Monday, December 29, 2008

"Infinite" word choices

My C.S. Lewis quote of the day:
"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

I'm trying to decide if this is good writing advice, good philosophical advice, or both. As writers, we choose our words carefully, eschew vague words like 'very' 'just' 'some', etc. Theoretically, 'infinitely' would be a better choice than 'very.' But only, I guess, if you mean infinite. (Of course, we're also taught to ban "ly" words, so maybe it's a moot point. However, I take this as a suggestion rather than a rule. Actually, I take just about everything in "how to write" books as suggestions, though you have to learn the 'rules' before you can break them.)

There are two things at work here. One is, is it really infinite? There's this thing you run into writing fantasy, where you have to be careful using words metaphorically. I just finished reading a book where one non-human creature kills another by snapping her neck. There was a pretty good description of what happened next: Her body turned to jelly and slid to the ground, the weight pulling her head from [the executioner's] hands. Then next chapter, someone mentioned finding the body, and I was like: what? Didn't it turn to jelly? I'd thought that was a pretty convenient way to keep humans from discovering the non-human things in their world. I had to go back and read again, and realize it was figurative. Hee!

Then there's the issue of the 'bigness' of the word. I do find myself running into this problem where sometimes if I choose too big a word early (in the effort to be evocative and whatever), then I leave myself with nowhere to go. I think that's one of the challenges with being a novelist, is that you're not just choosing the right word for that sentence or one fictional moment. The most perfectly crafted sentence doesn't exist in a vacuum. It has to fit with all your other sentences. In fact, the MORE perfect it is, the more it's going to stick in the reader's brain, the more you have to be careful not to repeat it.

When writing Hell Week, I came up with this awesome turn of phrase. It was so awesome, I knew I could only use it once, and I wanted to use it at the PERFECT moment. So I set it aside. And then never put it in. Doh! Fortunately I had opportunity to use it in Highway to Hell, so it didn't go to waste.

The whole word choice thing struck me today, because I'm at the point in the revision process on The Splendor Falls where I'm trying to find those turns of phrase, and fit them into the whole picture. It IS rather like painting, and making sure each daub of paint contributes to the aesthetic whole. But then the metaphor breaks down, because writing has to be good close up as well as far away.

And my family wonders why I whine and angst over every word choice!

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