What the clart? And other made-up words.

I’m reading Scott Westerfield’s novel, Leviathan. The world is an alternate history of the First World War with a Steampunk flavor. Westerfield has devised a new vocabulary for his world. Not only words to describe the fantastical walking machines of the Clankers or the scary bioengineered beasties of the Darwinists, but everyday words as well. What sticks in my mind is the word “clart.” His characters use it frequently, and it basically means – well, it means “shit.” The characters use it not only to refer to actual animal manure but as a swear word.

I love it.

In Botanicaust, I have a glossary at the end of the manuscript specifically for invented words. Amarantox. Duster. Nuvoplast. Mostly things that have not been invented yet. A good author weaves the meaning of new words into the book as the words are presented, right? Hopefully readers won’t even need the glossary.

A while back, I posted the first chapter of Botanicaust to an online competitive critique site, and got a reader who said they were confused by all the new words. This critique suggested a glossary first thing. My heart faltered. Beginning with a glossary is not the way to hook a reader.

When this reader listed “chloroplast” in the list of confusing words, I breathed a sigh of relief. First of all, chloroplast is not a made up word. It is the part of a plant cell that performs photosynthesis and gives plants their color. Secondly, I made it very clear in the beginning (without going into the science of it) that chloroplasts are what makes Haldanian skin green.

But I don’t want to confuse readers if it means they will stop reading. So let me ask you something —

Have you ever put a book down because you got confused by the words an author used? Or do you keep reading and try to figure out the meaning of the word by the context in the book? I’d really like to know.

© Tam Linsey, 2011. All rights reserved.


8 thoughts on “What the clart? And other made-up words.

  1. DeNise

    I believe that a reader, who knows what they’re reading isn’t contemporary in the first place, won’t be put off by a new word. Trust your reader. Your beta readers will let you know if you slide over the side into ‘scientific overkill’.
    My ability to stretch into your new world should be honored by your story telling.

  2. Veronica

    I only read parts of “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett. The brogue of some of the wee folk was too much and too long. I wrote a character with a brogue, which is why I picked up the book, but decided to use a lot less brogue since I found it difficult to read myself. It’s fun to write, but hard to read.

    But this is a very popular book, and some readers appear to have a lot less problems with it. It could be that the story line bogged for me, and that if it had been faster paced, I would have breezed through the accented parts.

    TP Also wrote the Discworld series.

    I didn’t have any difficulties with any of the words in your story, and could even see the meaning of some of it by the root words you used. I think people who read sci-fi won’t have any problems, they are more accustomed to scientific wordage, even when it’s made up, and no problems when it’s not.


    1. Tam Linsey Post author

      Now dialect is an entirely different animal, in my opinion. A little goes a long way. But too much, like you say, bogs down the story.
      I did try to use Greek roots for most invented words in Botanicaust. I’m really glad it helped make reading easier. Good to see you, Veronica!

  3. Judi Judi Judi

    As long as I can figure it out from context–or, like you pointed out, it’s been sort of defined a bit earlier, I’d keep reading. I’ve read a lot of science fiction and most of the fun of it is the worldbuilding.

    1. Tam Linsey Post author

      Thanks for posting, Judi. You have a good point. Sci-fi readers might be more forgiving of such things than other readers. I love discovering new worlds when I read, too!

  4. ArcaneRhino

    I have never put a book down over new words that I was not considering putting down anyway. I have found, in general, the better Sci-fi books always set a context for or a description of new words so that the reader can figure out the “new world” in which they are now entering. Glossaries at the end are handy if some time elapses between reads but I agree that starting a book with one is off-putting.

    If there is no such context, I assume it is a real word that I do not know, look it up, and expand my vocabulary. (Or, I have another sip of beer, chalk it up to words to “look up later”, and ignore it with the hope that it is not intrinsic to the story line.)

    1. Tam Linsey Post author

      I like the sip of beer idea! And your reason for a glossary is right on the nose – although I optimistically hope no one will be able to put Botanicaust down long enough to need to refresh themselves with a glossary 🙂


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