Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's the Economy, Stupid!

No, this is not a diversion into current politics. You don't want that: I can get rather... um... feral on that topic.

It's about economy of words. Good writing is economic. Words are not wasted.They matter. Even 'the' and 'a'. This is especially true of the start of novels and the whole of shorter works, but really good writers carry the principle through an entire novel. It's hard to find waste wordage in any Pratchett novel, for instance.

So what is waste wordage, and what is economic word use? Waste wordage doesn't advance the story, illustrate the characters, or do anything much beyond padding the word count. Economic wordage serves multiple levels of function, often without being obvious about it.

Of course, it's never really that simple. Think back to Amanda's post last Sunday, and the assorted 3 paragraph (or less) offerings that were sent in. Most of them managed to perform one task: usually cuing in the protagonist's anger. A few got a couple of things going: setting and protagonist motive. I tried to multi-purpose my offering - I was aiming to establish a sense of the character's nature, their motive, setting, hook, voice, and set up questions about what was going on, all in two paragraphs. I don't think I got all of those, but I came close enough that I'm satisfied with what I did.

The way this can be done is through secondary associations with word meanings - synonyms might mean the same thing, but they can have positive or negative connotations, they can associate with imagery, they can have entire layers of subtext that a reader might not consciously notice but which set mood and expectations. Take for instance "tired" and "weary". The general meaning is the same, but "weary" feels heavier, weighed down by some immense load. "Sadness", or "sorrow" - "sorrow" is more evocative of grieving, where "sadness" is blander. One might feel sadness, but sorrow, despite meaning the same thing, evokes more regret and possibly even tears.

You can run this exercise with any set of words a half-decent thesaurus produces. Each synonym has its own feel and its own level of specific meaning. The best craft and art of the writer is to find and use the words that are most evocative of the atmosphere they wish to create.

Of course, words don't exist in vacuum (except in my house, where Bugger shreds any paper he can get at, so mangled words often find their way into the vacuum). They need sentences to give them context and aim readers where the writer wants them to look.

Okay, so I wasn't exactly accurate about the politics: if you take a look at what the media produces, you'll find a lot of persuasive writing there, masquerading as fact. The cue lies in the descriptors. Words that have negative connotations get used to describe something the writer dislikes. That's useful for us to learn, not just so we can try to tease out what's really going on from the writer's slant, but so that we can use those techniques ourselves.

We have a few other advantages, too. A little knowledge of Latin and Greek word roots helps a great deal: 'Mal' or 'Mor' are very common in the names of evil characters for good reason: even made up words derived from those word bases sound sinister. Why? 'Mal' means 'bad', and 'Mor' is the base for 'death'. Someone named 'Voldemort' probably isn't going to be nice. Name a country 'Malistar' and your readers will look for bad things to come from there without you saying anything else. Some other goodies: 'Saur' - lizard. 'Tyran' - tyrant, which in modern terms implies cruelty and a whole raft of associated horrors. 'Lachryma' - tears/grief.

Now for the examples: I'm going to offer up two sample sentences, with one made up word for a character's name and each meaning the same thing. You'll see the difference.

"Elysia stood at the balcony, her gaze intent on the battered young warriors marching through the outer bailey."

"Mordana stood at the Imperial Balcony, glaring down at the defeated soldiers straggling through the Great Courtyard."

(Yeah, okay, neither of them is much good. That's not the point).

The basic meaning of both sentences is the same - there's a woman on a castle or palace balcony watching the guys who are coming back from some war or other. By using specific titles, it's a good guess that the woman in the second sentence is royalty. Her side lost, and she's not happy about it. And her name suggests she's not a nice lady.

The first woman, you'd be surprised if she wasn't the heroine or the love interest of the hero, probably sweet and gentle, and the implication is that she's looking to see if her husband or boyfriend survived - and that she doesn't really care if they won or lost, so long as her man made it. A few more cues in there would set up a lost love and kick off a plot.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a first paragraph (not too long, either, thank you) that implies plot, setting, voice, and the nature of the POV character. Anything else you can get in there is a bonus. Oh, and you're not allowed to tell anything. Once you've posted it, everyone can say what they get out of it, then you can add in what you meant to get across.


