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PSA: Choose Your Words Carefully

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Mindfire, Jul 7, 2015.

  1. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    So the other day I was at Barnes and Noble, browsing the fantasy section as I am wont to do, when I came across this book: The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul

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    So already the title is either a complete and utter travesty or the most awesome thing ever, depending on your tastes. I'm still not sure, myself. The cover image is very striking. It has a schlock feel to it, but the best kind of schlock. Awesome schlock. A sorceress and a ninja (who's shirtless for some reason) facing off against an army of undead warriors in samurai armor. I'll hand it to the book, it does nothing small. Already it makes grand promises. And it features something I don't see too often in the fantasy section at B&N: non-white people! So of course I pick up the book and look at the back cover to see what it's all about, only to discover this rich goodness*.

    Yeah. Not the best summary ever. I'm starting to side-eye this book now, but I figure I'll give it a chance. So I open the book, and as I look at the first page my eyes are drawn to a single word: "Murai". I immediately close the book, put it back on the shelf, and continue my browsing, never to look at it again. At least until I wrote this post. Why? Because with a single word, that book sent me a powerful message about what it really was. It was not, contrary to my expectations, a fun romp filled with the kind of self-aware cheesiness you might find in Guardians of the Galaxy or The Warrior's Way. Nope. It was all of the cheese with none of the self-awareness. Pure, unadulterated hackery. Hackery. Hackery. (Fun word, that is.) Hackery. The author's use of the invented word "Murai" to refer to what are obviously thinly-veiled counterparts to samurai is, frankly, insulting to my intelligence as a reader and offensive to me as a writer who attempts a modicum of creativity. I look at that word and I see laziness. But laziness mixed with a strange kind of pretentiousness. Like, he wanted a cool made up word for his not-samurai which are obviously samurai, but he didn't want to think very hard when he invented it. So he just chopped off the first two letters and called it a day. Of course, I was warned by the back cover, wasn't I? "Nehon"? Really? Really? Look, I'm not bashing the "change a few letters of an actual word/name" method of creating fantasy names because it can work (and I'd be a hypocrite to say otherwise). There are numerous examples of that. But when you do it you have to do it smartly, and in a way that immerses the reader rather than jerks them out of the story. You have to use the name in a way that supports the world you're creating. It requires effort and subtlety. And you generally shouldn't use a word that is so common and familiar that the trick is painfully obvious. Because when I read the word "Murai" all I can think is, "why did you even bother?" And then I laugh and decide not to read your book.

    Is it fair for me to judge this book so harshly without reading it? Probably not. But I'm not making a point about the quality of the storytelling here. This is not a book review. (Although the only professional review of the book I could find, this one, isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.) Nor is it meant to be some kind of personal invective against the author; my snarkiness is only to convey the strength of my reaction and approximate my stream-of-consciousness thoughts in the moment. The true moral of the story is that even seemingly small choices, like the names you use, can affect the reader in a big way, like this one obviously affected me and colored my view of the entire book. And since we want to give the reader as few reasons to roll their eyes and stop reading as possible, it behooves us to give things like this careful consideration. Or at bare minimum, avoid presenting the reader with invented words that are transparently real words with letters missing. I admit I have been guilty of this mistake myself, as this "take a real name and maybe change a few letters" business was once my go-to method. I was a dumb high school kid and have since learned better. Those names ended up being placeholders until I thought of better ones. Here I must emphasize that the method isn't inherently bad or lazy. I still use it sometimes. But I think it works best when you do it in a way that's not immediately obvious. (Protip: as a general rule, the method seems to work better with people-names than place-names or thing-names. It's GRRM's bread and butter. The fact that you so rarely notice it is a testament to how good he is at using it.)

    To compare apples to apples here, it's unlikely that anyone who doesn't speak Japanese will pick up on the fact that the name of my mountain-dwelling tribe, Yamano, is a corrupted Japanese construction that literally means "of the mountain". "Murai" doesn't have that same subtlety.

    That's today's public service announcement. I'm done.




    *The quotation I use here are actually from the book's Amazon page, as I couldn't find an actual copy of the book to refer to for the purposes of this post.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2015
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I feel your pain. I, too, am horrified by and dismiss books for reasons that no one else would ever in a millions years notice, much less care about :)
     
    Lunaairis likes this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Agree with all. And the truly discouraging thing, for an author, is that you are *never* going to know what is going to tick off a reader. I suppose there's some sort of calculus whereby we might know which choices will drive away many readers and which ones will only irritate cranky senior members of Mythic Scribes. ;-) But I'll never know that calculus.

    I know I will put thought into all my choices. I'll hope my editor comes at it from a different angle and finds where I've made poor choices. And then, I'll just have accept that every once in a while I'll choose something that lots of people like but some don't. You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. Or maybe it was Bob Dylan.
     
