Monday, March 8, 2010

Anything but the letter B

So Barbs got recommended a murder mystery by a Swedish writer - Stieg Larsson. She rated it very highly for story and very poorly for translation and realisitic dialogue... (which may be translation). The other thing that drove her nearly scatty was that the writer seemed to have fixated on the letter B for starting all the character names. Now I don't know if you have done that excercise where they muddle up all the middle letters of words and... you can still read them. If the first and last letter are right and the length is about right... your mind makes the words(It's is a very powerful pattern recognition device, which is amazing really considering mine is full of old socks and rotten cheese.) It makes for really good fast reading... unless you hit Born Bern Bain Bein... In which case all the speed goes to hell as the reader stops to work out just who this is this time around. And here is something that actually goes beyond ee cummings... words are tools, my fellow monkeys. Versatile ones... They're their meaning, they're also their shape, and pattern (yes, there is cadence in writing). Sometimes those tools of poetry can work very well in prose - alliteration, repetition... I've used both quietly to make prose have more impact.

Only a fool sayeth his words are only words (and no I have no idea who said it. But it bears repeating.)

And now - there's thunder drumrolling in the hills. I must get off-line, but anyone got any authors to share who use words as more than just content?
I'll start with Kipling.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave the thunder sounds good. It is hot here and I am SO looking forward to winter.

Margo Lanagan uses words like a painter uses oils.

Francis Turner said...

Lois M Bujold uses words very carefully. It is one of the joys of reading her is that (like Kipling and like a certain RA Heinlein) she can paint a portrait in a handful of well chosen words.

She also, like Kipling, does accents/dialects in character's speech although she eschews the kiplingesque apostrophe abuse

matapam said...

Eric Flint's good at getting just the right words for the effect he wants.

I'm afraid I'm more familiar with the other sort of words. I added two opening sentences to my collection of really bad ones, by 10AM.

Dave Freer said...

It's hotter here than it was in january. There's a balancing act in this Rowena. If the reader is aware the words are being used... they may appreciate the artistry of it. But they're more likely to be irritated because it gets in the way of the story. This of course varies from reader to reader, with I think the crux factor being how fast people read - Gene Wolfe and Patricia A McKillip are two authors for eg. whose work I enjoy but find the actual wordsmithing - or oilpainting of words too heavy for me to read more than a few chapters at a sitting, without becoming irritable.

Dave Freer said...

Francis I have a secret to let you into: The grammar-grundies don't want you to find this out, but really all apostrophes are masochists.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - one of the words as tools things Eric does is deliberate repetitions for emphasis. Don't say I told you. But don't say it, see.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave said:

If the reader is aware the words are being used... they may appreciate the artistry of it. But they're more likely to be irritated because it gets in the way of the story.

Agree absolutely, Dave. If the reader has to pause to say, Wow that was a clever phrase, then you've destroyed the suspensions of disbelief. So I actually prefer 'invisible words'.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. I have been working my way through the Baen classics at the moment. I just finished Shards of Honor - the Louis McMaster Bujold books. The aristocracy of one of the main planets are the Vors and unfortunately all have names that start with Vor. I had a hell of time differentiating these, much for the same reasons you outlined - these days I have to read quickly!

Kate said...

I can appreciate when it happens, but I don't read fiction for poetic word use. When I want that, I'll read poetry.

In fiction the prose should be supporting the story and damn near invisible unless you're actively looking for it (something Pratchett does extremely well) despite often being beautiful in its own right.

Regardless, it doesn't matter how beautiful, alliterative, whatevered the words are. If readers can't find meaning in them, they might as well be the result of a random stroll through the dictionary.

Dave Freer said...

Kate if you're aware that the writer is doing it, they're doing it wrong. Never-the-less we are writers here, discussing the tricks and tools of the trade. And this is one of them.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - yeah, it annoyed me too... mind you imagine the joys of Scots historical... I suppose one stops seeing the Mc eventually.

Kate said...


Exactly! Pratchett - as an example - is invisible unless you go back as a writer and look at his prose without getting sucked into the story (which is bloody difficult all by itself).

As for Scots historicals, at least all the Macs have - or should have - an internal capital MacPherson, MacPhee, MacKenzie - that gives a bit more shape to the word. Modernity has faded them off.

Try a Manx historical ;) Corlett, Corkill, Quayle, Quilliam, Quirk...

Same line of descent as the Scots names, only the "Mac" got shortened to just a "K" sound at the start of the name. (trivia: the Scots cognate of Corlett is Macleod, both lines reputedly descended from a Viking prince named Corleot/Corleod - second son of the then king of Man and the Isles if I remember that bit of obscurity right)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Right. Names obscured to preserve the guilty, but one of my dearest friends has the tendency to name characters with same letter and usually names of the same length. While she usually gives a reason for this in the book -- they're siblings and their father was insane, for ex -- it makes the book incredibly hard to read. This same person also often gives each character three names. Don't ask me why? She's otherwise a brilliant and gifted writer, so it must be psychological.

A random mind association prompts me to post this site where I do NOT either get all my character names (only some of them.)

A better site for names, particularly in historical fiction is:

Writers who use their words well -- Heinlein and Pratchett, natch. At the risk of annoying many people, Bradbury. The way he uses his words has led more writers into the path to writing a lot of pretty words that mean nothing than chocolate has led the way to obesity, but he HIMSELF uses his words to effective purpose, even if they are often the ten dollar variety word. Then there's this author, Dave Freer, who is perhaps too subtle in his low-key approach, so that his words seem to be easy and logical and nothing to write home about until you realize the flash b*stard has been layering five meanings per sentence and sneaking them past your innocent and unsuspecting subconscious!

As for me, I went through a phase of OBSESSIVELY worrying about words, because I feared that people would tweak to ESL. Finally, to be able to send stuff out, I made myself ignore them. I'm just now coming around to consciously working on the words again -- a vital necessity when I'm doing so many books a year my word sense becomes blunted. (Though that's not a problem this year.)