Holy crap how is this year almost over? Why is time moving so fast? What did all of you do? Who touched the red button?!?!
So, not to keep mining the past, but I wanted to talk about one more thing that came up at the SDCC Writers Coffeehouse. During the Q & A someone asked what I generally think of as an “impossible” question—although just looking at that written out I really should find a better term. See, it’s not so much that these questions are impossible to answer, it’s that there’s really only one person who can give a definitive answer. And it’s usually the person asking the question.
Y’see, there are questions that are very specific to my story, and the “correct” answer for me probably isn’t going to be the same correct answer for you. Things like, how many characters should I have in an ensemble? What’s the correct point of view to use? How much sex is too much? How much detail do I really need? See what I mean? There’s no real way to answer that unless I know the whole story, how it’s written, the context things are happening in…
Somebody at the Coffeehouse asked (paraphrasing from memory here) “how many made up words can you have in your first couple pages before an editor stops reading?” And my immediate answer was, well, I couldn’t really answer that. Again, the right answer for me won’t be the right answer for you, and said answer’s going to change from book to book.
But about a week later it struck me there is a way that we, as writers, can at least get a sense of if something’s disruptive or not. And that’s by being aware of the flow of our work. So let’s talk about that a little bit.
I think we’re all aware of flow on one level or another. I first heard the term from a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell, but I knew what she was talking about as she explained it. Paraphrasing a bit more, she described it as why some books you can’t put down and other books make you think about how the laundry needs folding.
I’d say flow is equal parts pacing, tone, and empathy. It’s about me understanding what’s going to jar my reader, either by nature of structure or material or vocabulary. What’s going to make them pause to remember these are just words on a page and not actual events. It’s about me stepping out of the way and not trying to be seen as the author. Letting people read my story rather than analyzing it. Really simply put, flow is what keeps people in my story instead of, well, knocking them out of it.
And that brings us to using words we’ve made up. Could be a simple portmanteau or clever bit of wordplay. Maybe terms from a technology we made up. Or a secret dark order. Maybe even a whole language. But I have to be careful, because there’s a good chance I could kawonk someone right out of the story if I’m using a lot of words I’ve made up.
You all see what I did there, right? Or maybe you didn’t. Kawonkis a nonsense pile of letters I threw together, but in context you kind of understood what I was saying with it almost immediately. Some of you may not even have really registered it as a made up word and just read it as a funny onomatopoeic sound effect or something.
But something can only work in context when I understand the context. So the more words I swap out with made up ones, the less chance there is of my readers understanding what I’m trying to say. Like if I told you we needed to kawonk this dreeenil ptoob before we niknik ptar the cheegles. I mean, if we hit a sentence like that we’re going to instinctively stop and start parsing the structure to figure out what this whoa I just broke the flow, didn’t I?
And even if there is plenty of context, it can get annoying to read something where I’ve decided to substitute existing words with made up ones for no real reason. Say, for example, people in my fantasy world all duel with scheevs. Some are cheap and crudely made, some are works of art, but most people have one. You see, a scheev is a narrow, double-edged blade about 24 to 30 inches long (originally iron or bronze, but mostly steel now), with a strong grip, some sort of protective guard or crosspiece between the blade and the grip, and often a small counterweight at the base that also locks the blade in place. And if you’re thinking, wait, did I just spend a whole paragraph describing a sword you are correct.
Except here they’re called scheevs. For… reasons.
And again, imagine how frustrating that paragraph would be if instead of bronze and steel it talked about droker and ogyed, flokks instead of inches, and an oppomass instead of a counterweight. Hopefully I didn’t make up my own numerical system, Think about pausing to dig through all of that and try to glean a meaning out of it and realizing we’re just talking about goddamn swords.
I don’t know about you, but that’d bring things to dead halt for me as I groan and rub my eyes.
‘Cause here’s the thing we always to remember. Weird as it may sound, the words I use don’t really matter. I mean, of course they’re important and they’ll bring nuance to the story. But that’s my point—the story is what matters. The charactersmatter. The plot matters. The actual words are just a delivery device. They’re the corn chip getting all that delicious salsa and guacamole into or mouths. And if I’m focusing a lot of my time and energy on coming up with a new way to say corn chip, that’s a good sign something’s probably going wrong in my writing.
I’m not saying don’t make up words. I mean, I put squale out there into the world. But there should be a reason for them being in my story, and the reason should be better than “I wanted to make things sound different.” Ultimately, they should be adding to my story, not distracting from it. Definitely not knocking me out of it to diagram sentences, glean meaning, or just grind my teeth in frustration.
Okay, this was super late, so next time will be in three days. And I’ll probably be talking about the holidays.
Until then, go write.
Let’s be honest, we’re not going to get a lot more in before 2022, so try to make it count.