Lessons in the Fundamentals of Writing, Part 3

As I continue to read poorly edited (I’m not referring to typos) KU books, I continue to find fundamental problems to talk about. Here’s one that will probably be obvious to many people when I point it out, but it would never jump out in a self-editing session to them.

Here’s a real example:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was nearly packed to completely full capacity.

This lesson is again on the level of word choice in sentence construction. There’s a lot to pull from this one mistake. The first is in modifying absolutes. There are times when there’s no choice. One must modify a word that has an absolute meaning.

An example of an absolute is “perfect.” It exist as an absolute extreme. I don’t have much of a problem with saying “nearly perfect” (in other words, modifying the absolute), because synonyms like “flawed” have too much baggage to get the right meaning.

The first part of this lesson is to always try to get the right meaning without forming this construction. I believe the Chicago Manual of Style even lists this as a mistake. The reason is that something either is the absolute or it isn’t. Absolutes set up a pure binary, so it doesn’t really make sense to modify it somehow.

The common example is “unique.” The word unique means “one of a kind” or “the sole example.” This is an absolute and should not be modified. For example, “That’s the most unique car I’ve seen.” The word “most” doesn’t do anything, because the word unique already has that information in it. One should write, “That car is unique.”

But that’s not the real fundamental flaw in the example. The fundamental flaw is redundancy and wordiness. Let’s just look at “packed to completely full capacity.” First off, “completely” serves no purpose. “Full” and “completely full” have the exact same meaning, so it is redundant to say it that way (it’s again modifying an absolute in an unnecessary way).

But “full capacity” is kind of redundant as well, because “packed to full capacity” and “packed to capacity” have the exact same meaning. It is also touch jargon-y, almost like corporate double speak. The other option was to use “full.” That flows much better to me.

Now “full” is an absolute, so we come full circle and have to decide what to do with the “nearly” before it. I say scrap it. When looking into a coffee shop, a human isn’t going to see a difference between “nearly full” and “full.” It’s just going to look full. Here’s my fixed version:

Maria glanced in the window of the coffee shop and saw that it was full.

Go back and read the original now. Wow. This version is so much better. The last two lessons I said an editor wouldn’t point it out, because the mistakes were too fundamental. Any editor worth paying for will point out this type of mistake, so I have to assume the self-published writer that wrote this book did not hire one.

Sorry for the short post, but I’m away on vacation this week. I think this lesson is quite important though.

Those Words Are Different?

Here’s a list of words I routinely have to look up. Many of these I used incorrectly until quite recently, because I didn’t even realize they were different. A few others I’ve seen other people use incorrectly, so they were on my mind. We won’t rehash the to/too/two or there/their/they’re nonsense, because everyone knows those are different even if they mess it up sometimes. These are words many people don’t even realize are different words.

Lull vs Loll:

Lull means to put to sleep.
Ex: I lulled the baby to sleep.

This is easy to remember, because you can think lullaby.

Loll means to recline or dangle loosely.
Ex: The baby’s head lolled to the side as I lulled him to sleep.

The more common mistake seems to be writing “lull” when “loll” should be used.

Clamber vs Clamor:

Clamber means to climb up with all your body parts.
Ex: I clambered up the fire pole at the first sound of the alarm.

Clamor is an outcry or loud noise.
Ex: The protesters clamored their demands.

This distinction also has a trick. Climb has a “b” and so does clamber, so clamber means to climb. I’m not sure the error happens one way or the other more often, because it’s not clear to me most people even realize these are different words.

Pour vs Pore:

Pour means to dump a liquid, usually onto or into something else.
Ex: I poured myself a glass of orange juice for breakfast.

Pore means to gaze or study with much attention.
Ex: I pored over the photograph of a person pouring orange juice for a clue to the mystery.

I think the trick here is to remember that pore is a word. It seems to me most people use “pour” for everything without realizing the other one exists and is different. If you do confuse them, pour has a “u” just like dump and liquid.


Palate vs Palette:

Palate is the roof of your mouth.
Ex: You have a refined palate to be able to distinguish Merlot from Cabernet by taste alone.

Palette is the board you mix paint on.
Ex: Bob Ross sets up his palette carefully before he begins any painting.

I must admit that I wrote a whole short story about a painter where I accidentally used “palate” everywhere. I caught it upon revision, but I was alarmed at how unaware of this I was. I’ve yet to come up with an easy way to remember the difference, but this is probably another case of being aware that “palette” exists.

Flare vs Flair:

Flare refers to a bright light.
Ex: The motor on the boat died, so we used an emergency flare to signal help.

Flair refers to a talent or style.
Ex: My job as a server requires me to wear thirty-seven pieces of flair on my uniform.

