Alfred Hitchcock was once asked how long a couple could reasonably be seen on a movie screen, kissing on a bed.
He replied: “As long as you want – as long as there’s a bomb under the bed.”
Portly, upper-crust curmudgeon he may have been – but he knew about story telling didn’t he? Whatever kind of fiction you are writing it’s a very important thing I’d say, that bomb under the bed.
When I think of the better writing I’ve done, the stories which work well, it’s not usually the style of the writing, the quality of the jokes, or whatever, which sets them apart – it’s something else – it’s the presence of dramatic tension – the bomb under the bed.
If you don’t have that tension in a story you are writing then the words, pretty as they might be, can lack focus.
When I’m writing fiction now I sometimes stop and ask myself where it is, that sense of jeopardy – that bomb. The form it takes varies widely depending on what you are writing of course, but in some form it’s a must.
I’m a big believer in just getting on with it when you write fiction – then improving things incrementally in the rewrites – like having a lump of clay, then sculpting it into something recognisable. But I find it helps if you have certain basic principles in mind before you start.
Recently I came across the video I’ve linked here – where the great and sadly departed novelist Kurt Vonnegut gives his recipe for great story writing. Early in his career Vonnegut made a living from writing short stories, at a time and in a place where it was possible to do such an exotic sounding thing. I found his advice on tackling the short story fascinating.
It’s been pointed out to me that stealing all these lip-smacking and useful foreign words without a by your leave might not be morally justifiable. It offends the British sense of fair play – it’s just not cricket.
Putting aside the fact that we’ve been at it for hundreds of years I’d propose a solution. Instead of just pillaging what words we want, like verbal Vikings, perhaps we could have a kind of word exchange scheme – a linguistic swap shop.
The French, for example, would get a word currently in English usage and we would get espirit d’escalier. Which, as you might remember, means staircase wit – the witty riposte you only come up with when the moment has long gone.
I’ve been thinking which words I would happily swap for any of those listed in my earlier post on the foreign words I most covet.
And the number one candidate has to be ‘chillaxing’. Most recently seen displayed in 100 point headlines all across all the UK tabloids to describe David Cameron in a way which suggested he might be slightly lazy.
Chillaxing. It’s awful isn’t it? Inane and pointless. You see what they’ve done there? They have cleverly conflated two existing words – chilling and relaxing – to create a new word which means – exactly the same thing.
I mean what, in the name of all that is holy, is the point of that?
“What are you doing?”
So yeah – French get chillaxing – we get espirit d’escalier and you can’t say fairer than that can you? Any other candidates?
There should be a word meaning, ’to covet a word from another language‘. There’s so many beauties out there which we really need to be using. They would fill gaps in our vocabulary we didn’t even realise were there.
Luckily, English being a magpie tongue, we don’t need to trouble ourselves coming up with acceptable translations, all we need to do is pinch the words, stick them in the dictionary and start using them as if they were ours in the first place. It’s a bit of a bare-faced cheek, but let’s face it – we’ve been at it for centuries. It’s true that some of these words are something of a mouthful for English speakers at first – but that didn’t stop us appropriating Schadenfreude did it?
Here’s my top five words we really need to be adopting as part of the English language:
I’m going to start using this one today – and wait for everyone else to catch up. It’s a French phrase meaning literally ‘staircase wit’ and essentially it means coming up with a witty riposte, but much too late to say it. It’s the devastating one-liner you think of on the bus home – or as you are heading off up the stairs.
German clearly. This means the fear of being alone in the woods. I know – how have we managed without it? Only Germany, birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, would come up with a word so evocative of creepy fairytales.
This means – to borrow from a friend until there is literally nothing left in his house. Comes from the native language of Easter Island – where they borrowed everything apart from statues of huge heads which were too big to lift. I wonder if they’d mind if we borrowed their word for a bit?
Turkish. It means moonlight shining on water. And who wouldn’t want a word for that?
A Japenese word, which describes the act of staring vacantly off into the distance without thinking about anything at all. I spend a quite a lot of time doing Boketto – and it’s time well spent too, funnily enough.
Talking about phrases which people, including me, are prone to mangle, made me think about individual words which are often misused.
One I’ve heard a lot is people saying pacific when they mean specific. So they might say: “Can you be more pacific?” or “I pacifically asked you to do that.”
Pacific means peaceful so I suppose it’s quite a nice thing to ask people to be – but it’s still not the word they are after, just a near homonym.
I suppose one reason it’s easy to get this word wrong is because ‘specific’ often doesn’t have much of a function in the sentence, except to add emphasis. It’s one of those words like ‘actually’ which you can actually bung in almost anywhere actually without altering the actual meaning.
Once you spot someone using the wrong word, especially if they do it regularly, it’s difficult not to correct them on it. But, gentle reader, I would caution you to resist that urge – because nobody likes a clever dick.
We can’t get it right all the time can we? Especially not me. Nothing I say makes much sense until after about the third rewrite. But there are certain phrases in the English language which we’re likely to get wrong more than others apparently.
A list came out a few years back of the most misused phrases by English speakers in the UK. Here it is below.
