In my last post, I mentioned that the four major elements I consider when I’m deciding which word to use are specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. Today, we’re tackling esotericism — or, simply put, how likely it is that people have encountered the word before.
When I was a kid, my younger sisters wanted to read the books that I read, and (because at that time in my life I was completely insufferable) I told them that they wouldn’t understand because my books had a lot of “big words.”
“Like what?” my middle sister challenged me (because even as a kid, she knew her worth).
I cast desperately about for an example. “Like ‘mar,'” I said. “And ‘cur.'” Unsurprisingly, these three-letter words failed to impress.
Now that I’m older, I’ve realized two things: first, you should never tell a kid what she can’t read. Second, what we call “big words” are often actually esoteric words. They’re words that we are unlikely to have encountered in our daily lives, words that we might have to puzzle out or that might have a context-specific meaning.
This series of blog posts is intended to provide writers with some ways of thinking about the tools of our trade. It’s not meant to be prescriptive; there are no hard or fast rules about what makes “good writing” here. The longer I live, the more certain I am that there is no such thing as “good writing,” anyway — there’s only writing that does what it sets out to do. So here are some ways to think about how you can accomplish what you’re setting out to do.
Our first, most basic tool will always be words. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a thrill to learning new words that’s rivaled only by finding cool rocks or picking flowers. When I see “susurrus” or “inchoate” or “lumpen” on the page, I just want to reach into the story and put it in my pocket.
For me, deciding which words to use is a matter of specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. These are all important things to consider, so I’ll be making a separate post for each.
I read Autonomous back in 2019, and I came out of it a mess of feelings that I’m still picking apart a year later. It would be an understatement to say that this book tells a great story; that its vision of a near-future Earth is hauntingly plausible; that its presentation of AI is both complex and technically informed. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and just thinking about it still makes me upset.
There’s much to recommend this book that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Autonomous, which is for the most part set in midwestern Canada, is the first SF book I’ve ever seen that really tackles the experience of living in and traveling through rural, agricultural spaces and small-to-midsize towns. From the epigraphical lyrics of “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the image of rolling canola fields, there’s a familiarity and intimacy to these landscapes that makes their importance self-evident. (And let’s not forget how closely the agricultural industry is tied to biochemical companies, with their seed patents and their attempt to enforce intellectual property restrictions on the natural cross-pollination of cultivars). As a person who grew up among farmers, hauling hay bales and listening to my father gossip at the seed and feed store, the moments when Newitz dwelt on the farmlands felt both authentic and emotionally charged for me. The prairie landscape of Saskatchewan was not incidental but rather vital to the story that Newitz was telling.
The portrayal of AIs was also gorgeous and nuanced and solidly built. I loved the social protocols for data exchange and greeting and authentication; they felt like the kinds of scripts that humans are even now writing for AIs to make them seem approachable. I also loved how robots do drugs and how they get off — the images of programs glitching, data fragmenting, bad variables making processes slow and hazy and hallucinatory. The cyborg element of the robot build was also a fascinating twist, and the human cast’s human-centric responses to it were believable and ably executed. Newitz’s technical background is on full display here, creating plausible systems of programs that together form people; I’m genuinely excited to see what this author has to offer next.
But there’s also the story itself, which I’ve hidden beneath the jump in case anyone is still worried about spoilers.
My copy of Retellings of the Inland Seas arrived today! This book includes my first published poem, “Into the Wine-Dark Sea,” which is about the Argonauts but in space.
I’ve always loved writing poetry, and that love still strongly informs my prose style. There’s nothing more exciting than figuring out how to make words fit together–the firm conviction of a metered line. The way a run of consonants can make a passage murmur like a brook or whine like cicadas in high summer. The hollow finality of rounded vowels.
(And of course, much of what the Western canon teaches us about poetry comes from the very inland seas that inspired this anthology.)
Please do check out this anthology if you’re interested in myths imagined and stars unnumbered.
Unfortunate issues with my previous website host have forced me to rebuild my website over again–in the transition, I lost my old blog posts (including the Drakon FST, and the one about the Works of Ossian that I thought was rather good actually).
So it goes–but from the husk of the old, I’ll yet shake out some new seeds and see what grows when I plant them. My garden’s already well on the way.