The most common place I see this misused is in the expression: she has a flair for writing. Do not use “flare” in that case. Otherwise, I think people mostly know these are different words and what the difference is.

Cattle vs Chattel:

Cattle are bovine livestock, in other words, a group of cows.
Ex: I trained my dog to herd the cattle.

Chattel is mostly a legal term referring to movable possessions.
Ex: My cattle are my most valuable chattel.

Pretty much no one misuses cattle and pretty much no one has a need to use chattel, so you’re probably safe here. Various unsavory internet message boards can get them confused. For example, 19th century English Common Law had married women as legal chattel of their husband (this was called coverture). If you bring this up while arguing on the internet, it’s best not to use the word “cattle.”

For the record, they both derive from the Middle English “chatel,” meaning “personal property.”

Gantlet vs Gauntlet:

One “runs the gantlet” for punishment, and one “throws down the gauntlet” as a challenge. Let’s not dwell on this or argue over it. These are expressions, and the words are rarely used outside of those two expressions. And yes, the famous 1985 arcade game was misnamed.

All right vs Alright:

This is a trick! “Alright” is not a word. Always use “all right” when you feel yourself about to write “alright.”

I can think of a few more, but they fall more into the “I know they’re different but can’t remember which is which” category (born/borne, hoard/horde, tortuous/torturous, etc). I wanted to keep this to post to words many people might not realize are different at all.

Elements of Writing that Annoy Me Part 2

I wrote the first of these something like three years ago. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood or the writing I read really is getting worse, but certain things have been getting on my nerves a lot. It’s time to pick this up again!

  1. Not trusting your reader. This is a typical flaw of first-time novelists. They have a beautiful idea and execute it in a clever, original way, but they are so fearful the reader will miss what they’ve put all this work into that they overdo it.

It’s like if someone were to tell you a joke, you laugh, and then they say, “Did you get it? Here, let me tell you why it was funny.” There’s never a reason to do this. If someone didn’t get your art without you telling them, then it failed. Telling them what it’s about doesn’t fix that. For everyone else, they already got it, so there is no need to re-explain it.

The example that jumps out to me the most is the movie A Single Man. I thought this movie was brilliant when it came out, but the ending made me cringe a little. A new character comes in right at the end and explains it all to you. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, so maybe I’d feel differently now.

The other way this manifests is in thoughts and exposition. I hate when a book explains how a character feels right after it was demonstrated.

Sally yelled, “I hate you!” Fred annoyed her so much, and she was beginning to hate him.

That’s obviously not a real example, and I exaggerated it to illustrate the point. But I’ve seen things almost this bad.

2. Alliteration. I have a theory about alliteration. When you’re in a flow state of writing, the brain makes a lot of weird connections. So when you get to a noun like “book” and you want more description, the brain naturally jumps to something like “boring” or “bothersome” or “bad.”

I have no evidence to support this theory. I’ve noticed in my own writing that this is when it tends to creep in. Don’t get me wrong. Alliteration is a literary device that can be used to great effect when done right. But if you find it in a first draft, it should pretty much never make it to the final draft. It was probably an accident.

I view the misuse of alliteration to be a mistake on par with a grammar mistake. I know this sounds unfair, since it’s only a prose style error. It falls under the category known as “diction.” I’m not sure why standards have gotten so lax in this category. You will never find this error in great writers of the past, but it’s everywhere now.

It’s hard to say what annoys me so much about it. I think it’s some combination of thinking about why it happens. It’s either laziness on the writer’s part or lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or laziness/lack of knowledge on the editor’s part or the writer ignoring the editor’s advice. All of these are pretty annoying reasons.

3. Semi-dangling modifiers. Okay. I made this up. It’s not a real thing. If a book is traditionally published, it should go through an editor good enough to not allow any actual dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is when you start a sentence with a clause that modifies a subject not actually present in the sentence.

An example: Having eaten a large breakfast, lunch was unappetizing. The first clause has an implied person as its subject. The second clause has “lunch” as its subject. This is an easy fix: Having eaten a large breakfast, I found lunch unappetizing. Now the implied subject of the modifying clause matches the subject of the sentence.

Beginning with modifying clauses in general can be grating. If this were in something I was editing, I would strongly suggest the change: I found lunch unappetizing, because I ate a large breakfast. It converts the sentence from passive to active voice, and it clarifies the logic.

Now I’m going to pick on a real book to illustrate what I mean by “semi-dangling modifiers.” I’ve been reading The Bees by Laline Paull, and she does this all the time. I don’t want to pick on her too much, because I actually see this in a lot of what I read. I just happen to have that book on my desk right now. Chapter 21 begins with this sentence:

Shocked at her own act, Flora was among the first out.

