Tag Archives: The Great Gatsby

Slang, Colloquialisms, and Clichés #amwriting

Words are awesome. I love obscure, weird words. J.K. Rowling used the word ‘snogging’ in her Harry Potter series, to describe couples who were engaged in prolonged kissing, or as we sometimes say where I come from,  ‘canoodling.’

Another good word is ‘kerfuffle,’  a Briticism for a  noisy disturbance or commotion. That word has become more common in American conversation over the last few years.

Words are how authors convey the imaginary world to the reader. Artistry comes into play in the way the author assembles their chosen words into sentences and paragraphs. In reading those words, the reader finds themselves in a new reality, a mental picture painted by the author.

English is a mash-up language. It is old Latin glued to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian, with a bunch of words and usages invented by William Shakespeare added in.

Thanks to the human drive to explore new worlds, English, the mish-mash language, went to America where it absorbed many words from the various languages it encountered among the people already living there.

English also went to Australia where the same thing happened. Each of the many dialects of English contains wonderful, wild words that are unique to their local population.

Colloquialisms are fun, informal things, but truthfully, they are much like clichés. Unless we are writing a contemporary piece where words unique to a particular culture are part of the world building, we shouldn’t rely on them to tell the story.

Sometimes, we find ourselves using words that are what I think of as subtle clichés. They are subtle because they feel so natural sitting in that sentence. Consider “damn fool.”

It was a common thing adults would say about a particularly reckless or impulsive neighbor when I was growing up. But would I write it into a narrative? Maybe, if using that cliché showed the personality of a minor character whose only onscreen time was shown in that brief conversation.

The problem comes with word evolution, and how common phrases evolve differently from place to place, and sometimes even in the same town.

That was a damn fool thing. This was how I would hear that phrase as a child.

So, if that is a concept that we are trying to convey, how do we say it? If you listen carefully, people say it just a bit differently depending on where they are from. Some say it with two words, some make it one, and others give damn an “ed” ending as if the suffix adds a sense of finality.

Do we spell it damn fool, damnfool, or damned fool?

According to the Urban Dictionary

damned fool

  • A person who is extremely foolish. Their actions are not only irresponsible to themselves but can possibly be harmful towards others.
  • If a guy tries to talk you out of using a condom, he is a damn fool. (You can’t make this stuff up–you have to go to the internet for it.)
  • Did you see that damned fool? He was swerving all over the road.(end quoted text)

And just for fun, let’s see what Wiktionary has to say:

  • damn fool (adjective)
  • damnfool 
  1. (informal) Contemptibly (end quoted text)

He was a damned fool.

How I see it:

  1. He was a damned fool. (I just cursed him to hell.)
  2. He was a damn fool. (He was contemptibly foolish)
  3. He did a damnfool thing. (He was contemptibly foolish, and I will curse him to hell.)

If you absolutely must use that colloquialism, write it the way that seems right to you, and it will be fine.

But when you look at the meanings of the various clichés we use in our daily speech, you can see there are better ways to say what you mean without making your work feel dated.

He was contemptibly foolish would be a good choice, as it isn’t a cliché and it says what you mean.

If we want our work to be meaningful to more than just the reader of today, we must use words that won’t lose their relevance, or fall out of fashion as within a decade. Did I hear you say, “Groovy?” Far out.

We want to write well, and we don’t want our prose to be stale or boring, but we also don’t want it to be annoyingly full of jargon.

Consider The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The slang his characters use in their casual conversation is specific to the nineteen twenties of America, and while it was well understood in that time, using those words in that context has fallen out of favor. This makes understanding that novel difficult for the modern reader, yet the prose of the narrative outside the conversations is truly beautiful.  Some words used in conversation that have lost their relevance today:

  • Mop (indicates a handkerchief)
  • Niffy (great, wonderful)
  • Noodle Juice (tea – a weak drink for weak people)
  • Quilt (indicated a drink meant to warm someone up)

Having the characters use slang stamps a novel with a date, setting it squarely in a known period.

For that reason, I feel it’s best to avoid slang and clichés even though finding the right words to convey those thoughts can be a struggle. When I am reading a new book, originality wins over hackneyed prose any day.

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Using Repetition as a Literary Device #amwriting

Sometimes authors want to emphasize a concept, and deliberate repetition is the way to do it. Some of my favorite authors use the repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or to show the scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction and in poetry. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.

Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in a much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”

Repetition as a literary device can take these forms:

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Some famous examples of repetition as a literary device:

“Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry.

“This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

The prose of the The Great Gatsby is powerful. Fitzgerald’s repetition of the word ashes evokes the atmosphere of the valley, a place created through industrial dumping and which was a by-product of greed. The people and the environment suffer. The rich look down upon the poor as being there solely for their use, and don’t have even a thought for the physical suffering caused by the carelessly dumped byproducts of the industries that make them wealthy. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, with their rich, empty lives, are represented as  metaphorical bodies of ashes in the valley of ashes.

The Great Gatsby, Symbols and Motifs says:

The ashes are symbols of dead, with more self-centered and arrogant people arising from them. Every generation, the ashes pile, distorting the American Dream further.

When an author writes it intentionally to drive home a point, repetition is an effective tool.

It is when words are inadvertently used with a lack of creativity that repetition ruins a narrative.

Unconsciously using the same words too often in our descriptions is one of the pitfalls of writing. It happens to all of us, and for me, it occurs most often when I am laying down the first draft, and my vocabulary can’t keep up.

