I have not written a book. Friends and colleagues who have, talk about the agony, discipline and the sweat; some others are more encouraging. They tell me anyone can write a book. All you need is an interesting story and a nice opening line to hook the reader.
I’m quite certain it’s not as simple as that. You may think you have a gripping tale and a great opening line but what about your style of writing? Take a look at the following opening lines by one of my favourite authors:
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them.”
Can you guess who it is? Let’s do it with something shorter and crisper:
“All this happened, more or less.”
Here’s another: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
My first example is from The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, the second from Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and the third from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
You think you write like them? The smart thing about technology is that before you submit a draft to a publisher you can go to a website called I Write Like (http://iwl.me) and check if your writing style is up to the mark. Within a few seconds this site analyses your choice of words and style and compares it with famous writers. I do not know if the analysis is accurate but I certainly had fun finding out. I tried with Chandler’s opening lines first and it seems he wrote like James Joyce. And based on the first two paragraphs of this column, I believe I write like, well, Dan Brown! Thank you very much.
Style check: Online tools help you discover words and their meaning.
Style apart, there’s a wide range of applications and websites that make writing a little easier, sites where you can go for a quick check on whether to use “defuse” or “diffuse”. I find WordWeb, a thesaurus and dictionary software that you can download on your computer, not only good, but also easy to use when I am not sure of a spelling.
If I want to go deeper into the usage of a word, I often visit Wordnik where you can get the definition (example: a wildcatter is a promoter of speculative or fraudulent business enterprises) and also the etymology. You don’t have to flip back and forth between one online dictionary and another. Wordnik has it all on one page.
The other site I visit when I am in doubt about the meaning of words (“flak” and “flack”, for example) is Merriam-Webster (www.merriam-webster.com). If your book is controversial, you might end up taking flak; so you may as well hire a flack (a publicity agent). They also have a section on slang and new words (to “limn” means to outline in sharp detail).
The nice thing about these online tools is that as you look for one word, you discover many more. You might even stumble upon a word that is no longer in use or will soon become extinct. A BBC report on research done by an evolutionary biologist at Reading University says it can predict which words are likely to go extinct. It says the word “dirty” is a “rapidly changing word” and, along with “stick” and “guts”, is likely to die out soon in English vocabulary.
But you can also try and save some of these words. I recently stumbled upon an interesting website, SaveTheWords.org, an initiative of the Oxford English Dictionary which is dedicated to language conservation. You can “adopt” a word (for example: essomenic, meaning showing things as they will be in future; or snollygoster, meaning a shrewd politician) by pledging to use it “in conversation and correspondence as frequently as possible”.
Speaking for myself, I am unlikely to use these words in conversation or in writing. But I am a bit curious about my writing style. So I went back to I Write Like and tried it out with another column. I am now told I write like H.P. Lovecraft. Of course, I don’t buy that. But it’s nice to know that you are in good company.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at email@example.com