Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans

Tuesday

Elizabeth Creith’s Flash Focus: For the Love of Peter Mark Roget

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Eliz­a­beth Cre­ith is an unre­pen­tant word nerd, whose mother taught her, at the age of seven, never to say “enough” where “suf­fi­cient” would do. She blogs at Eliz­a­beth Creith’s Scrip­to­rium. She lives, writes and com­mits art in Wharn­cliffe, North­ern Ontario, occa­sion­ally dis­tracted by her hus­band, dog and two cats.

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I’m a word nerd. I’ve always been a word nerd. I was a word nerd before the term “nerd” was invented. (In high school they called me “the Human Dic­tio­nary” when it wasn’t some­thing less com­pli­men­tary.) Word nerd, gram­mar geek, punc­tu­a­tion punk–all those labels, and more, apply to me. It comes as a stu­pen­dous sur­prise, every time, when I find out that my fel­low writ­ers are not, one and all, word nerds.

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How can you be a writer and not be in love with lan­guage? Or at least, how can you be a writer and not have a rela­tion­ship with your the­saurus which might be, at times, more inti­mate than your rela­tion­ship with your sig­nif­i­cant other? I got my first the­saurus at thir­teen, and the woman who sug­gested I get it had to explain to me that it wasn’t a dinosaur. As soon as I cracked the cover of that red paper­back Roget’s–abridged, and the princessly sum of thirty-five cents in 1967–I was in love. Infat­u­ated. Smit­ten. Cap­ti­vated, charmed, enrap­tured, bewitched, and enam­oured. Head over heels. You get the idea.

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Writ­ing is the process of find­ing the right words to con­vey your mean­ing. When I began to write flash I found that my vocab­u­lary (which has been labeled “bionic”) was more than an inter­est­ing play­thing. It was the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of a tool­box con­tain­ing absolutely every size of socket wrench I might ever require. And my pen was the ratchet.

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I started with fifty-five-word flash. I had no idea it came in any other size. Over the year or so after I dis­cov­ered the form, I used my vocab­u­lary to shoe­horn every story I wanted to tell into the con­fines of those fifty-five words.

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Here’s one of those early ones:

Take it philo­soph­i­cally

The gryphon Storm­feather was con­tem­plat­ing infin­ity when the human reached the val­ley.

“Din­ner!” Storm­feather cried, pounc­ing.

“You can’t eat another sen­tient being!” shrieked the human. 

“A novel philo­soph­i­cal con­cept,” admit­ted Storm­feather, “which we will dis­cuss over dessert. I regret you won’t be join­ing us.” he added, lean­ing in for the kill.

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Gryphons are crea­tures with a dual nature, used to sym­bol­ize Christ (because they com­bine the king of the birds and the king of the beasts) and the devil (because they’re rapa­cious preda­tors). They’re also philo­soph­i­cal beasts, one of the Speak­ing Peo­ples. Here my idea was that the dual nature of a gryphon, preda­tor and philoso­pher, would prob­a­bly see­saw based on how hun­gry he was. I wanted to show this by giv­ing him a dual prob­lem to solve–here comes din­ner, but it’s sen­tient.

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The phrase “con­tem­plat­ing infin­ity” set the philo­soph­i­cal tone right off the bat. I chose “reached” because it sug­gests that the human has trav­eled specif­i­cally to this place, and not just come on it by acci­dent. Val­leys are sur­rounded by hills or mountains–the trav­eler is tired, easy prey, and maybe not expect­ing what’s com­ing. “Pounc­ing” reveals a par­tic­u­lar kind of movement–swift, sharp and preda­tory.

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Every time some­one says some­thing, I use a verb which reveals more than sim­ply speech. Cried, shrieked, admit­ted, added. Storm­feather is tri­umphant over catch­ing din­ner, the human ter­ri­fied and in pain; Storm­feather allows as the din­ner has a point. The “we will dis­cuss” gives a lit­tle hope to the vic­tim. Maybe he’ll be around for dessert? The added “you won’t be join­ing us” takes it away again. The stom­ach wins.

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The title is a pun on “take” as in “take prey” and “take” as in “accept.” The philo­soph­i­cal gryphon takes his prey, and the prey has to “take it” philo­soph­i­cally.

