Feb 4, 2010

Thesaurus Thursday and Red Fish, Blue Fish

I apologize for incorrectly naming my earlier post Thesaurus Thursday (the one where I threaten Heather and then, Ocean Girl totally pointed out that she was there for the thesaurus post, fans keep you on your toes, don't they?).  I decided last night to put up two posts today because Meijer.com and I were in a brawl.  I won of course.  I always win.  So, here is the relevant post:

Lazily expanding my vocabulary one commentary's synonym at a time.


Since I write picture books, I am used to keeping things simple: a red fish, a blue baseball cap, a green tree.  When I get into my middle grade projects, I through? throw in the occasional violet and teal.  In my YA WIP's I try and keep using the same rule: If it's in a Crayola 48, it's okay.

Lately, I have seen authors really stretch the color thing.  Cerulean, which happens to be one of my favorite colors, is popping up everywhere.  Purple mountain's majesty, I mean come on.  What tipped me over the edge on this subject was reading the ocean described as azure.  Are you serious?  Azure?  Why not cyan or tell your reader the color of the ocean is the color of azurite hanging around your neck?  I know azure is blue, but my thirteen year old niece looked at me with her head off kilter when I asked her if she knew what it was.  As twenty-something, thirty-something, or whatever age you are, writers, we have to take in to consideration the fact that teens don't know what azure is.

There is an infinite number of words to have the same discussion on.  There is a good argument to make for using such words, prompting teens to learn new words.  But, azure?

What words do you find yourself using, but find yourself wondering if it is too much?  Do you keep them anyway or do you eventually replace them after your sixth revision and you can clearly attribute you inability to sleep to word #1327 of chapter 7: azure.


  1. Ha! I just read something with "cerulean" in it!
    Some colors are fine, but I think this is a good red flag for my fellow overwriters. Tone it down, people ;)Colors are quickly becoming the new dialogue tags.

    Do we even need to describe the sky or the trees at this point, unless there is something remarkable about them?

  2. Thanks, Lily. I love when someone finds something I've said relevant. It is so rare, at first I didn't know what you meant. ;)

  3. HAH!! That's when I find I'm working the thesaurus overtime and need to cut it out!

  4. This is so funny because a beta reader of mine just pointed out that I describe the color of someone's robes as "eggplant". She didn't say it was a bad description, but she pointed out that hey, your MC has never really noticed "shades of colors before." She describes things as blue or purple, but not azure or eggplant, and it felt out of place.

    That said, I think if you build it into your character that they notice the exact shade of things, then it would be okay. And a cool characterization too. :)

  5. I tend to stick to the basics. The plot and characters don't depend on the color of a sock being described a certain way. I even changed silver to gray in one of my MS's, but that was just because it felt right. :)

  6. Christina - Aw, you don't hug your thesaurus in the AM and kiss it goodnight everyday too?

    Elana - I'd be likely to use eggplant in a YA novel, but that's because my grandmother has been using eggplant at various times for decorating throughout my life. Dagwood and burgundy are in the same category for me.

    I will say, I liked in Breaking Dawn, the way Meyer described Bella's heightened senses was believable and I found myself envying her ability to see passed violet.

  7. Jenn - Thanks for the input, I think silver beats grey most of the time. Were you describing hair, eyes, or something not even physical?

  8. This reminds me of the color names on the (literally) hundreds of paint chips I took from Lowe's for the walls in my house. Who knew there were so many shades of gray? I think one of the colors I settled on was "Urban Sunrise," which, when you think about that being gray, sounds kind of yucky and polluted.

    I agree color can be overdone as descriptive elements. For young readers? Fine. They are young enough that their vocabulary and senses are more attuned to color. But for adults, color should be used judiciously. If you go so far as to say your MC's shirt is "azure" (:P), there had better be some relevance to that detail. Otherwise, I'd much rather you tell me the material (cotton, poly-blend, silk), style (tee, polo, button-down), and/or fit (baggy, fitted, tight) before describing the color.

    Oh and the cerulean craze? It's all Miranda Priestly's fault. :)

  9. I love using thesaurus.com but I still try and keep my vocabulary understandable to most readers. Using fancy words (like those crazy colours you mentioned that left me scratching my head in bewilderment) might work for some novelists but you can definitely tell when an author is throwing a word in for the sake of sounding smart. I found that about Christopher Paolini's 'Eragon' series. I liked the books but the vocabulary started to get annoying.

  10. Brandon - Your comment picked up op on something I left out. I was going to compare some YA author's attempts at color description to shopping in the Home Depot's paint dept (had to choose HD, since I may soon find myself biased *fingers crossed*).

    Thanks for picking up my slack and the urban sunset reference is brilliant.