When I read this, I had no idea what act it referred to, because I had put the book down at the chapter break. But let’s not dwell on that (this might be against 1 in trusting your reader too much by starting a chapter with a reference to the last event of the last chapter).

The modifier is not dangling, because Flora is the subject of the sentence. I call this “semi-dangling,” because the clause has no logical connection to the main sentence. When a sentence begins with any clause, it is implied that the sentence could be rearranged in a way to make it clear how the clause contains relevant information to the rest of the sentence. In the example I gave above, we learned why the I found lunch unappetizing.

In this example, the clause could be deleted without losing anything, and so it should be deleted! It’s semi-dangling in the sense that the clause itself never refers to something relevant to the rest of the sentence.

People, stop semi-dangling your modifiers. If the clause is irrelevant, delete it. If it is important information but has no logical connection to the res of the sentence, make it a whole new sentence.

Thoughts on NaNo and The Story Grid Podcast

Today I want to talk about my thoughts on The Story Grid Podcast. The story grid is a method of developmental editing invented by Shawn Coyne, and can be found in his book of the same name. The book is well worth reading to learn about story structure, genre, pacing, obligatory scenes, and much more. You may think you understand these things, but there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of structure and identifying specific structural problems and how to fix them.

The Story Grid Podcast is an utterly fascinating case study using the story grid. It comes out once a week and is a conversation between Tim Grahl, a first-time fiction novelist (though he’s written nonfiction and works in the industry), and Shawn Coyne. Tim writes or edits specific parts of the book he is working on and then Shawn does his magic.

I thought I had a good grasp on the story grid before going deep into this podcast (I’ve now heard all the episodes). Tim asks a lot of great questions, and it always turns into interesting conversations. These questions range from general ones every level of writer thinks from time to time to really detailed questions on making subtle value shifts work in a particular chapter.

Among many other topics, they’ve covered: having the expected necessary scenes without being cliche, identifying internal and external genres, narrative devices, beats vs scenes vs sequences and making these flow together, what is a beginning hook and how to make it work, actually performing a full story grid analysis on already written books, theme, good writing habits, what in the world happens while revising a first draft, marketability, inciting incidents.

To me, this is the best writing podcast out there right now. I also listen to Writing Excuses, The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Creative Penn, and many that have to do with books and book reviews. Writing Excuses is also very good on the nuts and bolts of writing, but the advice tends to be quick and generic. What makes The Story Grid so good is that you get to watch an experienced editor talk through his thought process and make a draft better in very specific ways.

They talk about things you’ve probably never thought about even if you have a book or two out there. Shawn will make Tim identify the main value at stake in a scene, then determine if it shifts and in what direction. Then they compare it to nearby scenes to make sure the value shifts are contrasting. This creates a sense of forward motion and interest in the reader.

Maybe a beta reader told you it got boring somewhere. Before learning to think this way, you’d probably be at a loss and write it off as their subjective opinion. After learning to think this way, it will probably be obvious that their was no value at stake, or it had been moving in the same direction too many scenes in a row. This probably sounds abstract, but seeing it in action is amazing.

This brings me to a related topic. I’ve talked about this before. NaNoWriMo is going on right now. It is a great way to get 50,000 words down fast so you have something to work with. I often participate for this reason, but you should not be under any delusions that what you have at the end of this is a novel that can be proofread a few times and will be publication ready.

Now I have a really clear case study and proof of this. Over a year ago, Tim popped out his first draft of the novel he’s working on. Even with an experienced editor helping every single week (look at the website to see there hasn’t been any down time), Tim has barely finished the developmental edits on the Beginning Hook section (about 25% of the novel).

I’m not saying it will take everyone this long, but if you somehow edit significantly faster (let’s say a year for the whole process on your first novel), you might want to consider that you’re doing it wrong. Tim isn’t wasting time tinkering with stuff that doesn’t matter. He has Shawn guiding him to parts that actually need editing.

I’ll also point out that these are merely developmental edits: story structure. I’m not sure if Tim has been warned that after all the developmental edits are done, he’ll have what I usually call a rough draft (as opposed to a “first draft”). The rough draft will then have several passes to edit for prose style, tone, voice, flow, tense, point of view, sense, detail, description, and so on.

I could see this process of getting his first novel in shape to submit taking three or four years. I’ll reiterate that this is all happening under the guidance of an experienced editor, so it is highly efficient compared to a first-time novelist working through these issues on their own.

I’ll end with a thought. If you read this post and you’re saying: what the hell could be taking so long? You might want to start at the beginning of the podcast and listen all the way up to the current episode. May the scales fall from your eyes. Writing is an art and a craft, and many that have a life-long career doing it still feel like novices.