Ori Pomerantz said...

Yirmimoloch gently cradled the baby in his strong arms, glancing worriedly at Rahab as if she was crazy one, not him. "I love our son, but I'll also love any other children you'll give me. I am not going to let you the wrath of the gods on our entire family, our entire city. Not for anybody's sake". As his voice grew louder, the baby woke up and started to cry. Rahab took off her simple tunic, showing her ample chest, and let the baby drink.

Anonymous said...

You people keep telling me I have to come here. I hope you're happy now.

I knew about him before he got in. Would have got the call out to the police too, but couldn’t get through. My guess was the transformers were out, with the blizzard. I had power, but that was just the generator.

Had to have power, because otherwise the alarm system wouldn’t run. And when you’re a disabled man, a hundred miles from civilization, you don’t run a ranch without an alarm system. Particularly not when you’re near Florence, Colorado and the high-security correctional facility. Escapes are few and far between, but there’s a reason they tell you not to stop for hitchikers.

Cliff S. L.

Anonymous said...

::sigh:: I've looked though everything. I'm going to blame it on having short paragraphs. Or staring with conversations. It could not possibly be a chronic tendency to be too long winded in starting stories...

Mikey Flicker had done several jobs for the Golden Boy and been paid promptly and in a business-like fashion.

So he wasn't the least bit concerned until he learned what the God of Peace wanted him to steal this time.

"A statue of a horse from the private museum of the God of Art?" He boggled a bit.

"Oh come now, you know we aren't really gods. We're just very powerful magic users. Artie was unconscionably rude, and I'm going to take his favorite horse statue. He's got three – one of a horse standing alone, a pair of foals playing, and a group of four running. I want the single horse." He pulled out two metallic buttons. "This one will keep you unnoticed by people, this one will unlock the door and turn off all offensive and defensive spells. You'll need some way to lift and move the statue, which weighs roughly a thousand pounds. In three days, Artie will be attending the opening of 'Romeau and Gulietta' and should be absent from six in the evening until midnight."

It actually sounded easy. The God had never steered him wrong before.

"Right. Friday night, then. And where do you want the statue delivered?"


Kate said...


You have names that echo Old Testament and probably older myth, but no real indication of setting. This could be anywhere, any time, and your two named characters could be gods, demons or anything else for all that shows.

Also, you've missed a few words, which makes it very difficult to parse out meaning: "as if she was crazy one", "let you the wrath of the gods".

I really don't want to know what kind of contortions are required for a baby cradled in a man's arms to suckle at its mother's breast. It's physically awkward at best (try to picture it - you'll get what I mean).

Give us something more evocative - a "simple" tunic could be anything, but a goatskin tunic immediately tells us "primitive". Show us why he thinks Rahab is crazy, why he's supposed to be crazy.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I believe this one breaks ALL your rules, but what the heck... Like Pam I tend to begin with dialogue or well... something less immediate. Like, you know "I never wanted to go to space, never..."
So, here goes nothing --

“Wake up, Abraham,” the voice had come, clear, waking him to an early morning edged with frost. And Abraham far away from his home -- Abraham to whom the Lord had promised the land all around and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky – rose from his bed of furs, drew his garment about him and tied it with fumbling fingers. He was a rough man, a shepherd. Goats and sheep he understood. The Lord’s presence, he did not. The voice that spoke to him, the thoughts that sang in him still puzzled him in the crevices between sleep and dreaming and dreaming and full wakefulness. Why him? What made him so different from all other men, his brothers?

Kate said...


First off, welcome.

I did say one paragraph, but since people around here have issues with limits like that, I'll forgive you. Mind you, your first paragraph does a pretty good job of cluing in readers about your POV character, who's clearly a no-nonsense type and in a bit of an awkward situation.

The next paragraph really drops a lot of detail, and leads us to expect your protag is about to get a visit from an escapee, and that he's good and ready for said visit even if he is disabled. For the kind of tension you're building here, the choppy phrasing works very well.

