Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Lowest common denominators: giving the reader some credit

Yesterday, perhaps later in life than I should have, I discovered the word pleonasm.

I love new words. Words have been my living all my working life, and, predictably, I've built a substantial vocabulary. So finding a new word is relatively rare these days, and it's a real buzz to rush to the dictionary. It never occurs to me to skip the word or guess its meaning, although I do try to spot the etymology to see if I can break it down before I open the SOED. That's just a bit of fun.

I assume readers look up words too. I make few assumptions in life, but I'd hazard a guess that anyone who reads fiction is also capable of using a dictionary, and probably enjoys words as well. It's even easier if you're using an e-reader. All you have to do is tap the screen for a definition.

I was thinking this morning of a couple of occasions when editors suggested readers wouldn't understand a specific word I'd used. (Not military jargon – just an ordinary word.) In my experience, editors don't generally read a manuscript that closely, so maybe that's why a few instances stand out. The idea of readers being unable to cope with one unfamiliar word or phrase baffles me. I don't mean solid pages of highly technical or obscure language. I mean occasional words, and nothing pretentious, either; just uncommon words.

"They won't understand that word," an editor told me. "Can't you change it?"

"No," I said. I don't pick words at random. They're specific to the situation, the character, and the scene. "Readers can do what I do – use a dictionary. It's obvious from the context anyway."

None of us has a perfect knowledge of any language. We all need a dictionary sometimes. Smart people know what they don't know and look things up; it's how we all learn. Much of my early education came from seeing words I didn't understand and consulting a dictionary, then reading more widely about the topic. And, of course, I don't know what other people don't know. Once you start censoring words as possibly being too hard for an unknown person who might or might not buy your book, then your writing begins a death spiral of sterility.

In one case, an editor objected to the phrase "stood out like the Eddystone lighthouse," on the grounds that American readers "won't know what it is." Look, if you don't understand what a lighthouse is, and how conspicuous those things are – their whole purpose is to be seen – then you're probably under seven years old, and grasping the term "lighthouse" will be the least of your problems when reading my books. The suggestion (from an American, by the way) that American readers were too dumb to understand an English place name struck me as pretty patronising. If you're an American, as nearly all my readers are, then you might not know where the lighthouse is (most Brits don't, either) but you know what a lighthouse is and why the character uses that term, especially as the paragraph expands on it. As the character is English, he wouldn't refer to a lighthouse in the USA. It's the right saying for the right character. And that was my criterion for using it.

If you read my novels, you know that I generally write plain. Each scene, as I said in my last blog entry, is seen through the point-of-view character's eyes, and expressed entirely in their language – every line, not just the dialogue. That's all part of building the character and putting the reader in the character's shoes. That means the language will vary in its complexity and vocabulary, but it will never be an exercise in elaborate style to show the reader how many fancy words I know, or purple prose for the sake of it. It's as simple or as complex as it needs to be to convey meaning. In fact, if you notice a style at all, then I've failed in telling the story and keeping you immersed.

But the occasional unfamiliar word in a novel isn't going to throw anyone. (Especially not in SF.) Write what you feel needs saying to tell the story, and don't second-guess the reader. They can probably handle whatever you throw at them. They're smart like that.