Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Words Matter

I was reading a contemporary young adult novel last week and everything was going smoothly.  I was totally getting into the cool story, enjoying the main characters, liking the plot.  Then the protagonist said this:

"I had to get ready for the gala."

Full stop.  What 16-year old teenager within the sound of my voice says the word gala for party?  I would guess not very many, or at least only those who have time-traveled here from the 1800's wearing ball gowns and top hats.
Unfortunately that one little word took me out of the story and all of a sudden I could hear the author's 40-year old voice and not her main character's.  Not good for a story. 

Then it happened again on Sunday night.  While watching SECRETARIAT on DVD, near the end of the film when Penny Chenery's children were watching their Mom's horse on television, one of the kids shouts out "Awesome!"  when Secretariat crossed the finish line.  It was quick.  But, still.  Awesome was not part of the 1970's vernacular. My husband and I couldn't help but look at each other and roll our eyes when we heard it.  Any Baby Boomer worth his salt knows that.  So, like a splash of cold water, it took us out of the movie and rudely threw us back into present-day.  We still loved the movie, the awesome slip-up notwithstanding.  Fortunately it happened near the end of the movie.

Words do matter.  That's why we rewrite our novels six times (or more) and make sure we have plenty of critique partners.  Because it's a bummer for everybody when we get it wrong, especially for the people who very much want to crawl into our stories and stay there for a while.  And even for our mothers who love everything we write.

*****

P.S. And speaking of words--100 of them, as a matter of fact--I learned yesterday that I'm a finalist in Elena Solodow's 100-word Sentence Challenge.  Remember my monster-long sentence a couple of weeks ago about my beloved green lava lamp? Well, it's one of six finalists.  How cool is that, but please read all the entries.  They're all very clever and it's just been fun to be part of this challenge.  Kudos to Elena, too, for hosting.  If you ever need to get over writer's block, I highly recommend trying to string together 100 words with no punctuation.

20 comments:

kayspringsteen said...

One of my daughters used to be into Dawson's Creek when she was 14. I couldn't even watch more than 10 minutes. No kid talked like those kids did.

Tina said...

As someone who is fluent in both redneck and country club Southern, it's sometimes hard to write dialogue in those vernaculars for a general audience -- what is exactly right often reads exactly wrong.

DEZMOND said...

that teen probably had HOLLYWOOD SPY'S ANNUAL AWARDS CEREMONY GALA :)It's a huge hit among adults and teens :))))

Taryn Kincaid said...

Great post. One of the things that sets my teeth on edge is when authors write teens who sound like they're 40-year-old college professors. It's tricky. Must rely on the ears!

Danette said...

The hardest vernacular to get right on target is the historical. It's just too easy to slip in idioms from the present. (Kinda weird for even a forty-year-old to say gala. I wouldn't.) Good post because it is something we all need to remember!!

Lydia K said...

You totally watch movies and read like a writer. That stuff would bother me too!

Eleri Stone said...

I'm afraid to write young adult for that reason. Even with a teenager living in the house, I'm pretty sure I'd give myself away somehow.

Candyland said...

I'm so with you! I hate being taken from a good story because of language. And congrats on being a semi with me!

Linda Leszczuk said...

I used to love reading Georgette Heyer's Regency romances for the dialogue. I don't think anyone captured the sound of the era like she did.

Heather M. Gardner said...

They probably meant Shindig. That would have been much more appropriate.
Words are incredibly important.
Great post!
Love the LAVA!

Elena Solodow said...

She said "gala" and it was a contemporary novel? Yikes.

It seems your lava is getting many happy votes.

Elana Johnson said...

Great post. Great, great post. Words DO matter, and they can make cracks we don't anticipate.

Liz Fichera said...

Thanks for the comments, all! You folks totally rock. Oops--"folks." Probably not a word I'd want to use in my next YA either. Totally dates me.

Nas Dean said...

Thats YA written by adults(old adults)for you!

Donna Cummings said...

Congrats on being a finalist!

I love how words evolve and morph and become completely different things throughout the generations. It does make it tricky making sure we're using them in the right way though!

Marianne Arkins said...

Even writing about different parts of the country can be tough. When I moved to New Hampshire from California, I felt like I'd gone to a new country! Shopping carts were carriages, drinking fountains were bubblers, purses were pocketbooks...

So, when I wrote my "One Love for Liv" and my heroine carried a pocketbook, and my editor wasn't from here ... we tussled.

But you're so right, little things -- even one small word -- matters. Kind of scary to think about if you're a writer. No pressure or anything.

Liz Fichera said...

Tricky is right! As Marianne said, regional differences can be even trickier. But at least let's spot the obvious: Like the lack of "awesome" in the 1970's. Or vice versa. For example, anyone saying "far out!" today (a popular saying in the 60s-70s) would probably be considered a throw-back hippie today.

Angelina Rain said...

Wow, I hate dated words in contemporary novels. A few years ago, a bunch of people recommended to me this one romance author (forgot her name) so I got one of her books from the library and started reading. I was about midway through when the hero took off her “corset”. I was done right there. I tried to read the rest of the book but then all of the sudden I started noticing other dated words.

BTW, I voted for you. Love the lava lamp.

Lori Beth said...

Awesome post. And I totally agree. I think the only time "gala" would be appropriate in a contemporary YA novel is if the school was calling it that. Like we have a local high school sponsor a ball and another has a cotillion. Well, these kids probably wouldn't use these words if they weren't for the specific dances they're planning to attend.

I really want to write YA, but it does worry me. Also, teen slang changes quickly. My daughter is 15, a freshman, and we have discussed collaborating, but I am still leery of it.

My 20 year-old son told me I was showing my age the other day when I called marijuana "pot." Apparently no one calls it that. (Just never mind about the rest of our conversation. haha)

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