The Pulchritude Award: Insouciant

I just can’t get into this word. ‘Insouciant.’ Who do you think you are? Skipping around, not a care in the world, flipping your hair and acting generally unconcerned.

Straighten up, ‘insouciant!’ You have a serious problem, in my book. Meaning, literally, if I use you in my book, people are not going to know what you mean. They’re going to assume you mean ’insolent’ or ‘unsociable.’ Maybe they’ll think you have something to do with Dr. Seuss or John Philip Sousa. To me, you sound like truculent, or insolvent.

You have too many syllables, you start with a negative prefix. You use expend far too much effort to convey your meaning of ‘blasé’ or ‘carefree.’

Ah, you see? Blasé. Carefree. Airy. Blithe. So many better words to get the point across.

Wait. Where are you going? ‘Insouciant!’ No don’t leave sad. Maybe I was a little rough on you. OK, maybe I’ll try to use you again. Fit you into a sentence here or there. Yeah… there you go. Perk up, ‘insouciant!’

Let’s all be insouciant, if just for a little while. Insouciant.

The pulchritude award goes to vocabulary words that don’t sound at all like what they mean. Click below to learn more about previous winners: Phlegmatic, Inflammable, and Alacrity.



Blame it on terrain

I love a book where the outdoor setting becomes an epic character in its own right. From mountainous hikes of ’Lord of the Rings’ to flatland and river crossings of ’Lonesome Dove’—from the pine forest battleground of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ to the bucolic countryside where rabbits(!) battle in ‘Watership Down’—in the hands of a talented writer, the landscape can become an active participant in the story, driving the plot, dominating the mood, or dispatching characters as ruthlessly as any living adversary. I love when I stumble upon new words that describe types of terrain. Here are a few of my favorite:

Talus: A slope of loose rubble. Fallen and broken rocks that pile up at the foot of a cliff or mountain. I believe ‘Reamde’ used this term a lot during its climactic firefight scene in the wild lands of northern Idaho.

Scree: A slope covered with small loose stones. (Okay, very similar to ‘talus,’ but still a great word!)

Saddle: A ebb in a mountain ridge: A small depression or flat space between two higher peaks. I’m pretty sure I first read this term during a hair-raising scene that George R.R. Martin wrote, describing a passage into the Vale of Arryn.

Foothills: The rolling terrain that signals the higher slopes of mountains to come. I’ve lived my whole life near the start of the Appalachian foothills, either in North Carolina or Atlanta.

Spur: A line of higher ground, extending out from the side of a taller ridge or mountain.

Draw: The shallow depression between two spurs. A good place to find water runoff.

Arroyo: A gorge or ravine in a desert or typically dry area. The gully is cut by a river during heavy rains. In Arabic, this is called a ‘wadi.’

Serac: A ridge of ice on a glacier. I think this phrase was used again and again in Dan Simmons’ historical fiction horror novel, ‘The Terror.’ The book is about a ship in the 1840s that is stranded on ice in the Arctic Circle. The first image in my mind was a flat wasteland of ice, with a ship trapped in the middle. But Simmons explains that the pressure of gigantic ice floes coming together thrust up thousands of jagged ridges and hook-shaped spires that turn the arctic into an inhospitable maze—that’s especially for sailors with nothing but 19th-Century technology to help them survive.

That’s a few of the types of terrain  I could think of. Can you think of any others you love?

Idyll Chatter: Writing Progress

In May of 2008, I started keeping digital journal to keep track of my writing progress. Basically, I’d make a new .RTF file each month, and record what I wrote on for that day. Over the years, it’s developed into more of a personal journal—but more of a ‘dudish’ version of personal, as in recording what I did on my lunch hour, or what I watched on TV that night.

But I still list my writing (or lack thereof) for every day. And as I switch from one writing project to another, I color code the months with different color tags. That usually gives me a daunting (and usually depressing) look at how long it takes me to finish a book. I’ve included a screenshot of the last 4 years of my ‘Writing Journal.’

The yellow dots are months that I worked on IDYLL, and the purple dots are months I worked on the novel that became LINE OF DESCENT. I swapped working on those two books, on and off, for nearly ten years! The blue dots were months I worked on polishing SHADOW SIDEWAYS. The orange dots represent progress on THE WILDS.

I had forgotten that I started a first draft on The Wilds for several months, then went back to do one final pass on Idyll, then came back to finish The Wilds. So last week when I was checking how long it took me to write The Wilds vs. writing EXILE, I was disappointed to see 12 red dots (EXILE months) vs. 11 orange dots for The Wilds. Exile overall is about 3,000 words shorter, and also it has a more streamlined and straightforward plot. Also, I thought I was getting faster with my writing, and I thought I was really motoring along. Then I scrolled up in my Finder window and saw that in truth I worked on The Wilds for an 11-month clip and also an 8-month clip before that. So Exile WILL be the first book that I finished in a year or less. Pretty cool!

By the way… The green dots at the bottom of the window? Starting in April and May of 2017? That’s the beginning of a completely new series of novellas! I’m very excited about that, and it’s been major fun creating a new world. For this new series, I’m hoping to keep the novellas around 40,000 words, so that I can finish them and publish them at a more rapid pace. (By comparison, all of my other novels are around 80,000 words.) I’m hoping the series will have a sort of pulpy, episodic vibe—but with no cliffhangers. Stay tuned for more news in the coming months!

