When I started out writing fiction, I thought all kinds of things were clever. Like using lots of different words. Better still, using really long ones. Like antidisestablishmentarianism (OK, maybe not that one). Over the years, my tastes have changed. Now my hair’s a little greyer and my joints a little stiffer, I like my prose less purple. Less is more, as the man said.
Except … ‘less’ isn’t quite what I mean (although certainly most sentences are at their best when they’re written with the minimum number of words necessary to express the meaning). It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s not about using fewer words. It’s about choosing the right ones.
I have a theory about why this matters so much to me. When you write in the fantasy genre, you have to tailor your vocabulary to suit the world you’ve created. If I’m writing a book in which the main characters are dragons, I have to choose the words most appropriate to their point of view. Thus the vocabulary of the story – compared to the sum total of all the words I know – is restricted.
Actually this is true of all fiction. If I’m writing a story about the gangs of New York, I have to tailor my language accordingly. It’s just that certain genres throw the issue into sharper relief.
Here’s an example. One of my New York mobsters is dangling from the ledge of a tall building. Members of a rival gang chased him up there and now he’s got nowhere to go. The winter wind is cutting into his face. I want to use a simile to describe how sharp that wind is. It could be as sharp as a switchblade or straight razor, cheesewire or barbed wire, cut glass, his girlfriend’s tongue, vitriol … there’s plenty of choice.
Now consider my current work-in-progress. It’s a novel set in the late neolithic period, before man had started to work metal. Primitive times. Picture my hero – no mobster this but a travelling bard clad in motley animal skins – hanging from the edge of a high cliff over a stormy sea. The wind’s just as sharp as that blizzard cutting through the Big Apple. But it can’t be as sharp as a switchblade, because switchblades haven’t been invented yet. Instead, it has to be as sharp as broken ice, or wolf’s teeth, or a briar hedge …
You get the picture? Choose the wrong words and you’ll jerk the reader right out of the imaginary world you’ve worked so hard to create. Word are scenery, you see. Some of the New York similes I’ve suggested above are okay, but frankly the neolithic ones stink. If I really was writing that scene I’d have to work a lot harder than that. And that’s the thing. When you’ve got the entire history of civilisation to trawl through, finding comparisons is easy. When civilisation hasn’t even been invented yet, you have to dig a little deeper.
You might think I’m complaining. I’m not. The best art flows from a restricted palette. And me, I love a challenge. So here’s the bottom line. You might be fishing in a big vocabulary pool or a small one, it’s all the same. Only one thing matters.
Catching the right word.