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Now that I’ve beaten this story to death in many more words than it took to write, maybe you’ll say, “So? I’m not writ­ing fifty-fives.”

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Maybe you aren’t. But if you write flash at all, even thou­sand-word flash, you will, I guar­an­tee, come to the point of hav­ing to find just a few more words to fin­ish–and edi­tors have those firm word lim­its. Or what if you have an eight-hun­dred-word story that needs to come down to seven-fifty? Start check­ing out those generic verbs; you can prob­a­bly replace them and some of their adverbs, too, with a sin­gle well-cho­sen, speci­fic verb.

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Does your char­ac­ter hit another? Guar­an­teed you’ll need to use words to describe how, unless you make the hit do the work. Smack, slap, tap, slug, punch, deck (a lovely, eco­nom­i­cal word which can replace four or five!), round­house, jab, upper­cut, slam, bop, biff, whack, spank. Each of these words gives you infor­ma­tion about force and deliv­ery, some­times tar­get, even effect. A slap is open­handed, painful but sel­dom dam­ag­ing. An upper­cut lifts the vic­tim by ribcage or jaw. A bop could be play­ful. A spank is on the rear. You can save all kinds of words just by know­ing one right one.

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There are other advan­tages to word-nerdery. A friend of mine recently referred to “mere­tri­cious” (show­ily attrac­tive but val­ue­less) behav­iour. Unfor­tu­nately, the word she wanted was “mer­i­to­ri­ous,” which means wor­thy of merit. The temp­ta­tion to use fancy words is hard to resist, and there are many such sim­i­lar-sound­ing pairs that have rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent mean­ings. (Con­sider the oblig­at­ory men­tion of “flaunt” and “flout” done here.) In one of my very first writ­ers’ group meet­ings, some­one offered the word “super­cil­ious” in an exer­cise. When we read what we’d writ­ten, it was clear that every­one in the group, except the word nerd, had thought it meant “super­flu­ous.” I’ve also recently seen “divar­i­cated” used in a story; I looked it up because I wasn’t cer­tain what it meant. It doesn’t mean“bifurcated,” which is what I bet most read­ers are going to think it means. If they don’t look it up, they may use it as a syn­onym for “bifur­cated” them­selves.

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This leads to another prob­lem. Mis­use of a word, espe­cially in writ­ing, and espe­cially by some­one in the pub­lic eye, leads to mis­un­der­stand­ing of the word on a mas­sive scale. Let’s take the word “nor­malcy.” which was erro­neously used by War­ren G. Hard­ing in his elec­tion cam­paign.

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The word he wanted was “normality”–the state of being nor­mal. “Nor­malcy” is a math­e­mat­i­cal term mean­ing “per­pen­dic­u­lar­ity to a plane.” Big deal, you say? Yes, I say, big deal. The mis­taken use of “nor­malcy” for “nor­mal­ity” not only grates on this word nerd’s nerves, it also impov­er­ishes the lan­guage. Every time some­one uses “deficit” to mean “defi­ciency,” we are los­ing the mean­ing of “deficit” (a gap between the bud­get avail­able and the expen­di­tures).

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Get a dic­tio­nary. The Oxford micropho­tographed one is a fas­ci­nat­ing resource, and comes with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. Get the full-sized, heavy-enough-to-dou­ble-as-a-blunt instru­ment Roget’s The­saurus. Keep them near your writ­ing instru­ments of choice and use them, use them, use them. Prac­tice pre­ci­sion of lan­guage in the ser­vice of your art.

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I guar­an­tee you that you will only be a bet­ter writer for it.

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For fur­ther read­ing, check out FlashFiction.Net’s sug­gested read­ings of flash fic­tion and prose poetry col­lec­tions, antholo­gies, and craft books, by click­ing here.

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2 comments

From Gay Degani

LOL! Word nerds. I love it. 

From Selva E. Santi

I enjoyed every word of Eliz­a­beth Creith’s flash story “Take it philo­soph­i­cally”, and even more her com­men­tary on it. But I really appre­ci­ated the com­ments on the cor­rect use of words — inci­den­tally, I had come accross the word “nor­malcy” in a speech I read in the press some time ago, pre­sum­ably the one she men­tions, and it struck me, but did’nt have the chance to look it up, being away from home and from my writ­ing tools. Thank you for clar­i­fy­ing that puz­zling bit for me. 

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