Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Muse Of Fire: The Magic of Words

“Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.” William Shakespeare

Words are the wondrous tools that can make or break a writer’s fortune. Shakespeare was an alchemist with words. He created magic for his audiences and readers alike. No emotion stymied him. No description stumped him. His characters’ names were perfection, his titles resonant.

He is acknowledged to have altered words to suit his purposes, and to create words when none in his repertoire suited his purposes.

Words. Such a little name for such varied things. You begin each story you tell with a single word. And then you build upon it, creating sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately collect them in groupings of thousands, which you bind together with your creativity, and present to your readers in the hope that this collection enthralls and entrances.

Words are, literally, everywhere around you, so there is vast opportunity to discover and hoard them. Entire books are devoted to nothing but words: Dictionaries and thesauri abound, each one different than the next. There are specialty books about words: Cultural words, slang words, dirty words, curse words, sex words. There are books by and about word lovers, like Ammon Shea Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. There are linguistic tomes, and studies of etymology.

I grew up in a home where my mother kept her dictionary beside her chair. She never failed to use it on a daily basis, and I adopted the habit. Whether to look up a word I may have stumbled upon but did not know, to check the spelling, determine the correct usage, or find out the etymological origins of the word, I am a dictionary and word lover. Every time I open one of these books I discover another golden nugget of literary goodness to add to my word coffers. At the moment I am especially enamored of ilk, sepulcher, crapulous, dogsbody, Machiavellian and loathsome.

I’ve wondered how many words I know? Hundreds? Thousands? Could it be possible to know a million words?

What words amuse and beguile you? As writers words are our basic stock in trade. We can create nothing without them. They are like amazing puzzles –waiting to be arranged in any one of countless combinations to express your imaginative story. Some words are mundane, some are illuminating. Writing romance fiction we have some unique challenges, as well as some typical writing challenges. We must not be purple prosey. So finding alternative words and phrases to express the heaving bosom or the throbbing manhood or to describe yet again a heroine’s tresses or a hero’s eyes, can require a Sherlockian level of linguistic skill.

Overuse of a word, as Isabo Kelly showed us, a verbal tic, can deaden your writing. Pedestrian or repetitive word choices can lead to flat writing, a failure to communicate crisply, and will stifle your power to sweep your reader along into the world of your story.

Wordsmith and wag, Mark Twain (his own pseudonymous name a word play, as “mark twain” was the cry used by riverboat men when measuring the depth of the water) said: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

And Anton Chekhov, dramatist and short story writer extraordinaire admonishes writers to value and use their words thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Word choices are the difference between creating characters with unique voices, or caricatures of humanity; the difference between clarity and confusion, boring or electrifying tales, hilarious or dull writing, magical or mundane stories. Word choices enable you to create the perfect title, the perfect character name, and a vast fictional world. Would the iconic southern belle have captured our imagination as well if she had been named “Pansy”, as Margaret Mitchell originally intended? Would Harry’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry be as whimsical were it named Eton? Word choices set our stories – they help conjure time and place and mood and tempo. Words can be alliterative or rhyming. They can create the tintinnabulation of the bells. Or enhance the character of Severus Snape with use of a sibilant name. Unfortunate word choices can make a reader laugh as well. A malapropism when words are confused – the character joke embodied in Richard Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop. Mistaken word choices can appall an editor. Unnecessary verbosity when a single brilliant word will do can turn off both editor and reader. Hackneyed choices, uninspired choices - when there are so many words to choose among, why ever settle for second best?

Ah, but when the words are chosen with love and care? They are like the mixing of the perfect love potion – one that intoxicates your reader.