The Pulchritude Award: Inflammable

Nick_RivieraHi, everybody! The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound like what they actually mean. Today’s winner…

In the immortal words of the all-too-mortal Dr. Nick: “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!”
‘What a country,’ indeed, Dr. Nick. And what a word!
Or should I say ‘What a prefix?’
Or should I say ‘What a series of prefixes?’
Or should I just shut up?

You see, there are a couple of ‘in-’ prefixes, that come from a variety of Latin roots. Most obviously, ‘in-’ can mean ‘un-’ or ‘not,’ as in invisible, incredible, or inadequate.

But there’s also an ‘in-’ prefix that means ‘in,’ ‘into,’ or ’toward,’ as in income or inundate. This is also the prefix for inhibit, which comes from Latin roots that roughly mean ‘hold in.’ Therefore, uninhibited is not a double-negative. That’s also where inflammable comes from—an adjective that means something is liable to burst ‘INTO’ flame.

Now if someone could just explain why invaluable is better than valuable!

Past winners of the Pulchritude Award are:
Alacrity and Phlegmatic

A Writing Tip That Ruined Me: Prologues

prologue_114378562What do agents and editors have against prologues? Several times, at conferences or online, I’ve heard publishing experts recommend against starting your novel with a prologue. Also here. And here. And here. The prevailing wisdom seems to be this: “If your prologue is important enough to be in the book, make it your first chapter. If not, then cut it.”

I guess if I were filtering through a slush pile of 100 submissions a day, and a mere 10% of them began with prologues, I’d get pretty sick of them too. But if I analyzed that irritability, I think I’d draw the conclusion that the slush-pile/submission process is stupid, not prologues.

I think I read a LOT of books, for the average person—which is to say maybe 30 books a year. In the last year, have I read a book that begins with a character waking up? Not that I can remember. And if I did, would I have rolled my eyes and immediately judged the book to be not worthy of my time? Absolutely not. But according to industry wisdom, that’s another one of the unforgivable cliches that should never open a book:

– The main character waking up
– The main character dying (then coming back in subsequent chapters as a ghost, or in flashbacks)
– The main character looking in a mirror

Does anyone outside the established publishing industry care or notice if a book starts in one of these ways? I don’t think so. Just jaded, bleary-eyed slush-pile readers.

As a casual reader, I love prologues. They create an air of mystery. The add suspense, or foreshadowing. They can lay groundwork for the themes or the character arc of the book. They’re typeset in all italics! What’s not to love? I recently read a book, Blue Remembered Earth, that began with an all-italics, nearly incomprehensible frontispiece, and followed that with an eight-page prologue. And I loved both of them. And then the all-italics tone reappeared at the end of the book, creating a perfect wrap-up. Voila! Great!

In fact I’d probably read a book that was all prologues, kind of like how Kentucky Fried Movie was mostly movie trailers.

Once-a-Book Word: Sanguine

Like Mr. Miyagi teaching ‘the crane’ to Daniel-san, I will now teach you your own ‘special move’—a once-a-book word that will awe and befuddle your readers. I beg of you: Use it sparingly!

Sanguine: You have to love this adjective. Depending on your context, it can mean either cheerful or murderous. Who among us hasn’t been to a family reunion that starts off sanguine and ends up sanguine?

I would have words…

Lately I’ve been watching the show ‘Spartacus’ on Netflix. I’m thinking about writing a fantasy book set in Bronze Age-type book series once I finish IDYLL Book 3, and a sword-and-sandals saga seemed somewhat similar to the setting of my story. (Sibilance!)

spartacus batiatusQuestionable research techniques aside, I’ve been enjoying Spartacus. Yes, it’s cheesy at parts, but I think the first season was very well done for what it is—a bloody, lusty soap opera with lots of good twists and over-the-top characters.

To help convey a sense of Old-Old-Worldiness, the ancient Romans talk in a sort of overly formal, faux-Shakespearean phrasing. That’s probably better than having them talk in the original Latin! And the writers have done a good job of using that style to make the simplest lines of dialog sound interested.

For instance, “We need to talk” becomes “I Would Have Words…”

The overwrought language can also seem surprisingly colorful and visceral. As in “You will do as commanded, absent complaint, or see flesh stripped from bone.” Or “There are many words I would use towards your description. ‘Fool’ lives not amongst them.”

The problem for me is that I think that style of speech is slipping into my writing. My characters are speaking a little too formally.

I find my characters saying things like:
“This all that remains.”
“Granted, it was a poor choice.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
And granted, my characters are sci-fi cowboys, but still this style is too anachronistic, even for them.

This isn’t the first time that some sort of media I enjoy has seeped into my writing style. I’ve found I can’t read a present-tense book while I’m doing my first draft, or I’ll write whole passages in the wrong verb tense.

How about the writers out there? Are there any writing styles or tropes that unconsciously slip into your writing based on what types of books, shows, or music you’re enjoying in your free time?