Words, Words, Words

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When in doubt, quote Hamlet. 

Before I get started today, I just have a couple of public service announcements. First, my thoughts and prayers go out to the folks who were injured and the families of those killed in the bombings in Boston this week. I hope you find the strength from whatever you believe in to move forward with your pain and loss, and please know that we as a nation are with you. 

Secondly, to the chickens*&% SOB who set off bombs designed to hurt as many innocent people as possible – F*@% You. We aren’t the same country we were the first time this happened. We aren’t in shock, we aren’t devastated. We’re pissed, and we have the best detectives in the world (the FBI) and all the resources of the federal government and the police department of the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after your ass. If you think you have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting away with this, you should check out a couple of Rizzoli & Isles reruns. You’re screwed. 

But that’s not the point. Everybody in the country is pulling for the people of Boston right now, even Yankees fans, and everybody knows that the stupid bastard who did this will be caught. But let’s talk for a little about words. 

I was listening to the news the other day with my dad as we were having lunch, and the President was talking about the bombing, and the investigation, and then as soon as he was done, the talking heads started parsing words. They talked about how important it was that President Obama used the word “terror,” and the use of the phrase “malevolent intent.” 

I thought a few things about this. First, I thought how awesome it is that no one picks apart every single word I say in public, because I’d be doomed. Then I thought about how important word choice can be. Often we fall into the trap of using our favorite words (I do, I have a list of overused words that I have to reference) instead of choosing the perfect word for what we’re trying to convey. President Obama’s (or his speechwriters’) choice of “person of malevolent intent” was perfect, and a great case of choosing the exact right phrase for the moment. Even the talking heads commented on this, remarking that the President left the case open to be the work of someone profoundly mentally ill, or someone downright evil. 

And that’s what great word choice can do for us as writers. Sometimes it can clarify, sometimes it can obfuscate. Sometimes we don’t want to reveal the gender of a character, so we use gender-neutral pronouns. Sometimes we want to foreshadow something, so we play with tense or play with words to add foreshadowing. Sometimes we want our meaning to be as blunt as a size sixteen boot to the head, so you have me write it. :). My point is that our word choice can be critical not just to pushing the story along, but also to putting forth the appropriate level of clarity or lack thereof into your work. 

On a completely self-serving and different note, if you’re in the Atlanta area, come on out this week and join me, James Tuck and FOMW (friends of MW) Stuart Jaffe and Delilah Dawson, among others at JordanCon V. We’ll be hanging with some awesome folks like Brandon Sanderson, Michael Whelan, Seanan McGuire (read her new InCryptid series, it’s teh hawesome!) and others. If you’re in neighborhood, come on out. 

I’m also doing a signing TONIGHT at Borderlands Comics and Games in Greenville, SC, so come by there and say hello, too!

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5 comments to Words, Words, Words

  • John, the half post I did Wednesday night for MW, was so angry I had to stop. Just stop. I had to write something else because my word choice was unacceptable to MW and to me. Pissed. Yep. And you are right. NO one is cowed. NO one is in shock. NO one is in a pit of despair, even the victims and families who are still waking up to the changes.

    Now, word choice. Yes. What he said. As a side note, I seldom worry about word choice while writing. I worry about it when I do the first rewrite. *Then* I fix it. I make it right after I have the thoughts down and the story at a good stopping point. Otherwise I get bogged down and the story line dies. Just my way of making forward momentum.

  • John, great stuff. I’m sorry I won’t be at JordanCon this year. I had considered going, but life got in the way. Next year. Hope you have a great time.

  • Razziecat

    What he said. Ditto. 🙂

    I find that I do have to watch out for cliches when I write. Sometimes when I’m rolling along and things are flowing nicely, I’ll realize that the reason it seemed to easy to find the right words is that I’ve used the same ones way too many times. But like Faith, I think it’s better go back and fix them on a rewrite, otherwise I lose my train of thought and the wheels come off. How’s that for mixed metaphors/cliches/whatever? 😉

  • Vyton

    The flow seems so right when it goes down, but as Faith said, the fix is in the second pass. Great post. Thanks.

  • John, I’m always amused (bemused?) when I watch trials in legal dramas on TV, because the opening and closing arguments are so letter-perfect. In the real world, lawyers hem and haw and miss a word or two, but when their words are crafted for them… Of course, in our books, we get to do the crafting, and if we mess it up, there’s a *reason*… Have fun at JordanCon!