1) A damp squid (a damp squib)
2) On tender hooks (on tenter hooks)
3) Nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)
4) Champing at the bit (chomping at the bit)
5) A mute point (a moot point)
6) One foul swoop (one fell swoop)
7) All that glitters is not gold (all that glisters is not gold)
8) Adverse to (averse to)
9) Batting down the hatches (batten down the hatches)
10) Find a penny pick it up (find a pin pick it up)
A friend of mine did ‘damp squid’ only recently – and I could quite see where she was coming from – it just makes more sense. Squib is an archaic word but apparently was a type of detonating charge – like a firework – for use in mining. It set off the blast. So if you got a damp one – no explosion – just disappointment and a bunch of people standing around in hard-hats saying: “Well – that was a bit of a damp squib wasn’t it?”
Personally I’m sure I’m guilty of champing at the bit – chomping sounds like you’ve got it wrong. I also used to say find a penny until I was corrected repeatedly by wiser counsel. But I would still feel more lucky finding money than a pin.
Surely nobody really says ‘Nip it in the butt’ though do they?
Old school exercise books – that’s the first place I used to write fiction – overwrought poems and scraps of prose which never went anywhere much. Then later on I used stationery pilfered from work – A4 sheets of paper which I kept in bundles in supermarket carrier bags.
I’ve written on the odd beermat too when I was younger – scrawling what I thought were witty and incisive prose-poems, which magically transformed themselves by the morning light into drunken gibberish.
I first started buying notebooks because I needed to keep material together properly rather than have it floating around the place where I couldn’t find it when I needed it. By now the notes in these books were the first drafts of proper stories which would later make it onto a file on the computer ready for rewriting into something which made sense. Those first notebooks were the cheapest I could find, gaudy looking tat from pound shops, spiral bound with pages which kept falling out.
Buying the cheapest available was more than just a way of saving money – it was a kind of inverted snobbery – I thought fledging writers who bought expensive notebooks were deluding themselves into believing that the posh book made their writing better. Not me though, oh no, I would rather have pages which fell out and got lost.
These days though, I’m a proper notebook snob. Moleskine I use. They are the preposterously expensive ones which have their own rack in stationary shops. They come with a leaflet full of PR copy which attempts to convince you that they are worth the fancy price tag because Ernest Hemmingway and Bruce Chatwin used to use them when they were adventuring their way round the globe, scribbling down bon mots. I suppose using them is the writing equivalent of buying a certain brand of football boots because Messi wears them.
In my defence I would say – they are the right shape, the right size, they’re light and portable. They feel right and look right. You can use them on the bus without drawing attention to yourself. But yes – they are a tenner a pop – bare minimum – I know, you could get a book with words in for that – you could get my book, when it’s out. Though admittedly that wouldn’t be much use if you wanted to write in it as you’d have to painstakingly Tippex out all the words in it first.
How did I go from the cheapest book available to one of the more expensive? Well it wasn’t an overnight sea-change in behaviour – it came gradually, over a period of years. But I suppose what sparked it was the realisation that, though having a posh notebook definitely doesn’t make you a better writer, having a rubbish one doesn’t make you a better writer either.
What’s my favourite word? I know I asked you that question – but it’s a tough one to answer.
They’re all good aren’t they – words? I mean there’s none of them which hasn’t got its place
If pressed though I would go with pandemonium. Well, today anyway. It’s a real carnival of a word that one – for me it conjures up rowdiness and chaos, but in a cartoonish way – like a circus ring full of clowns.
It has a curious derivation. The word was made up by John Milton for use in Paradise Lost. He created it by clicking together a couple of pieces of ancient Greek – like Lego bricks.
Literally it means ‘all the demons’ which gives it a darker feel than the one it has today where the sound it makes when it comes out of your mouth has trumped its original diabolical intentions.
So there’s mine – now let’s have some of yours?
There’s a word in the English language for the smell of fresh rain on dry ground, and that word is petrichor. Imagine there being a word for that – isn’t English a remarkable thing?
I love a good word me – but the richness of the language can make it a heady brew – and often the trick with writing is not what you put in but what you leave out.
I remember in my most recent book The Pick Up Artist – which I aim to have published after Song of the Sea God, at one point in the narrative I used the word melisma.
Melisma, as you may know, is the singing style, much beloved by the late Whitney Houston, in which there is much quavering and warbling around each syllable. Turn on any of the search for a star shows like X Factor or The Voice and you’ll be treated to a whole basinful of melisma. I’d used the word for comic effect to describe someone’s distraught wail and was very pleased with myself.
But both friends who I had asked to read the book and advise me on it struck a firm red line through melisma and then each of them stuck a grumpy note in the margin saying it would not do at all.
The problem wasn’t the word itself but the context in which it was used. The book’s about a young man’s inept search for love. It’s told in the third person – but it’s what’s technically known as a close third – so the narrative voice quite closely matches the moods and attitudes of our hero – and to some extent, gets into his head.
And he’s not the sort of character to be tossing words like melisma around. So it had to go.
What’s more – within a few pages I was at it again. Threnody this time – which is a hymn for the dead. Again I was pleased with myself – again I got a red line and a bollocking – and again my readers were quite correct. Nice word – but in the context quite wrong.
So sometimes the best word isn’t the most elaborate – but the most apt.
Still, I’m sold on the beauty of words for their own sake and can’t get enough of them. What’s your favourite word?