Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Top Ten Words I Found Down the Back of the Sofa

 I love a good top ten list and more importantly, search engines love a good top ten list, so I have compiled my own catchy countdown to draw the masses away from the mainstream Top Ten Movies, TV Shows and Celebrity Arse Cracks and back to the mothership that is the English language. This is Action 159 (Clause 12) of my cunning manifesto to take over the world with a dictionary in one hand a mug of peppermint tea in the other.
But first let me take you back a bit …

To my shame, as a child when reading, I was a skipper rather than a looker-upper, because who has the time to pull out a dictionary for every unfamiliar word when you’re a) immersed in a great book and b) more than capable of inventing a definition for the word using its sound and context? But this is where I had been going wrong; this is where mistakes are made from which one might never recover. For example, who knew the words demotic and demonstrative had absolutely nothing to do with demons? Who knew ‘bucolic’ was neither a disease nor a vegetable? Who knew a ‘sibilant’ wasn’t a robotic, mutant brother?

So, in recent times, I have treated mystery words with a little more respect, especially as it is impossible to skip words in conversations with learned colleagues who have never missed a dictionary call in their lives, and making up my own definitions leads only to embarrassment – a despot is not served for pudding, Dada is not mama’s partner, a filigree is not an accommodating horse.

Several discoveries have emerged from my rehabilitation from crimes against language; the first is a realisation that there are literally words for everything. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but now I am committed to learning the meaning of every single word in the English language, I am convinced that many words are surplus to requirement. Interlocutor: a person having a conversation. Do we really need that one? Sonorous? I have given this word so many different meanings over the years and now I discover that all it means is deep and full. Call me old fashioned, but we already have two words for that: one is deep and the other is full. Lubricious (nothing to do with the joy of Durex Play): the simple definition of this is lewd. What I’m realising is that I should be in charge of giving words their definitions. I would be so much better at it than the joker who decided that a wonderful word like nebulous, a jewel of the OED – neberendingfabulousness – should simply mean vague.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, or cataclysm and monochrome (which actually means disaster and black and white, but let’s not Serra (Greek dance) with semantics). I love words; of course I love words. I have always loved words; I work with words; I would eat them for dinner if I could. So you won’t be surprised to find that as I worked through my blind spots I uncovered more than the odd word that made me smile. And so was born my top ten words found down the back of the sofa. I suppose I only figurative found them down the back of the sofa (or I literally found them down the back of the sofa if you’re a young person gamely determined to use the word ‘literally’ in literally every sentence and hang the consequences – I literally salute you). Enjoy …

I include this on my list not for its meaning but because I don’t think I have ever heard it spoken, although fiction writers seem to love it. Desires and unpleasant feelings are always being assuaged, but I’m still not sure I know how the word would feel in my mouth should I need to get my assuage on.

We’re just warming up, so another fairly straightforward word, but this one seemed to appear from nowhere one day. I simply hadn’t heard of it, but then it was in every single book I read. Isn’t it strange when you learn something and then it’s suddenly everywhere although you’ve never heard of it before? It’s as if the world gave birth to it at the exact moment I discovered it. Patina: the green film found on bronze.

Now we’re cooking with gas! A student of butterflies and moths.

What can I say? I’m a childish girl-woman. This word isn’t an adjective relating to a popular coffee house chain, or a projection you would find on an accountant’s spreadsheet; it simply refers to something that causes constipation. Ha! It’s such a benign- and innocuous-looking word … and I thought I had heard of all the toilet-related words that existed.

Just look at it! It’s ugly but beautiful at the same time; awkward but self-contained; harsh, almost violent and then peaceful in the last few syllables. The shape of this word tells a thousand stories and takes the tongue on journeys previously untraveled. And its meaning? Fruit-eating.

This is included because I previously only knew the words xenon, xenophobia, Xerox, Xmas, X-ray and xylophone beginning with X. But X has far more to deliver than this: xenogamy, xenoglossia, xenopus, etc., etc. I feel as if I have never lived when I look at these words. My number five simply describes a person with light hair and a fair complexion.

If assuage was chosen because I didn’t quite know how it would feel in my mouth, I have chosen fecundity for the exact opposite reason. I know how it feels and it’s positively filthy. Say it out loud, savour the syllables – fe-cun-di-ty. How isn’t this a sexually explicit swear word? Disappointingly, it simply means fertility (for which we already have a word, which is fertility!)

