September 27, 2011

With All Due Punctilio

One piece of writing advice I have increasingly come to reject is the one that urges you to exterminate all trace of mannerism. Certain words are too distinctive, so the admonition goes, to use more than once in the course of a novel.

One particularly nutsoid bit of outward-turned insecurity I ran across a while back went so far as to complain about writers who used the simple word “tone” more than one in a book-length work.

Sure, you have to be aware of terms and expressions you overuse reflexively, and to be conscious of how hard you’re leaning on them.

But certain words are so distinctive that they help transport you into a writer’s particular world and vision. Recently, in preparation for an upcoming project, I had the pleasure of reading fourteen of Jack Vance’s Gaean Reach novels in a row. Vance rightly receives praise as one of the finest stylists in genre writing. And you know what? He breaks a bunch of supposed writing rules left and right, without blotting his copybook. Foremost among these is the injunction against re-use of exotic words. I don’t feel I’m truly in a Vancian setting until someone acts with punctilio. Or speaks with candor. An insulting reference to dog barbers becomes not a tired return to the same well, but a welcome moment of gratification—a return visit with an old friend.

Prose greats don’t vanish into the page. They grab hold of written language and make it theirs.

Jack Vance owns punctilio. But maybe we can aspire to our own landmark words, and free ourselves to use them with the ruthless abandon true masters employ.