  4. This makes me think how strange it is what turns one person off from a book and what turns another person off. For example, if you have guns in your book some gun enthusiast will be upset if you mis-name a certain part of a gun, like calling the slide on a semi-auto the bolt. Or for others if you have an urban fantasy in a well known city and botch the geography. (I would be upset if someone made a one hour drive from Salt Lake to St. George Utah and would stop reading the book) And yet for some readers having such problems isn't a problem at all (*cough* west coast of Brazil *cough*). That Murai thing though that's some lazy writing right there. And I think that is what turns people off is a lack of basic effort. Look, I don't expect you to know where every house is on University Parkway in provo/orem. But dang it don't you dare say the University of Utah is located in Provo!
     
  5. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    Agreed. Honestly, it probably would have been better if this author had just stuck with samurai instead of lopping the first two letters off. After all, I don't see complaints about the usage of "knight" in fantasy based on medieval Western Europe.
     
    Nihilium 7th and Mindfire like this.
  6. glutton

    glutton Inkling

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    Murai would kind of be a cool name for a specific character though... not a samurai type, more an evil sorcerer or dark lord.

    'I am Murai, king of shadows...' lol
     
    SM-Dreamer likes this.
  7. Incanus

    Incanus Archmage

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    Ha! Maybe I should call mine "Ights" from now on. Ights in shining Mor.
     
  8. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

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    You have made some good points and I understand the message.

    In defense of the author, his book did make it inside an actual book store so he must be doing something right.

    If I was young again, something as trivial as that would not bother me.

    When I was still at an age to enjoy a book like that, I was also still reading Groo the Wanderer,...that was many moons and ex-wives ago.

    If I thought too hard about every detail of every movie I had ever seen, I probably wouldn't get much enjoyment out of them either.

    There are as many levels of seriousness to each sub-genre as there are opinions to a-holes. Perhaps his chosen level of seriousness is a tad lower.

    I think if we want to be successful at marketing we have to take risks and I think his gamble is to win a younger crowd.

    I think the target audience for that particular book might actually disagree with you.

    That is why I have suggested to other writers to read outside of the fantasy genre. It helps me to clear my mind, I think it could help others too.

    I suggest reading Hunter Thompson for a few months to clear your head.

    Or else rum, lot's and lot's of rum, and sandy beaches, and bikinis, lots and lots of bikinis.
     
    Ronald T. likes this.
  9. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    Sure, but that doesn't stop it from being creative laziness. If you're going to create a group that is samurai in all but name, you should put a bit more effort into the name than cutting off the first two letters of "samurai" and calling it a day. Or you could just leave it as samurai. And that's not the only example with this book. There's Nehon instead of Nippon, though at least that is a bit more subtle.

    On a different note, I just noticed a bit of redundancy in the first paragraph of the book's back cover/Amazon summary.
     
  10. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    Well I'm going to be contrary - what else is new?! When I read your post and saw the word murai - it meant absolutely nothing to me. I never even considered it as a bastardised version of samurai. So that at least wouldn't bother me at all. The cheesiness of the plot might, and I object to half naked guys on covers. (Girls are different as I appreciate the "art" - but I still wouldn't buy the book as the cover would scream romance at me and that would make me run screaming!)

    Having said that someone mentioned guns and it makes me aware that people are very different, and many are very sensitive to even the slightest issues on certain topics. For example when I wrote The Nephilim I had my guy as a fed carrying a Glock. But I wanted him to have a misfire holstering the weapon. Because I'm unfamiliar with weapons, I put out a question to another writing community about the possibility of this happening. Instantly I got replies blasting me for suggesting that the FBI used Glocks - they use Sigs, and they have to be forty calibre not ten mm even though they are the same calibre to my admittedly ignorant eyes. Then there were posts about guns which have safeties (Glocks apparently don't) versus trigger guards.

    All good points I'm sure and in the end they forced me to change the weapon. But I was blown away by the passion of the debate - all for a one paragraph bit of action in a book which isn't really about guns.

    To sum up there are I think trigger points (pun intended) which will hit readers, but they are often very specific to certain readers.

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  11. Incanus

    Incanus Archmage

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    Yeah, that struck me in a really bad way. A short paragraph with two of the sentences nearly identical--yikes. And then a lack of consistency on top of that: Book 1; Book One. Also, "a army" should be "an army". With so many mistakes on the back cover, I can only imagine what's going on inside. Doesn't exactly inspire my confidence.
     
  12. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    A good example of how important context is, and how taking a real word and altering it works better for character names.

    The fact that the book made it into a bookstore means that someone somewhere thought it would sell. And they were probably right. But it didn't sell to me. His creative laziness cost him at least one customer. Whether you're industry-minded or you're doing it for the art, the lesson remains the same: laziness hurts your product. He has achieved at least a modicum of success by getting published, but might he not be more successful if his book didn't include such lazy writing?