Oh, and for those who don't know, Cliff in his oh-so-modest fashion neglected to tell us he's published. His mystery B. Quick is out of print (alas - I really liked it), but now available via Naked Reader.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Another (what... it's the mood that I'm in.)

Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.They’d told Phil that, and she believed it, as she tumbled -- how could she tumble with no body? -- through the darkness that shouldn't exist, head over heels, holding fast onto her weapons and hoping it would work.

Kate said...


Your first paragraph actually demonstrates that you can shoe-horn a lot into that first paragraph, even when it is short.

The phrasing and the names (especially Golden Boy) strongly imply the wrong side of legal and "jobs" that are often dangerous at best - which in turn suggests that Mikey tends to live on the shady side of things.

The next paragraph drops a bunch of fun stuff in there - especially the notion that this is not his usual stuff and that this isn't Kansas (since God of Peace is highly unlikely to be anything except an actual title). "Romeau and Guilietta" implies that some things are the same, but a lot isn't, particularly the magical stuff.

You could probably drop some more information in there about where this meeting is happening, although from context it's reasonable to guess at somewhere private and probably not all that well lit. I wouldn't mind a few more sensory hints there, too, since that's a very potent way to manipulate readers into a reaction.

Kate said...


Well, it is one paragraph. And it does have a lot of information in there, most of which is not 'told'. Plus, the frosty morning, the bed of furs, the goats and sheep - all those things give a pretty strong sense of place and time - even if you didn't know Abraham's legends, they'd give a lot of information.

So there.

Anonymous said...

Modest, me?
Now, there's something to brag about.


Kate said...


Now you're just being mean!

And yet again, folks, see what a professional writer does with a handful of words. Character is in the afterlife - for an unusual value of afterlife, given that it appears to exist between dying and... well, really dying. Someone knows how the place works, because the mysterious "they" told character about this. Character isn't entirely sure about whether she's supposed to be physically present, but she's got weapons and probably is supposed to do something for "them" with said weapons.

Now, where's the rest of the book?

Kate said...


You're welcome to brag about your books.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, you are so right. Every word contains connotations that the reader picks up on subliminally.

Synova said...

That there had been an explosion, August knew from the data feed piped directly to his brain. The workers in the control room in front of him betrayed the event only by failing to look over their shoulders at his brooding presence as they'd done every few minutes since his arrival. Well trained, he thought, they went about dealing with the disaster with calm professionalism, their eyes glued to holographic displays and their fingers typing out instructions and reports.

(I'd originally had the workers with "noses glued." I don't know that this beginning paragraph does multiple things, but I did have one particular implication in mind when I wrote it. It would be really interesting to see if people can tell what it was.)

Stephen Simmons said...

It didn't work. And now my bike was locked in the shed along with my skateboard. Three days before the All-Philly Freestyle Shredding Invitational, and I was gettin' around usin' sneakers on sidewalks, like the tourists. And the worst part was, I had to listen to Emily say "I told you so," because she *had* tried to talk me out of the idea. But it really should have worked. Dad had been *saying* the car needed to be repainted. How was I supposed to know he meant all one color, and not on the windows?

Dave Freer said...

Death stalked him along the moonlit parapets of a tower called Adamant. The tower had a fine view of the paps of Anu and the Endless Sea beyond that. It also had a two hundred foot fall to the rocky teeth below. Luke tiptoed behind the bony bastard and waited for him to get next to the embrasure, before applying his shoulder to Death's rump. He listened the crash and clatter far below, and grinned wickedly to himself at the sound. You couldn't actually do Death in, of course, on account of his already being dead, but it'd take old spindleshanks a while to pull the splintered pieces together. By the time he caught up with Luke again, the grim reaper was going to be in even more of a foul mood, but Luke figured pissing off someone who would only settle for killing you was a good bargain. He shook himself. He'd best be getting on. There was fire to be stolen from Gods, mayhem to wreak, and human foes to deal with too. He only outnumbered them by one to a thousand these days, which was starting to get a bit tight. No more time for musing over might-have-beens and regrets. He didn't even know why he kept coming back here. So Luke took a last long look at his lost love and land, and slipped over the parapet himself, just like Death -- only he'd taken the precaution of having a rope ready for this eventuality.

