Friday, 6 June 2014

JW Hicks on Language

Today, we are proud to welcome our newest associate, JW Hicks, to the blog.
Jane's novel, Rats, will be published via Triskele Books later this year.
We've long been admirers of her work and in particular, her use of language.
Catriona Troth finds out how she does it.

JW Hicks
 Jane, the first thing that would leap out at anyone who reads your speculative fiction is that you seed your dialogue with invented words that you nevertheless manage to make perfectly comprehensible.

I try and make sure the words I use are defined by context, besides most have roots in normal language and can be easily figured out: glim – glimpse – see; snaff –snaffle – steal; dwell – dwelling – home.

Are there other writers who have done this who inspired you to try it yourself?

I’m inspired by energy, spark and difference. To my mind Anthony Burgess supplies all three. As they say in America – the perfect trifecta.

Reading A Clockwork Orange sent my mind into orbit. Until that time I hadn’t known you were allowed to write that way. Have you read the Joe Pitt novels of Charlie Huston? In them you’ll find succinctly scripted prose uncluttered by speech marks. Huston eschews identifying tags; a character is defined by its own very distinctive voice. How I envy Huston’s perfect slim-line style.

Often people who do this borrow or adapt little known dialect words. Where do you tend to take yours from?

I steal from everywhere, from yiddish words like speil, dreck and shtum, from Romany words such as vardo and chdvi. As I live in South Wales I sneak in some Wenglish when I can. In my latest novel, set on the colony planet of Nataverra, several characters are of Native American descent so I added some words of Navajo.

Are any of them true neologisms? If so, how do you come up with them?

Where do I find my peculiar words? In my peculiar mind. As an only child I read constantly, any book, anywhere, any time. I must have amassed more words in my brain than feathers in a goose-down duvet. Small wonder those words mix and match to birth new ones; words that want to be noticed, words that beg to be given life.

I have favourites, what mother doesn’t? Top of the list are blend words such as plas-met, slow-hide and fly-by. Then come words like ‘quaintance, (a giant alien wombat) and the casual future-speak of ‘sponsibilities, ‘cos and ‘lectrics. I also use a sprinkling of dated words, e.g. hoik, frit and natch.

How do you go about making sure that your readers understand your language? Do you have to recast sentences a lot to make them work?

Reading and re-reading is the way to spot repetitions, root out flaws and demonstrate where re-casting is necessary. I find that the deeper I get into a story, the smoother the language flow.

Do you have a 'rule of thumb' that ensures that you don't overuse it? Or is it just an instinct?

Reading the manuscript aloud unearths overuse.

Can you give us some favourite examples from your own books?

I like invented swearwords, because present day curse-words date very quickly. Personally I like frink, and frinking, which came from the name of a traitor in Rats – the Honourable Stuart Frink.

I also like the easily understood mizzing, scumble and creech. (Perfect for a firm of solicitors?)

Here you can listen to JW Hicks reading her prize-winning short story ‘Altered’.

'Wonderful, colloquial writing that is easy to read despite the unusual use of language. The first paragraph is fabulous - funny shocking, intriguing... The whole page is vibrant, funny and the slang doesn't sound forced or false... I love it and would really like to read more. I want to find out more about Raft and Ratty. I even want to know more about the 'sizeable corpse' – Short Story Judge Andrew Crofts


  1. What a treat it will be to read Jane's work in print. She is one of the most original writers I know. Looking forward to this one!

  2. Looking forward to this one. Always loved Jane's use of original language.

  3. I can't wait to buy a copy of this.

  4. Thanks, ladies. I've enjoyed working with Jane on the edit of Rats and I can promise none of you will be disappointed. Also, I can't wait to see what JD Jane does with the cover!!

  5. Ooh, how interesting! This use of invented language is the ultimate in gaining the reader's trust. All fiction writers deal in levels of disbelief. At its simplest, they ask a reader to suspend it by immersing in an artificial world and characters. The further the writer deviates from the familiar, the harder they have to work to persuade the reader to surrender. And if the writer fiddles with the very fabric of the medium - the language - that could set a significant barrier. However, handled well it can create a rich, immersive experience - as she says about Burgess. Really looking forward to knowing more about Jane! And could she be persuaded onto The Undercover Soundtrack....?

  6. Congratulations on your deserved success. Your unique voice will be heard at last. Sue