language


Random quote of the day:

“The heart is a foreign country whose language none of us is good at.”

—Jack Gilbert, “Meanwhile”

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Lucy and Ethel, Justin Bieber, or the Kardashian Klan. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Random quote of the day:

“Poetry is language surprised in the act of changing into meaning.”

—Stanley Kunitz, Conversations with Stanley Kunitz, ed. Kent P. Ljungquist

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“There is no tracing the connection of ancient nations, but by language; and therefore I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations.”

—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“A language is a more ancient and inevitable thing than any state.”

—Joseph Brodsky, letter to Bob McKelvey, Detroit Free Press, October 23, 1987

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“Flowers are words even a baby can understand.”

—attributed to Quentin Crisp

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Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Random quote of the day:

“We live at the level of our language. Whatever we can articulate we can imagine or understand or explore. All you have to do to educate a child is leave him alone and teach him to read. The rest is brainwashing.”

—Ellen Gilchrist, Falling Through Space

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Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Random quote of the day:

“Good writers are those who keep the language efficient.”

—Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

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Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Jim Van Pelt wrote an interesting post today. Take a paragraph of writing—your own or a master like Fitzgerald—and arrange it like a poem. Immediately, the vibrancy (or lack thereof) of the writing pops out in ways it doesn’t when arranged as a paragraph.

I decided to try this with the opening of my novel Shivery Bones. Here’s the original, which I’d previously thought decent-enough:

Jolene’s earthquake passed through her midsection, rolled along her limbs, then off into the grass beneath her toes to make the ground shake. She fell, gasping with pain and surprise as the temblor radiated out from her and across the yard, the ground splitting like an overripe peach. The leaves of the trees along the high wall shook as if attacked by nerves, swaying and groaning. The wave crested inside Jolene, her personal shaking stopped. The earth and trees stilled a moment later, and the ground healed itself, closing as if no trembling had ever occurred.

However, when I arranged it as a poem, the dead parts really jumped out at me. It didn’t have life or flow, I thought:

Jolene’s earthquake
passed through her midsection,
rolled along her limbs,
then off into the grass
beneath her toes to make
the ground shake. She fell,
gasping with pain and surprise
as the temblor radiated out
from her and across the yard,
the ground splitting
like an overripe peach.
The leaves of the trees
along the high wall shook
as if attacked by nerves,
swaying and groaning.
The wave crested inside Jolene,
her personal shaking stopped.
The earth and trees stilled
a moment later, and the ground
healed itself, closing as if
no trembling had ever occurred.

******************************

Immediately, the tweaking began:

Jolene’s earthquake
rolled through her midsection,
vibrated along her limbs,
sloughing off into the grass
beneath her toes, the ground
beneath an echo of her own shaking.
She fell, gasping with pain
and surprise as the temblor
radiated from her and
across the yard, the earth
splitting like an overripe peach.
The leaves of the trees along
the high wall quivered as from an attack
of nerves, swaying and groaning.
The wave crested inside Jolene,
her personal quaking done.
The earth and trees stilled,
the ground healed itself,
closing as if no trembling
had ever occurred.

I don’t think this is a perfect paragraph by any means, but I do think it’s an improved one. It might be worth trying this techniques for openings and other troublesome passages:

Jolene’s earthquake rolled through her midsection, vibrated along her limbs, sloughing off into the grass beneath her toes, the ground beneath an echo of her own shaking. She fell, gasping with pain and surprise as the temblor radiated from her and across the yard, the earth splitting like an overripe peach. The leaves of the trees along the high wall quivered as from an attack of nerves, swaying and groaning. The wave crested inside Jolene, her personal quaking done. The earth and trees stilled, the ground healed itself, closing as if no trembling had ever occurred.

Generally when I write a character, even in third person because I’m usually writing in a tight third person perspective, I like to use language that is appropriate to that person’s worldview and experience. My voice shifts slightly depending on who I am following. A thug will not describe the dewy light of dawn, and a lady of refinement will not curse like a sailor—unless the thug is not a typical thug but one who likes purple prose, and the lady once made her living swabbing decks. I’m not always sure all readers notice these things, but it’s important to me that I get that sort of thing right.

Time appropriate language is important, too. Revising a novel set in 1938 has reminded me how hard I worked to get the period language right. In some cases, this made the prose rather stiff in places, jarring to an early 21st century ear. In this final language polish, I’m trying to walk the line between authenticity and flow. “Twaddle” and “claptrap” may be perfectly acceptable 1930s period substitutes for “nonsense,” for instance—but they make me want to giggle. If the scene is not one in which I wish to evoke giggles, then I have to come up with a compromise that suits the scene, suits the period, and suits a more contemporary audience. In this case, I used “baloney,” which can be somewhat humorous, but isn’t quite as silly. It fits the context of the scene better, anyway, and that’s the important thing.

Then there comes the question of other types of verisimilitude which are not so easy to reconcile. I would have a great deal of trouble using racial epithets in my fiction. And yet in earlier periods of U.S. history those words were used regularly and casually. It was almost de rigueur in certain circles. Can I accurately portray those segments of society without using that offensive language? The words are so hurtful—but they were the way people spoke. I didn’t support removing “offensive” language from Huckleberry Finn, but can I justify using it in a contemporary work, even if it is set in an historical period?

I don’t have an answer, and fortunately in the case of my current novel, it didn’t come up. I know I’m not the only writer struggling with this, and I don’t think there are facile answers to the question. Character speak is always a balancing act between the way things are/were and the effectiveness of the prose in trying to tell a story. I suspect this is one of those cases where everyone has to decide for themselves what’s appropriate.

Random quote of the day:

“Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things they denote.”

—Samuel Johnson, Preface to The Dictionary

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

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