Kate said...


Exactly. It really jars when the words an author uses don't fit what they're trying to do.

Kate said...


You've got some interesting implications here, with such a heavy reliance on implanted/cybernetic data sources and the lack of reaction to the reported explosion. You could probably not even say "calm professionalism" because that's implied in the way the workers keep doing their job and stop looking at your POV character - who seems to be rather... shall we say potentially not sympathetic?

Stephen Simmons said...

Odd flashes of synchronicity have been popping up around me all week. And this blog seems to synchronize with events in my life on a regular basis anyway ... the morning guy on the local talk radio station just quoted Mark Twain this morning: "The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is no small thing. It's the difference between the lightning-bug, and the lightning."

Kate said...


This one actually shades towards shaggy dog story, with that last sentence. There's also something of a conflict between the hints of a deliberate practical joke and the last sentence of the paragraph.

Was that what you intended it to do?

Kate said...


Okay, now I've finished giggling and applauding...

This is comic writing shading to Pratchettian levels. I could sit here and list the techniques, including the contrast between the mythic (or possibly miffic) place names and the action, not to mention the timing of the jokes, but... I'm too busy enjoying the piece.

Even if it could easily be several paragraphs instead of one (yeah, personal preference, I know.)

Kate said...


Mark Twain knew what he was talking about.

Stephen Simmons said...

Actually, I wasn't aiming for a practical joke at all. I was aiming for a none-too-bright kid, eight years old or so, who had *tried* to do something he thought might "ransom" his skateboard out of the "stuff-jail" in the backyard shed ...

Ori Pomerantz said...

Kate, you're right. I left out the part where she grabs the baby. I tried to tell a story about infant sacrifice - that's the reason for "Yirmimoloch", a name that after the invention of Monotheism would turn into "Yirmiyahu" (we don't know of any -moloch names, but we know of plenty -baal ones). However, the setting wasn't clear enough. I need to make things clearer if I want to talk about the pre-old-testament period

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


From what I understand a lot of the sacrificial babies in Phonecia, at least, had names like "Given" -- supposedly it's the origin of donato.

Brendan said...

Somewhere in the Australian desert there is a small fissure. From one end water bubbles up from a crack and flows down a rocky slope before pooling in a sandy basin at the far end. Around the pool trees grow. These are small and stunted creatures, a lack of good soil and the occasional sand storm ensure they will never raise their heads above the fissure's top.

I am sitting beneath the trees. Above me the sun shines in a blue sky, but I am protected by the leaves above so only a dappling of light plays across the ground around me. A gentle susurrus from the trees as the wind moves through them and the tintinnabulation of the stream as it follows its rocky path are the only sounds. In the morning and evening I am greeted by bird calls, the only creatures that find it worth the effort to come to this far away spot. It is all incredibly beautiful and peaceful here. I hate it.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, it should have been several paragraphs, but I cheat too. Yes, there were a number of other pieces of dirty pool, playing with the reader's perceptions, and bouncing really low over Celtic (the paps of Anu) Norse, Hindi and Christian religious motifs. Using contrasts between the traditional High Fantasy style and prosaic modern to heighten the humor and impact works sometimes... like mixing religious associations I am not to sure it's a great idea. Luke/Loki/Lucifer is plainly a trickster, with attitude and a high opinion of himself. He's not entirely a nice guy... That said I was aiming at creating some sympathy for him, implying that he'd lost almost everything he cared for, and yet he was not ready to stop fighting. He's a battler, although the odds are very much against him. It's - I hope - obviously fantasy with a strong humor/pathos element to it. Might write it one day...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Interesting we both have the same theme.

Mine is an unfinished short story and I have no clue what I'd do with it if I finished it.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Mine is an unfinished short story and I have no clue what I'd do with it if I finished it.

There seems to be a pretty large market for Biblical novelizations (, Maybe you'll be able to sell somebody on an anthology.