On Vocabulary and Fiction

There is a faction in the world of writing that would advise you to avoid words that would be unfamiliar to most readers— that is, big vocabulary words. The argument usually goes something like this: when a reader encounters a word they are not familiar with it makes them stop and realize they are reading something, taking them out of the story. That is, you want the reader to be completely absorbed, forget their reading at all, and not break the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner’s phrase) of the narrative.

There are a few problems with this notion. The first is that particular words carry particular meanings that often simplifying them just won’t accomplish. If I call someone “indolent” that’s different than if I just called them “lazy”. Secondly, often a word will have a meaning that isn’t covered by any other. When I say the sun’s rays were “crepuscular", I would have to get a lot more verbose to describe that effect any other way.

More importantly, big words might be entirely appropriate for a particular character or style. For a character, using erudite words might be a way for her to show off her erudition. For a story written about the upper class in the late 19th century, for example, using words common to that class and time are a way to convey the setting besides mere description. Words are the tools with which prose narrative is created, and certain tools have certain functions. This is where I think most writers should come down on the subject: you use the vocabulary appropriate for what you’re writing.

But finally and most decisively for me, I actually don’t give a fuck about disrupting some reader’s precious “vivid and continuous dream”. For me, part of the joy of reading is the awareness of the prose, awareness of the techniques and tools and conventions being used to convey a particular kind of story, and I don’t mind it—in fact really enjoy it—when, as in many post-modernist works, you have an architecture with the ducts exposed and blueprints laid bare, as it were. I like books that are fully aware of and in possession of the fact that they are book, and not some suppositional “movie” going on in your head. (If I wanted to make movies, I’d be making movies.) Far from taking me out of a story, a well chosen unfamiliar word makes me more absorbed, more aware—by forcing me to think about a word, to look it up or intuit its meaning—of the kind of effect the writer is trying to create by using it.

You might not feel this way, you may prefer your vivid and continuous dream metaphor. That’s fine. There isn’t only one way to enjoy fiction, and there’s definitely more than one way to make it.

Revision as archeology

Archeologists often intentionally leave parts of sites unexcavated. They leave them for future archeologists, knowing they will have better tools, be able to uncover more, damage less.

Often, when I'm revising, especially something I wrote a long time ago, I feel like a future archeologist. This scene, this character, this dialog was pulled from the ground of my consciousness with poor tools, dragged from the tar and cleared off with eyebrow-scorching boiling vinegar. Now I have better tools. Now patiently, deliberately, I can uncover the monster. Clean it from the muck.

And in the future, I'll have better tools. My faith as sure as that of the archeologists, pining for unimagined machinery.

San Francisco is a science fantasy city

On roller coaster streets that dive into mist shrouded hills crusted with candy colored houses, a one armed guitarist distorts rivers of sound that paints the walls of the old poet’s shop, made weird and etherial it bleeds across the boundary between worlds and above helicopters watch drones play in the park. A wrong turn takes you to an arterial hub of vegetable delivery trucks in insectile ranks, dress white and at attention flanked by forgotten industrial machinery. In the valley the code of pimply faced boys mutates through the real estate like an entitled virus and climate-controlled garages keep self-driving cars waiting for their oncoming disruption. San Francisco is a science fantasy city.

See also: Barcelona is a fantasy city

A Request for Clarification

Eric Rosenfield, I just got an email that you had rated James S.A. Corey's space opera novel Leviathan Wakes at 5 stars on goodreads.com

I need to know if this is hyperbole. As you are no doubt aware, the only truly perfect space opera ever to appear in literature are the Culture novels by the lamented and late Iain Banks. Perfect space opera in other media are certainly almost as rare. Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, Firefly and Serenity, Farscape minus a handful of clunky episodes, 70% of the first season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Ice Pirates, The middle 60 minutes ofTitan AE... There may be others, but they are few and far between and as far as the printed word is concerned, very little comes close. Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy possibly approaches that quality, but tends to collapse under its own weight and bizarre theological weirdness.

By rating Corey 5 stars, you have signaled to me and to every other right thinking person that Corey is in the same rank as Banks, and that is high praise to the point of stretching its credibility.

