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Gareth Crocker

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

If our vocabularies had a fight, mine would stab yours in the neck

So I once studied the dictionary. That’s right. You heard me. Studied the dictionary. And it wasn’t one of those pitiful ‘concise’ or ‘pocket’ editions either. Pfff… Oh no, dear reader. It was a monster. A paper behemoth. It could origami itself into a replica of the moon. It put the Ox in Oxford, if you know what I mean. Although, having said that, it might well have been a Collins or a Merriam Webster. Oh, I don’t know. All I remember for sure was that it had a dust jacket roughly the size of the two stone tablets that bore the Ten Commandments and that once, while I was pushing it around in a wheelbarrow, it tumbled out and crushed a Doberman to death.

Vanilla IceSo the question, really, is why? Why would anyone subject themselves to this sort of cruel and unusual punishment? Are words my fetish? Do I have a dungeon at home featuring a swing, a dozen gimp masks and five hundred boxes of Scrabble stacked against the wall? Is there a safe word in my subterranean lair and is it ‘acetoxyacetylaminofluorene’? Which, incidentally, is a biochemical tool used in the study of carcinogenesis.

No, dear reader. I have no such dungeon and the last time I wore a gimp mask it didn’t go down especially well. It turns out that gimp masks aren’t ideal when you’re trying to surprise your wife with a candlelit dinner at home and you leap up suddenly from behind a couch with a face of black leather and zippers for eyes.

But I digress.

The reason, you see, why anyone would choose to do something as utterly inane as study the dictionary – which, it’s worth mentioning, took almost two years to complete – is the same reason why so many idiotic things are done the world over: rampant insecurity.

The truth is that when I was starting out as a writer, I thought I would gain an advantage over my fellow scribes if I could use bigger (and thus better) words than them. Before you groan and roll your eyes at this admission, you must understand that I was young, particularly foolish and had hair like Vanilla Ice (thus the glorious ID photo inset). You see, anticipating that I would soon be standing at the hallowed writer’s urinal, I was more than a little worried that all the cool kids were going to laugh at my meagre equipment.

But how could they laugh when I would have to stand out in the corridor to make use of their facility? Guffaws would surely be replaced with gasps of admiration for my enormous wordhood.

And so the adolescent word monster was born. Where other writers would use plain and common language like jargon or irritate I would meet them with nomenclature and exasperate. If they brought vocabulary to the table, I would stuff lexicon down their throats. It was to be a bloodbath. I almost felt sorry for them. They were bringing soggy ice cream sticks to a nuclear war. And my monosyllabic radioactive wordheads were all new and shiny and positively gleaming with joie de vivre (I would sometimes toss in foreign phrases just to twist the knife – often, as in this case, misusing the phrase completely).

And so it was armed with this herculean knowledge of words that I set out to write my first novel. Oh how the book world would swoon. I could already picture publishers capitulating at my feet; yielding to my magnificence. So you can imagine how confident I was when I sent off the first few chapters of my debut novel to a handpicked selection of editors and agents in London and New York. My masterpiece was entitled Malevolence which, in hindsight, was a slightly ironic foreshadow of the word storm that it preceded.

Several weeks later, I received my first response from an agent. I still have it in my studio.

Dear Mr Crocker,

Thank you for submitting your novel, Malevolence. You should know that when it comes to writing novels, less is always more. Large and complex words should be used much in the way one wears an expensive shirt – seldom and only when an impact is required. And perhaps not even then.

I’m afraid that you’re wearing your entire closet on every page.

You have talent, but it’s lost in the trees. Simplify your writing and submit again.

And there, in a single page, a line had been put through two years of my life (four, if you count how long it took to write the aptly titled Malevolence).

Studying the dictionary had been such a colossal waste of time, I might as well have spent those months licking windows. But, as with many of the best lessons we are taught, they are often painful upfront but invaluable in the long run. I have no doubt that my four published novels to date would never have made it to bookshelves, were it not for this single letter.

And so I no longer use words like gasconading and perfidiousness. I now understand that writing in its purest form is always about painting pictures that form effortlessly in readers’ minds. It’s about the meeting of imaginations between writer and reader. Storytelling, after all, is a team sport.

In describing mist at a lookout point, Bill Bryson once wrote ‘The mist was so thick, you could kick holes in it’. And that really makes the point. No thesaurus in the world could improve that sentence and my seven year-old can understand what it means.

And so, today, I’ve forgotten most of those complex words I spent months drilling into my head. Partly because I’m getting older now and have the memory of a retarded goldfish, but mainly because I have no place for them in my stories. If I’m trying to create a particular world in one of my books and I use a word that the reader doesn’t understand, then I’ve painted a picture with a question mark in it. Either that, or the reader has to step away from the story to pick up a dictionary. In which case the illusion is broken and we both lose. That’s not to say, of course, that authors should never use words that seek to challenge their readers, but just that these words should be carefully considered and handled with puffy oven gloves lest they burn the hands of everyone involved.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed by the sort of writer I was in the beginning. Arrogant, intent on being superior and just lacking in common sense (again, I point you to the photo). But I take comfort in knowing that it was all part of my journey. These days I’m riddled with doubt and self-loathing. I’m convinced that the publishing world will soon look upon me with a shake of its head and a wag of its long finger, saying ‘You fooled us for the first four books, but now we see you for the talentless git that you are.’ And yet, ironically, I think this constant fear of failure makes me a better writer than perhaps I ought to be.

But still, if my vocabulary met yours in a dark alley, I would suggest you run. Because I still have enough in the tank to stab you in your sternocleidomastoid.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 19th, 2013 @19:42 #
     
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    Dear authors, please take note: "In describing mist at a lookout point, Bill Bryson once wrote ‘The mist was so thick, you could kick holes in it’. And that really makes the point. No thesaurus in the world could improve that sentence and my seven year-old can understand what it means."

    Another hysterical post, Gareth. I am still laughing at the gimp scene. Your poor spouse.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    September 20th, 2013 @01:17 #
     
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    Great piece, Gareth, and good advice from the agent. On the bright side, having a big arsenal means you can always choose the right weapon.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 20th, 2013 @11:08 #
     
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    Malcolm-X read the entire dictionary. His reason for doing so are interesting.

    Learning more about one's language is useful. Confess to often being lazy with my usage. Read a blog post on the true definition of 'decimate'. Made me think.

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