    Here, in West Michigan, we have some of the most beautiful sunsets, didn't make it up, somebody important said it once, but most of the reason they are so beautiful is because they are purple and orange and cerulean...but only because Milwaukee and Chicago's pollution blows are way. So, urban sunset could be beautiful, I don't think grey makes much sense...but, I still like our sunsets, even if they are giving my lung cancer.

    Morgan - thesaurus.com is a little like Wikipedia vs. Britannica. They scour the globe and add any synonym that they come across. They throw everything in there. Don't get me wrong, it has it's uses, I love the thesaurus map, but there's nothing better than opening a thesaurus and the sound the binding makes happens to be an onomatopoeia.

  11. Hmm. I don't mind writers using other words for colour.* And I understand what you mean about a 13 year old not necessairly knowing the word, but that's how I learned when I was that age. I read the word, didn't know what it meant, and looked it up or asked someone. I think if you make things too easy, we'll only see the world in those 48 crayola colours, when there are hundreds.

    *No, I'm not spelling colour wrong, lol. Just in case anyone was wondering.*

  12. Colour, we gotcha, eh?

    I def see your point, Nat, but azure? I can see some colors making it into books because they are specific to the item, but like Elana said, if your style or your narrator's observations aren't detailed in the beginning, then it's out of place. Taking that into consideration, a YA novel full of too much description will bore most teens, and me.

  13. lol I got an email from someone the other week complaining because my blog was written in Canadian... Uh. No shit Sherlock, I AM CANADIAN. GRRR!

    Ahem. Sorry.

    Yeah, very, very true. I guess it all depends on the story and the narrator =)

  14. Are you saying that "thesaurus" is the sound the pages make when they rifle open? That's beautiful.

    I still use thesaurus.com though.

  15. OK. Lots of lovely things here, but only one I'm going to comment one today.

    Dude. I have a view from my home of the purple mountains the song was written about. They are, in fact, purple. This morning we got some snow, but I'll take a photo of the purple soon, so you can see it. Yo.

  16. This reminds me of "Twilight". Apparently there are dozens of ways to say gold.

  17. I didn't realize you were a fellow PB writer - how could I have missed that?! Anyway, I am in complete agreement with you about the use of color. Complexity of color names can evolve with age appropriateness, but Elana was right when she said that uber-specificty needs to be built into the character.

  18. Jon,

    Home Depot? Really? We're in a fight! Haha, jk. I actually don't have a huge preference, other than Lowe's feels a little more user-friendly to me than its prime competitor. (I'm not handy, although apparently, I'm a pretty damn good painter, if a little slow.) Good luck with the job pursuit!

    Also, it was either the paint chip analogy or the lipstick color analogy. I decided to go with the "manly-er" option. :)

    P.S. Word verification: spewb. Say that outloud--oh dear! :)

  19. Shannon - My name is Jonathon and I am a picture book writer. Picture books are easiest for me. I wrote my first PB is ten minutes...and it's actually pretty good. I am dedicating my next post to my plea for critiquers.

    Brandon - No, Lowe's is not better. Their signs and colors are so ugly. They are supposed to inspire home improvement with a grey exterior and a grey interior?! Hmmm. I win.

    I definitely like the paint chip analogy way better. I am gay, not a cross dresser, so the lipstick one wouldn't have been good. Besides, Sarah Palin would've weighed in.

  20. If a CP tells me a word is pretentious, then I'll usually change it. I read dictionaries for fun and sometimes pick up arcane words without noticing. See there? Arcane! Rarely use fancy color names, though. I like descriptions: the wall was the color of congealed chicken fat, the carpet [I'm censoring myself] excrement brown.

  21. I'll fight for a word here or there in a manuscript, if I think it has direct relevance to theme. I don't want to dumb down writing for kids because I agree--that's how they learn. But I also agree with Elana, that it can feel out of place if the set-up isn't there.

    And, oh my gosh there are a thousand different paint chips for white. I perfer cameo white.

    The latest word that I fought for in a ms--talisman. Not a color at all.

  22. Okay. I can't help it, I'm a total paint snob. We only buy paint at Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore. But, that's only because my hubbie's brother is a professional painter, and I guess there is a big difference when using better paint.

    And come on, I love azure. In fact, I'm going to go put it into my WIP now. My character's eye color will now be: azure. :)

  23. VR - I can't wait to read your writing...about pleasant things.

    HK - I am intrigued to know why you had to fight for the word talisman...

    LP - I like paint snobs, I'm just too poor to be one. Please don't use azure...please.

  24. I'm torn - yes, all descriptions and such need to be in character and relevant.

    That said, I would've known what azure was at 13, and if I hadn't, I would have looked it up. That was how I learned knew words.

    I accept that I was probably unusual... BUT I really don't like the dumbing down that goes on even for adult books.

    By the way, I'm loving the idea that the word thesaurus is onomatopoeic!