With Thanks to Mr. Dickens

Call me old-fashioned, but I like it when books send me to the dictionary.

I didn’t always. In fact, it really used to bother me– I disliked anything that took away from the narrative flow of a book, especially if authors went out of their way to be convoluted. I could barely sit still in high school as it was; I had neither the attention span nor the patience for books whose language went too often beyond my grasp. Studying for the SATs was bad enough!

Even now I almost never actually stop in the middle of reading to look up a word I don’t know (though in the better writing I have seen, you often don’t need to because enough context is given to derive meaning).  Instead I note words I don’t know on my bookmark. Then, when I finish the book (or when my scrap of paper fills up– whichever comes first) I’ll look up all of the words and print myself out a neat a little vocab sheet.

Ta-da! Learning!

Recently I finished Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Have you read it?

If not, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Engaging, haunting, and humorous (dry as well as whimsical; wonderfully European), it is the Brit Lit to end all Brit Lits. As the blurb by Sir Philip Sidney above puts it,

A tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner.

Read it. You won’t regret it.

But to the point. Thanks to Mr. Dickens, I add twenty-some words to my verbal arsenal:

antipode: (n.) a direct or exact opposite

bagatelle: (n.) a trifle; an easy task; a short piano piece

buxom: (adj.) [of a woman] plump, well-endowed

chary: (adj.) cautious, wary; cautious about the amount one reveals

connubial: (adj.) of or relating to marriage

contiguous: (adj.) sharing a common border; touching; next or together in a sequence

contumacious: (adj.) stubbornly disobedient to authority

despondent: (adj.) in low spirits from loss of courage or hope

diadem: (n.) a jeweled crown or headband worn as a symbol of sovereignty

disconsolate: (adj.) without comfort; unhappy; cheerless

kosher: (adj.) food prepared according to Jewish law

lurcher: (n.) a crossbred dog (collie or sheepdog + greyhound) usually used in hunting; a prowler, swindler, or petty thief

necromantic: (adj.) divining through alleged communication with the dead

ophthalmic: (adj.) of or relating to the eye and its diseases

paroxysm: (n.) a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity

plenipotentiary: (n.) a person (diplomat) invested with full power of independent action on behalf of their government (often in a foreign country)

pugilistic: (adj.) fist-fighting; boxing

rapacious: (adj.) aggressively greedy or grasping

rubicund: (adj.) having a ruddy [red] complexion; high-colored

sagacious: (adj.) shrewd; having keen mental discernment

sententious: (adj.) 1. abounding in aphorisms and maxims; 2. given to excessive moralizing

truant: (n.) a student who stays away from school without leave or explanation; wandering, straying; skipping out

truculent: (adj.) eager to fight or argue


Ask not what your readers can do for you…

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 21: How do YOU hope to help your fellow writers–now or in the future?

I know that one thing I really value as a writer is a partner-in-crime (reader) who will devote the time and care to sitting down with my work, reading it, and providing honest critical feedback. (A quick shout out to friend and fellow writer KD Shaw, who has graciously accepted it upon herself to slog through an 18-page first draft which I’ve just completed today and can no longer stand to look at! You rock, KD!)

It may be small potatoes, but I think being a critical reader is one of the greatest services I can offer my fellow writers today. What I wouldn’t give for a functioning writer’s circle! Maybe it’s time to revive the old group that used to meet Wednesdays (but then usually ended up going out for Mexican or drinks and swapping gossip rather than reading or writing…)

The other thing I am finding as I struggle to gain footing in the literary world is that every little bit of support helps. I am surprised again and again at the level of encouragement and community that forms in the blogging world—I honestly never could have anticipated it! Likes, comments, and follows all point, however small, to the fact that someone is reading. That in itself is a small miracle.

In that vein, the other way I think I can make a difference for writers at present is simply to return the favor and show active support for them. And in that spirit, today I want to give a big, glittering slice of kudos-pie to Emily Anne Shaffer, who earlier this week self-published her first novel, That Time of the Month. Congratulations, Emily!

As to the future…would it be vain to hope that my writing itself one day fires the writing ambitions of others? 🙂

Writing Challenge, Day 12: Magpie

30 Day Writing Challenge

Day 12: What is the last book, story, or poem you read that had an effect on your writing? Are you a better writer for having read this work?

Maybe it’s just the put-a-bird-on-it Portlandian in me talking, but when it comes to writing I’m quite the magpie: I approach every text with a discerning eye, eager to take from it what gold and shiny lessons I may.

I read The Hunger Games, for example, just before the first film came out and I have to say, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a character so fresh and well-developed as Katniss Everdeen. There is a fiery girl with clear motive, a short temper, and rich layers of conflict! I wonder if the use of the first person instead of third had anything to do with the way she simply jumped off the page? The fact that I’m still thinking about it shows that it is successful writing and prompts me to think I should revisit the book, study it more carefully, and see how I, too, can create such memorable characters.

I don’t think I can’t point to any one specific work, however, and say that it has fundamentally altered or influenced my personal writing style. I’ve not yet had enough of an obsession with any one author to have steeped myself in his or her writing mannerisms. In grade school I read loads of Goosebumps, Boxcar Children, and Sweet Valley High, and in high school I may have had a girly, guilty, long-term affair with Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, but I’ve never once read my work and afterwards thought, “That sounded like Francine Pascal just there!” or “Why, I could be the next R.L. Stine!”

I do, of course, learn from just about everything I read. Even bad writing—clichés, dry narratives, gratuitous (not to mention bizarre) love-making, “liquid topaz eyes”*—can warn of what to avoid!

Every story touches me and my writing in one way or another, but perhaps most often I go through post-reading phases. After reading e.e. cummings, for instance, my sentences flow into one another with little or strange punctuation; following Norwegian Wood I wrote a dark story about suicide; after The Iliad I went about with a lyric tongue uttering things such as “Put away in your heart this thing that I tell you” and “…And his armor clattered upon him.”

*If you know what this is from then you are as bad as I am! 😉