If a reader doesn’t know a word, if they are forced to look it up in an online dictionary, it will stop them dead. It will break them out of the reading trance (I’ll write about this soon). And – almost certainly – it will them feel lacking in intelligence, stupid.
It’s not a good idea to make your reader feel stupid. Not if you want them to continue to be your reader.
Some writing – of course – is about making the reader feel stupid, feel lacking. Some writing wants to force the reader to improve themselves by going to the dictionary, hovering over the unfamiliar word, struggling with the syntax, learning to dwell in the oddities of convoluted time. (I love this kind of writing.)
Say I write apperception. As in the sentence, ‘Her apperception of things was brilliant.’ It has a particular meaning that I find hard to remember, but I know is fairly close to but a little chintzier. Sometimes I’ll look it up, for old time’s sake. Sometimes I’ll be content to allow it to stay vague. The chances are you have a clear-ish idea what apperception is. But it’s the kind of word choice that many writers would decide against – because of the making-the-reader-feel-lacking thing, and because they would judge apperception to be the kind of word the reader might not be comfortable saying aloud.
This is always good test of whether you should use a word or not.
What goes for apperception goes, in a less extreme way, for perception.
Some words, like perception, are easy to avoid.
It was her perception.
Such a sentence will, in most cases, be improved by being changed to the simpler, already known –
She saw clearly that…
Or just –
In terms of story-time, perception is a dwelling word. It’s a word for readers who like to dawdle around in wordy worlds – and there are many of those readers (though perhaps not so many as there used to be). But if you want to help your reader in a vividly seen and rapidly passing story-time, you will choose –
She saw the cliff-edge, only moments away…
Rather than undermine all the work you’ve been doing, taking the reader into your word-world and keeping them there, by writing –
She perceived that ahead of her was a cliff edge, and that she would reach it in a matter of a few instants.
Already this reads like pastiche Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t it?
At moments of high drama, go for the grabbable word – the one that you can shout without embarrassment when playing hide and seek with a child.
I saw you!
You are clear in my apperception.
Linguistic aside: At university, I learned that lots of these words I had to look up were mainly derived from Latin (i.e., perception from Latin percipire, to seize, obtain, collect) and the ones I already knew were from Anglo-Saxon (i.e., see, from Old English sēon). Some more abstract How to Write manuals might advise you to avoid Latinate language. I’d just say, Imagine playing hide and seek with a child. How do you say what you need to say, at the time you need to say it.
There are some writers who believe very passionately that fine writing comes down to, whenever there’s an opportunity, choosing high shelf words such as her apperception over grabbable, ready-to-hand words like she saw.
This is how lots of the books you’ll find in the Penguin Classics come across to these writers. And they’re not just being pretentious, these writers, they have a pure, often longstanding love of the story-time they enter into when reading George Eliot or Wilkie Collins or Louisa May Alcott or Trollope.
Pastiche, as you probably know, means writing that pretends, for fun, to be from a different time. Some pastiche, like The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, is of the past. In Faber’s case, Victorian time. Other pastiches, like A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, are of the future. In Burgess’s case, of a post-Russian invasion time.
The pleasure of pastiche is that, along with the pretence of olde or futuristic language, the reader also gets access to a contemporary version of olde or futuristic story-time.
There’s a lot of complex play, within pastiche, for the writer and the reader, and for the writer and the reader together.
Historical Pastiche Writer: Weren’t they just like this?
Historical Pastiche Reader: Oh, weren’t they indeed.
SF Pastiche Writer: Won’t it be just like this?
SF Pastiche Reader: Oh, it’ll be exactly like this.
Historical Pastiche Writer: Didn’t they say it just like this?
Historical Pastiche Reader: Oh, didn’t they indeed.
SF Pastiche Writer: Won’t they say it this way?
SF Pastiche Reader: Oh, I’m sure they will.
However, vast numbers of novels being written this minute are accidental pastiches. That is, they are being written passionately and wholeheartedly by writers whose idea of what writing should be dates from 1890 or 1940 or 1985 or 2015.
Most often, these writers (you may be one of them) think the world should be written up – it needs to be improved, by going into language. They don’t see it as a case of the world being gotten down – transcribed into language.
Almost always, these writers don’t read contemporary fiction. I don’t mean they don’t read fiction that is set in the present day and involves young people speaking the latest language. I mean, they don’t read historical fiction or science fiction or any fiction that was published this or last year.
To clarify things, let’s call this new fiction rather than contemporary fiction – through new fiction brings along misleading associations of youth, trendiness, whatever.
By avoiding new fiction, writers of inadvertent pastiche seal themselves off in a time-bubble. What they think should be written, what they feel they need to write, is – inevitably, and sadly – going to be out of date.
GRR, AND I MAY BE WRONG
Although you may hate lots of things about the present, and about what gets written today, you have to recognise that – as a writer – the present is where you exist because the only readers you will ever have are in the present alongside you.
Writing for future readers is something entirely different, as a general aim. But in terms of how it should be approached, I don’t think there is a great difference. Is a reader in the future, say, a hundred years from now more likely to be interested in writing from this year that is of this year or writing from this year that is of 1898?
I feel very sorry for writers who commit so many years to writing for readers who died before they themselves were even born.
I feel bad that they were able to continue in their time-bubbles, writing defensively in order to maintain their hermetic seals. What they are making, in the novels they carefully plan and execute, are nearly suicide notes – because they are saying to the reader, ‘Hello, from the past,’ or even ‘Hello, from the long dead.’
Many things about writing are paradoxical, this isn’t:
If you don’t read other people’s books, you can’t expect them to read yours. If you don’t love other people’s books, you can’t expect them to love yours. And if you don’t recognise the present day exists, you can’t expect the present day to recognise that you exist.
Perhaps you’re not convinced. Or you can think of examples of books published in 2020 that aren’t pastiche but read as if they were written in a previous year, and that this is to their benefit.
All I’d say back is that agents and publishers are among the most present day readers you’ll find, because they’re trying to second guess what the present day will be in twelve or eighteen months time. They are actively seeking out what couldn’t have written before. They may be wrong. They may not recognise your talent, or genius. But the one thing they definitely know is what most of what is being written now looks like. They know it and they’re not thrilled by it.
Story-time is not a single, unchanging thing. There are lots of different kinds of story-time that are closely related to different kinds of genre. To get a sense of this –
Exercise: Pick up a bestselling book from this year – let’s say, the bestselling political thriller. Then pick up the equivalent bestselling political thriller from twenty years ago. If you don’t have much free time, read the first ten pages of each. If you’re serious about getting a sense of how story-time changes and develops, read both books through – getting a sense of how dense each page is, how long it takes to read ten pages, how many hours it takes to read each book.
Exercise: Alternately, or additionally, have a battle of the books. Read the first five pages of the new book and the first five pages of the book from twenty years ago. Now decide which you’re going to finish. Ask which felt like the easier read? Which put more hooks in you? Which spoke to you more directly?