This is a physical object or design which is made to resemble another material. That sounded quite complicated when I looked it up, but it’s really simple. For example, when you use an app that’s designed to look like something that exists in the real world (a computer keypad, a bookshelf, pages of a notepad), this is skeuomorphic. I’m not sure why this word appeals. It just does; perhaps because I only discovered it a few nights ago and it still has that fresh and exciting glow.

Proving conclusively that there is a word for absolutely everything, this simply means to throw someone or something out of a window. I love that it is clean, succinct and specific. This word can do no wrong in my eyes.      

And at Number One
This word absolutely stole the show for me for its awkward and unusual positioning in the sentence; the very knowledge that this word exists makes me smile most days. It is an adjective meaning ‘at the point of death’. So, for example, a slaughterhouse din might be a cacophony of moribund squeals. A man with his head in a guillotine might have moribund thoughts of a better life where his head hasn’t ended up in a guillotine. Love it!

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    Monday, 18 May 2015

    Stop Talking Sh*t! Start Writing Believable Dialogue!

    There is good dialogue and there is bad dialogue and depending on which you are writing, it will make or break your story. Nothing engages a reader more than realistic dialogue and nothing disgruntles a reader more than a phrase that is contrived, clich├ęd and unnatural; it will pull a reader away from your lovingly crafted prose quicker than a flat character or a thin plot could ever do.

    It is not too much of a surprise, then, to discover that writing dialogue is one of the most challenging elements of fiction writing and one which takes time to master. The following list should help you through the minefield of dos and don’ts.


    Listen to how people talk

    This is the best way to learn about speech patterns and natural dialogue. People have many different methods of verbal expression which vary depending on who they are talking to, what they are talking about, their mood and their upbringing. Taking notes from real life will really improve the authenticity of your dialogue.

    Use dialogue to move the story forward

    Dialogue in fiction is an economical representation of the real thing. In addition to being realistic, it must be purposeful. Read your dialogue and ask whether it has a function. Does it establish tone or mood? Does it reveal anything about the plot or characters? Does it add to the relationship that the reader is building with the speaker? Does it add or create conflict? If it doesn’t have a purpose, delete it.

    Break up dialogue with action

    Breaking up the dialogue is especially useful when handling large sections of speech which a reader may find tedious. Including actions alongside dialogue also gives the reader a sense of the conversation taking place in the real world, which elevates the conversation above mere words on a page.

    Vary the use and placement of speech tags

    Speech tags indicate who is speaking and are essential in following dialogue (he/she said). Varying the use and placement of the tag will help the flow of the conversation and prevent the dialogue from becoming tedious. Place tags at the beginning, middle or end of speech. When experienced, a writer instinctively knows the most effective use of tags and when to leave them out completely.

    Give each character a distinct voice

    In theory, a reader should be able to read a line of speech and identify which character is saying it. There are many techniques for achieving this. You may give your character a distinct accent, use habitual phrases or mistakes which they tend to repeat or vary the speech patterns through the grammar. Paying attention to what a character will and will not talk about, their level of intelligence and sense of humour will also create the difference.

    Be aware of pace

    As with all elements of writing fiction, you are in control of the pace. In urgent situations, when you want to pick up the pace, leave out or limit narration and tags. To slow the pace and building suspense, use monologues and longer sections of narration.

    Read widely

    The best way to learn is to see how the masters do it. Read within your genre and note techniques that really work.

    Test your dialogue by reading aloud

    With dialogue, the ears are often a better judge than the eyes. Listen to the dialogue to hear the flow and notice the mistakes that interfere with it.


    Use dialogue to dump information

    This is where trust in your reader is essential. If you have done your job well, the reader will be able to follow the story as it slowly unfolds without a character speaking for the sole purpose of filling in a back story, reminding the reader of past details or over-explaining. Information dumps are unnatural, lazy and annoying. Don’t let them slip into your writing.

    Obsess about grammar

    People don’t obsess about grammar when they speak and you shouldn’t when you are writing speech. People speak in incomplete sentences, leave out words and interrupt each other. Relaxing the grammar can only help your dialogue to be more believable.

    Overdo Tags

    You may be tempted to replace ‘he/she said’ with ‘he roared, whimpered, gushed or barked’, but you will be in danger of drawing too much attention to the tag and away from the dialogue. When the dialogue is strong, simple tags will suffice and keep the reader engaged with what is really important. As stated earlier, use action to ground the reader in the reality of the conversation.

    Overuse slang, stereotypes and Ummms!

    Beware of overusing stereotypes and slang. These can distract or alienate your reader. They will also age your work. In real speech people take time to think about what they are saying and ‘Ummming’ and ‘Ahhhing’ is commonplace, but to keep the dialogue economical and interesting, use this sparingly.

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