink, is have a good hard think about how our words come across and make the story and the meaning as truthful as we can.

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