Can You Make Up Words in Your Novel? Yes… and No.

gobbleyI’m deep in the edits of THE HUNT FOR XANADU. My action adventure thriller about a girl on a mission to avenge her parent’s murder… and I’m finding that I’ve taken quite a bit of literary license with the English language that my editor is “calling me out on.”

What do I mean? Well, one of my characters has a cute affectation. His mouth quirks up at the corner so I made a comment that “his mouth is quirking.” In the edits my editor, Denise Vitola, replied “that’s not a word, delete.” I asked “why?” Her response? “Quirk–a person is quirky or he has quirks. Quirking is not a word and quirk doesn’t have anything to do with expressions unless you say, “He had a quirky expression.” Although, that doesn’t tell the reader anything so I wouldn’t use it.” (twerking is also not a word, by the way! 😉 )

Another time I had my character “scootching” up next to a boy. To “scootch” is a word I’ve used nearly forever in my family – it means to “sidle up next to someone.” Again, I was told: “scootching is not a word, delete.” Apparently “connectiveness” is not a word either (what am I thinking and where did I learn to speak?)

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t make up words in your stories. In fantasy, every other description seems to be a fantastical word. In my dark fantasy series I use the word “Semptor” for Wizards, “Manogs” for these wild dog-like beasts, etc… you get the idea. In XANADU I also have fantastical animals and had named all of them. My editor balked at this. “Why do you need a name for every single animal and insect? Just describe it.” I couldn’t understand why naming this one cute little creature a Timblit was a problem… but it actually was. I’m asking my readers to remember all these crazy names that might only be mentioned one time in the book. My editor said, “Describe the “cute little ferret-like creature with eight legs” rather than just give it a fantasy name.” She’s right – the reader will remember this description a lot better than a throw-a-way name.

So back to making up words. As writers, we need to be buttoned up. We need to use correct English. It’s one thing to talk about a vicuña coat (like my favorite authors have done) and not know what this is and need to look it up and discover “vicuña is a relative of a llama.” It’s another to make up words that are slang in the first place and will confuse our readers if they don’t understand what we’re trying to say. It’s all about credibility.

My two cents for the day.

19 thoughts on “Can You Make Up Words in Your Novel? Yes… and No.

  1. That’s a good point, actually. It came up in my Creative Writing course recently. One lady used a local ‘slang’ word and it spoiled the flow of an otherwise brilliant piece for me, as I had to pause and think what it meant. So I’m trying to be careful not to do the same myself! 😉

    • Exactly, but what happens when a word become part of the vernacular, like Twerking? Americans know what it is, or will for a little while. I think we have to be cognizant of the longevity of our work so any generation will know what we’re talking about – thanks for commenting Karen. 🙂

  2. I learned this lesson as well… my novel one of the characters uses pidgin and I had to throw out many of the pidgen words because my editor thought is hurt the flow and most readers would have no idea what the character was saying, and she was right! What a balance we writers must find!

  3. As a reader, I enjoy the occasional made up word. The quirk side of the mouth gave me an instant picture and I thought everyone knew what scootching is. I totally agree about not naming occasional characters. One reason I don’t enjoy fantasy is the names are too hard for me to remember.

  4. You have no idea how many times I’ve scootched into a booth as a high school kid. I think some words are region terms. I caused a lot of issues for two of my shipmakes about my “origins” since I used terms from mid-America (Iowa) and Atlantic coast (New York) — uh, my mom is NYC born and raised, while my dad was from a podunk hamlet in rural Iowa. Growing up, I learned terms from both areas, not to mention I was raised in Ohio and added that dialect into my vocabulary. I’d still have fought for “scootching” but let the naming of beasts slide. A named animal may regurgitate an image of it but I will no longer be able to get an eight-legged ferret out of my mind. Great post.

  5. I thought I made up the word ‘huldra,’ so I used it as the name for a powerful magical dingus. After the book containing the word was published, I learned that ‘huldra’ wasn’t a new word, and in fact it describes a ‘hollow woman’ from Scandinavian folklore. Oops. Taught me to Google all my new words.

  6. Quirk has actually been used as a verb since 1878, according to Merriam-Webster. 😀 I love using it as a way to describe a half-smile.

    In my most recent book, I alternate 1st person perspectives between a well-bred Prince and a street rat named Hayli. The street rats all use an occasional slang that has tenuous roots in various British regional dialects, but which might not be familiar to American readers. Some expressions are simply made up. I think if the context is clear, it can add a lot of flavor to the story. And in some cases, it really helps to define and differentiate voices.

    But, like everything, it can totally be overdone, too. I read an excerpt of a story once where the entire first paragraph was a combination of made-up fantasy place names and object names, and references to made-up historical people. I had no clue what was going on. O.o

  7. “Timblit” sounds like “Timbit.” If you’re not Canadian, you probably don’t know it’s a doughnut hole from Tim Horton’s, but every Canadian does!

    I love the word “scootch,” but it probably depends on what genre you’re using it in. YA, it works. Hard adult sci-fi, probably not.

  8. Oh my GOD how many words do I make up. I’m not looking forward to the discussions with the editor at whichever publisher I end up with… It could get ugly as I explain to them I *intend* to make up these words… For instance, I purposely spell for god’s sakes as “for godssakes” – I just know she’ll zero in on that. LOL

    • If I had my way, my book would probably be completely non-understandable – “delete – not a word” was rife through the entire book. Sigh… sometimes I wonder where I learned to speak.

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