“Phantasmagorical” and Other Fifty-cent Words

You’re not an author until you’ve been published.

Well bub, I’ve been published. So put that in you’re corncob pipe and smoke it.

My apologies. Where might I procure this magnum opus of yours?

Well… It was just a series of short poems.

Were they in a trade of note, something I might have heard of?

Uh no, probably not.

Then don’t go shopping for those leather patches just yet, because you my friend are not an author.

Really, you can just veto my title like that?


But I’ve pitched screenplays to producers. I’ve written over 260 script coverages for a production company.

Great, did they produce any of your work?


Then you’re not a screenwriter either.

Would you tell a painter who’s never had a gallery showing that they’re not a painter?


Then what the hell am I?

A writer. Writers write, authors get published.


I’m not an author. Not really. I’ve put my hundred thousand words in. I’ve put fingers to keyboards since before they came with screens attached. I’ve written everything from poems to screenplays, to screenplays with poems in them. But the term “Author” implies expertise. It implies competence. Let’s face it, sometimes I reread my work and doubt my own literacy. I skim through spelling errors and wonder if I suffer from some form of dyslexia.

This may be why I find fifty-cent buzz words so damn attractive. These are shinny words that take simple ideas and over complicate the hell out of them. They make a fraud like me sound learned.

Why say “short sighted” when you could say “myopic?”
Why say “obscure,” when you could say “esoteric?”
Why say “vocabulary” when you could say “lexicon?”

Here’s a deplorable line of dialogue I wrote in college, “I’ve always wanted to meet a girl with the word lexicon in her lexicon.”

These thesaurus.com cast offs create the illusion of intelligence. The draw back is that half the time I can’t trace the word back to the context I first absorbed it. A fifty-cent word can only make you sound clever until you use it incorrectly.

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of books on tape (or books on mp3, really). I find myself smitten with Doug Bradley’s Spine Chillers series, a collection of gothic horror tales read by Hellraiser’s Pinhead. The problem is many of these selections use dated fifty-cent buzz words. Words that have weaved their way into my subconscious and into my work.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the authors featured in Doug Bradley’s Spine Chillers. He’s a terrible influence on me. Lovecraft kept working words like “effulgent, effervescent” and “amorphous” into his prose. Then he surrounded those words with adverbs. Modifiers that told us what we were seeing rather than let us infer. Modern authors avoid adverbs like the plague, but Lovecraft piled them on like he was staking a sandwich. A Lovecraftian passage might read, “The effulgent effervescence of the unmentionably maddeningly amorphously loathsome iridescence was indescribable.” Did that sentence actually say anything?

After one of my longer Lovecraft binges I found adverbs springing up in my prose like weeds.

Then there’s Edgar Allan Poe. Poe kept referring to the shifting illusions in his stories as “phantasmagorical.” He peppered that word into everything. Phantasmagorical sights, phantasmagorical sounds, phantasmagorical wallpaper. It wasn’t long until little old “phantasmagorical” crept into my prose as well.

You’ve got to give Poe props for straight up making words up like “hyperquizzitistical.” Maybe that’s a real word but it still gets the red underline from this word processor. I think it means over-analytical, as in, “I’m being far too hyperquizzitistical by implying that ‘over-analytical’ would be a far more practical way of saying ‘hyperquizzitistical’.”

Fifty-cent words tend to be the affliction of the younger writer. The moment we hear one it finds its way into our lexicon (see what I did there).

Listening to Doug Bradley read Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone I learned that blood comes in two flavors, “rivulets” and “torrents.” Blood either spurts from the facet as a spray or a waterfall. One week later my story was dripping in rivulets and torrents of crimson fluid. Then I had to go back and turn the tap down.

Maybe I could have made it work. Maybe I’m just being too hyperquizzitistical.

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