Our friend, the noun
My mind being on the how-to of writing at present, I thought I’d post some reflections on various aspects of the craft. I’ll try to put them up Wednesdays, so as to add some structure to all our busy lives, as well as to give myself the deadline I seem to require to get anything done. And to go along with the title of the LRK blog, these will not be Great and Deep Thoughts, but merely Mutterings.
Pet: iguana; Pomeranian
Fruit: watermelon; cherimoya
Gun: derringer; semiautomatic
Smell: stench; aroma
The noun is where language begins. Things—the who and what—are what children learn first: Daddy, kitty, milk. To identify a thing is to take possession of it, to make a place for its identity in the mind. Dog; cloud; tree. Tambourine; saucepan; motherboard.
The more specific the noun, the sharper its edges are, the more meaning it contains.
For a writer, every line on a page reflects a string of choices. Mark Twain famously said that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug—the tricky part being, neither the electricity nor the insect is right all the time. They’re right or wrong for their use.
Take the list of nouns at the top. Left side of the colon is general, right side specific. Look at what the words do in a sentence:
The child had a pet.
The child had an iguana.
The child had a Pomeranian.
The shift in flavor—the subtext of each statement—is considerable. The first line tells us almost nothing, although its emptiness suggests that a complex description of both pet and relationship is to follow. That this empty sentence is a vessel the writer (assuming the writer is a person we trust) is going to fill with something interesting and potentially delicious.
Sentence two gives the reader a vivid image of the kid—you don’t even know if it’s a male or female child, but just knowing that there’s this weird ugly lizard creature in the picture tells a whole lot about the young owner’s personality, family, and geek factor.
But, Pomeranian? That’s a word to make a reader take a step back: Why on earth would a young kid own a creature normally seen in the arms of anorectic models and blue-rinsed grandmothers?
I use a thesaurus when I’m doing the rewrite of a book, not only as a means of varying overused terms and impressing people with how smart I am, but as a tool that forces me to think about the words on the page. The Russell novels particularly, being in the voice of an older, haughty, and terrifyingly educated woman, need to have an exaggerated sense of precision and historicity. Mary Russell doesn’t always bend to the will of grammatical correctness, but when she uses a word, it’s the Right Word.
Especially her nouns.