    Even that's not as subtle as you think. Nippon is one word for Japan. But another, the one I'm more familiar with, is Nihon. Yeah. He literally changed one letter. -_-
     
    Nihilium 7th likes this.
  13. X Equestris

    X Equestris Maester

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    Ah yeah, I remember it now. I haven't heard it much at all compared to Nippon, but it rings a bell. Wow. That's...something special. Just changing one letter for the name of one of your fictional countries is...I don't even have the words.
     
  14. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

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    I agree with psychotick,

    The word murai meant nothing to me either.

    I'm just not sold that he did it out of laziness.

    I think he is catering to his market.

    kids.
     
    Ronald T. likes this.
  15. Ophiucha

    Ophiucha Auror

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    It doesn't really sound like a kid's book. Young adult, maybe, although the 20-somethings on the cover seem a little old for YA protagonists. Also as somebody who read Eragon as a teenager, I certainly did find the '[D/E]ragon' switch incredibly lazy, so I'd have probably thought the same of 'sa/murai' and 'N[e/i]hon'.

    To be fair, though, I'd have probably bailed on this book around the time I got to 'zombies!'. I'm kind of zombie'd out.
     
    Ronald T. likes this.
  16. MineOwnKing

    MineOwnKing Maester

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    By kids, I meant a younger crowd, not children.

    Sorry, I wasn't specific.

    Young Adult has become a loose term for marketers.

    I guess my point was that if this book doesn't appeal to a reader then it might be time to self-assess rather than criticize.

    I do admit I could be totally wrong about the lazy aspect, but it didn't stand out to me at all.
     
  17. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Wowww, I've put my share of books back on the shelf after skimming a page, but that's something else! Nehon, my ass. Well, I'd have figured out that's not my kind of book by the time I got to the end of the title, so maybe my opinion is moot. It's just that a lack of effort in something as basic as coming up with a name is going to be echoed in characterization, plotting, resolution, attention to detail... It's a bad sign to see in the first few pages, and people pick up on it.

    That's the thing-- I still don't buy the "Most readers wouldn't pick up on that, so it doesn't matter" argument. Maybe. But don't tell me that the average reader can't tell the difference between sloppy, forgettable names and something like Harry Potter, which is chock-full of interesting and allusive names. They might not be able to come out with "Oh, the worldbuilding is bad and the names are derivative" but they're not gonna fall in love the same way with a shallow setting. And even if they wouldn't consider that synopsis tropey, they might think "Eh, boring," and put it back.

    At 13, the Eragon/Aragorn Arya/Arwen thing bugged the heck out of me, to say nothing of Eragon/Dragon. I feel like sometimes we don't give "the average reader", much less "the average young adult reader" enough credit.
     
  18. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    After thinking about this for a bit. I don't think it would bother me much, if at all, if the story was good. If it was poorly written then I find that things like this stick out. When the story is well written, things like this are easily forgiven.

    I remember reading something said by one of the science fiction greats. I want to say Asimov or Bradbury, but can't be sure. But any way. They would name planets with simple names like Alpha and Beta, and the reason they did that was the names didn't matter. What mattered was the story. They could have come up with an original name but they though it would distract from the story.

    For me, and as with others, when I saw the word Murai, it didn't occur to me that it was just samurai with the first two letters chopped of. And as I've said, it doesn't matter to me as long as the story is good.

    Thinking back on some of the most beloved cartoons from my childhood, they are filled with similarly naming conventions. Thundercats were from Thundara, with names like Lion-O, Cheetara, Panthero, etc. He-man was from Eternia and She-ra was from Etheria.

    How many stories use New Earth, Terra, or Planet X?

    For me, as long as what I consume has some substance to it, I don't care much about what it's called. A rose is a rose by any other name.

    With that said, this sounds like a "don't call a rabbit a smerp" type situation, and a good argument could be made that it would probably have served the story better to just use samurai.
     
    Last edited: Jul 7, 2015
  19. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

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    Excellent idea! You can set it in the kingdom of Gland, ruled by King Thur who wields the sword Calibur and ventures forth with his Ights of the Und Ble.
     
  20. The average reader is very intelligent. They can, usually, tell schlock from quality. The reason why, I think, some writers look down on them is that they can't easily articulate or pinpoint why they didn't like the book and often misdiagnose the problems. Often times, when the average reader doesn't like the book its because of a totality of the circumstance. The story is bland, the actual writing is lazy, the research is poor, and the characters are flatter than a boogey board. However, sometimes readers can conflate some issues because they can be so similar. So, while I recognize the criticisms that Murai could be overcome by a good story, it is a problem. It is a knock against the book. And if enough knocks add up the reader will put the book down. And judging by the Amazon description and other factors mentioned in this thread I wouldn't read it. The totality of the circumstances indicate this book wouldn't be worth my time.
     
    Nihilium 7th and T.Allen.Smith like this.
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