Please explain yourself.

Review: MediaEntity #6

Over at the comiXology Tumblr, I review a fascinating comic called MediaEntity which uses the digital medium to create elliptical, filmic effects to tell a story that I describe as somewhere between a taught thriller and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Take a gander.

Interview with Neil Gaiman

In this interview, Neil Gaiman discusses book publicity, his new book Chu's First Day of School and the American Gods television show. Enjoy!

The interview happened because the sifu at my kung fu school happens to be friends with a director of book trailers. He sent me a Twitter message that Neal Stephenson was going to be filming one at the school and if I happened to be there at the same time I might be able to meet him. I showed up, Neal Stephenson novel in hand to be signed, only to discover Sifu had gotten the writer wrong. "It'd be really funny if you got him to sign that," said the director when he saw my well-worn copy of The Diamond Age.

I've met Neil Gaiman before, briefly and even more briefly interviewed him, but he's one of my favorite writers so I rushed out to a local bookstore, picked up a copy of a book I hadn't read yet for him to sign (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and rushed back.

Why Amazon Wins

Remember not so long ago I complained about Amazon's ebook download links disappearing? Well, they're back; I can download my Kindle books form the website again, just in time for my employer to be purchased by that etailing monolith. Soon, I will be an Amazon employee, a curious turn of events considering how we've occasionally pilloried them on this site. Granted, the most vocal pillorer (pillorizer? pilliorian?) has been Quackenbush, but I'm hardly innocent.

Here's the thing: My first ebook reader was a Palm Pilot in the late 90's, and I loved it. Later, when Palm sank, I bought a Sony Reader, the first real dedicated e-reader. When the first Kindle was released, I joined the choruses laughing at its hideous design and fearing Amazon's fomenting reach and power.

However, it wasn't long before it became clear that Sony wasn't really going to compete in hardware or software. Reluctantly, I switched to the Nook. And I was happy for a while. But now Barnes and Noble has fired its hardware engineering staff and looks to be eager to offload the whole platform as a money-loser and a failure. Meanwhile, on hardware and features, the Kindle is constantly improving, and is now better by every possible measure to any of its competitors.

Four TV Shows That Are Better Than Doctor Who

A few months back, Eric wrote a lengthy piece about why Doctor Who is the best television show ever. I think he's terribly wrong in that Doctor Who more or less encompasses everything I hate about TV.

Don't get me wrong, now, I like Doctor Who. There's a fair amount of it that I find to be hugely enjoyable. And there are certainly much worse shows than Doctor Who. There's a reason that the character has had the staying power he has, and not the least of it is because of exactly what Eric talked about in it being able to be anything it wants to be. There's something to be said for a show that can be a historical melodrama one week and a space opera odyssey the next. But I think one can get too wrapped up in that sort of thinking as well. After all, after 50 years and a limitless expanse of space-time to explore, one would hope for a few more recurring villains than just The Master, The Daleks, and the Cybermen, which the rebooted series keeps going back to the well for rather than trying to ever break new ground. And the few times they have strayed from that formula, such as with the Weeping Angels, they've never really been able to sustain them as anything more than a creepified CGI version of the monster under the bed.

So, no, as charming and fun as it often is, there is much better television to be had than Doctor Who. Here are four examples:

Judges' Cave is here!

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My story Judges' Cave is now available at Lakeside Circus!

A little taste:

After the world ended, five people holed up in Judges’ Cave and started a band. Like the punkers of old they rechristened themselves as a new people for a new, post-civilized, age. The Judges played outlandish music, all jangly majors and insistent, thumping rhythms that got under your nails and down your throat until you had to dance and stomp and rave to get it out or risk bursting. People came from miles around, canoeing through the bay that was once downtown New Haven to where the raw cliff face of West Rock jutted out over the water like the ragged brow of some angry sea god, just to watch Vinson, Warren, Burger, Rehnquist and Roberts play.

Go read the rest now!

Links on my Tumblr

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Over on my Tumblr I've linked to some interesting articles about why you should never hate a movie (or a book), literary insecurity and the cold war origins of the writer's workshop culture. Enjoy.