Many common words (the, and, etc.) don’t really stand out when used more than a few times in a paragraph, and you couldn’t write well if not for those words. However, some words will always stand out more than others, and if you use them more than once in a paragraph, it looks like you’re unimaginative or a lazy writer. This is especially true if the word in question has a lot of common synonyms you could have used instead of repeating the same word.

Some words don’t have a lot of obvious substitutes, so you get hung up on the few you can find.  I have mentioned before that in my own work, the word sword is one of the main culprits. The type of blade my characters wield in the World of Neveyah books is a claymore, and four ensorcelled blades figure prominently in the Tower of Bones series.

The many obvious synonyms for the word sword will not work, as rapier, epee, saber, etc., are distinct blade types that are in no way like a broadsword, which is what a claymore is.

Fortunately, the spell-check function of your word processing program will find many inadvertent double-up repetitions, accidents such as “the the” or “and and.” That particular form of repetition is the devil and is one I struggle with, especially when writing blog posts.

When it comes to making revisions and checking for areas of inadvertent repetition, sometimes I need to see how the chapter looks printed out. I sit at my table with the printout and start on the last page, using a blank sheet of paper to cover all but the last paragraph.

This paragraph is my starting point. With a highlighter, I begin at the last sentence of the chapter and work my way forward, paragraph by paragraph, until I have arrived at the first sentence. The highlighter is a good way to make the places I want to correct stand out at a quick glance.

Once I have marked up my hardcopy, I open my digital files and make the revisions. This speeds things up—looking at my notes and crossing them off as they are completed saves me weeks of work when I am in the revisions stage.

There is another benefit to using this method. Working with hardcopy from the bottom up, blind to what has gone before in that chapter, allows you to see your own work through unbiased eyes. When you do this, you will find places where you have repeated an entire thought almost verbatim and places with hokey phrasing. You may decide to change some things around.

Large thesauruses are excellent resources, and I have one I use regularly. However, it’s important to remember that they are written for academic use and contain many obscure words that a casual reader would have to stop and look up, which can turn them off your work. So, we must be careful not to use words that shout, “Look! I’m educated!”

Yes, we want to have a wide vocabulary, but we don’t want our writing to sound pretentious. Great authors walk a fine line, writing prose that isn’t dumbed down, yet can be understood by most readers without their having to stop and look up the words.

I have a useful paperback book, the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. It’s full of good common alternatives to most regularly used words.

This little book has become just as important to me as my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It can be purchased used from Amazon. I do recommend purchasing this as a paper book rather than an eBook.

I know you can right click for the thesaurus in most word-processing programs, and I do that when I am in a hurry. But these thesauruses are limited in scope, and I like having a larger variety of commonly used words available to me in book form. I tend to make better use of what I read on paper than what I read in eBook form.

If you have not read The Great Gatsby, I suggest you do so. There is a reason it is an enduring classic, and you should read it if only to develop your own opinion of it.


Credits & Attributions

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Repetition” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. https://literarydevices.net/metaphor/ (accessed March 8, 2017).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (March 8, 2017)

The Great Gatsby; Symbols and Motifs by   http://thegreatgatsbysandm.blogspot.com/2011/05/valley-of-ashes.html (accessed 19 Feb 2018).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, pub. 1925 Charles Scribner & Sons.

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To blurb or not to blurb

Blurb definitionOne of the things that sucks about being an indie is that you have to sell your books. I know that seems pretty obvious, but but it’s harder than it looks! In the old days, every book had a blurb on the back of it, or inside the flap on the dust jacket, and that blurb gave us just enough intriguing insight into the book that we bought it.

Here in the US, the word blurb originated in 1907. American humorist Gelett Burgess’s short 1906 book Are You a Bromide? was presented in a limited edition to an annual publishers’ trade association dinner. The custom at such events was to have a dust jacket promoting the work–they did things right in those days! His definition of “blurb” was “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial.”

Blurbs can and do sell books.

wool by hugh howeyBut what will sell books? Let’s take a look at Wool, by Hugh Howey:

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

f scott fitzgerald The Great GatsbyOr F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s classic novel, The Great Gatsby:

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

There are huge differences in these blurbs:

Hugh Howey (an indie) tells us about the plot of his book-and it is intriguing. I bought it based on that blurb.

(Charles Scribner’s Sons) (Fitzgerald’s original publisher) used the opening lines of the book–and that was intriguing as well.

Choosing to use the opening lines for marketing is dangerous–it could be an epic failure, for those who want to know what the book is about.

Back Cover of Mage-Guard of Hamor by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Back Cover of Mage-Guard of Hamor by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Even more dangerous than that is the increasing trend toward eliminating the blurb and going with nothing but recommendations mentioning other works by that author.  Let me just say now, I HATE THAT! For the love of Tolstoy–talk about the book I am going to buy, please! Any blurb, even a bad one, is better than glowing reviews by paid reviewers. 

But this trend just proves to me that the BIG PUBLISHERS are just as much as sea in the this regard as we poor indies are, small comfort though it is.

I will be writing blurbs for my own work again soon, and so I am looking at blurbs on the covers in my library, and trying to see what it was that attracted me to that particular book. I admit that many times it was the cover art, and not the blurb, but when I picked up a book by an author that was unknown to me, I read the blurb, and considered carefully whether or not to spend my dearly earned wages on that book. I was taking a risk–because what if I hated it?

It’s a conundrum.  Perhaps I can go with “One ring to rule them all…”

No… I suppose that’s been done…but it’s an awesome blurb, short and to the point….

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