The Fine Line Between Original and Nonsense

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and it never ceases to amaze me how good she is at crafting original sentences and plots. She has fast become one of my favorite authors. Each book shocks me with how completely different it is from the last.

Anyway, that’s beside the point of this post. I’ve also been reading a lot of first-time writers in an online critique group. Conventional writing advice says to convert cliché and boring descriptions to precise, original ones. This post is going to be about how this advice can lead people astray.

To me, it is better to have a cliché description that is correct than some original bit of nonsense that actually leaves the reader more confused. It is really easy to fall into this trap, because flowery language can sound really good until you think about it (and whether it is the “right word” as Twain put it).

I won’t embarrass anyone by using a real example, but these are pretty easy to come up with. On the first draft, Writer has the sentence:

I wanted to punch him with every fiber of my being.

Writer recalls the advice and decides to take this vague, cliché statement of feeling and “show rather than tell” a more specific and original description. After a few revisions, they are proud of the new version—confident in its detail and originality.

My balled fist seethed with fury, a red flare arcing from my evaporating essence toward Bob. The hum of rage deafened my senses to a pulp of what I used to be.

Hold on. What is going on here? We’ve gone from simple cliché to overly melodramatic. First, we should ask ourselves if this level of drama is necessary. Maybe the correct solution was to just delete the whole sentence, because it was clear from context that the character wanted to punch him. If not, maybe the correct solution was change it to “I wanted to punch him.”

Whenever you start to change things, you should ask yourself: have I made it more correct or less? This question must override any concerns of originality. Rather than draw a reader in, incorrect flower language can push a reader away. This is the point of this post. Sometimes the more original phrasing can be nonsense. It’s a fine line (as we’ll get to in a second).

What does “evaporating essence” mean? This is one of those things that sounds fancy on the surface but is nonsense once you try to think about it. What does “deafened my senses” mean? It is another fancy but partially incorrect phrase. Only one sense can actually be deafened, and though in some circumstances this might work, why not use a more accurate fancy word like “enervated” if we’re going the nonsense route. “What I used to be” isn’t the proper ending. It sounds semi-deep but it’s incorrect and confusing grammar at best and nonsense at worst.

What’s scary is that there are probably first-time writers out there who read these two and would pick the second, when it is clear to me that the original cliché is infinitely better. The cliché gives a “correct” description whereas the creative description is a mess of nonsense. It sounds better, like something a sophisticated writer would write, but no great writer would let that nonsense through the editing phase.

This is going to sound mean, but when agents say they can tell in a few paragraphs if a book is going to be any good, this is the type of thing they’re looking for. A trained eye can easily tell the difference between this fancy nonsense and good creative writing. First-time novelists might think they’re imitating how a professional does it, but they can’t tell the difference yet.

Since the Olympics are on, here’s an analogy. Many people watch gymnastics in awe and think certain routines are absolutely perfect, yet the trained eye of the judges still find over a point in deductions. One must train the writing eye to see the nonsense descriptions even if they sound fancy.

I’ll just caution anyone considering self-publishing in the face of massive rejection by the publishing industry that the rejection may be for this reason. Some people choose self-publishing and hire excellent editors and do it the right way for the right reasons. Self-publishing because it is the only way to get something bad out there is the wrong reason (and glancing through Amazon’s self-published stuff tells me that more than a few people have chosen to go that route for the wrong reasons).

Now let’s look at some original ways to describe things that are not nonsense. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in. She is so good about this. She is inventive with her language, yet the descriptions are correct. They enhance the reader’s experience rather than confuse them.

The orange tulips are coming out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me.

She makes an original comparison of the tulips to a returning army. The simile is apt and vivid, making it a good one. It puts clear images into our minds, and she reinforces the idea with adjectives that help tailor the comparison toward the elements she wants us to think about. This is a correct way to do original description.

But then it gets even better, because she doubles down on the simile and keeps it going. The main character greets the army of flowers, and she imagines her own building caught in the war. She can’t help them, though.

This conceit is almost too much for mere flowers, but the consistency in tone and image help it cohere into a truly original description that hasn’t gone over the line into nonsense. Context would help here, because the main character is aging and can’t kneel to do her proper gardening. The sadness in the image helps give the reader some empathy for how the character feels, and her inability to help the army enhances her feelings about her inability to help the flowers.

It takes a lot of work to write this way. Atwood came up with a fascinating and original description of tulips, and then took the time to make the entire passage reinforce the simile and shed light on how the main character felt. Too often writers think that originality means taking a cliché and then using a thesaurus to merely replace the boring words with less common ones. This often leads to nonsense.

That vs Which: examples that compare apples to apples, which will help you out.

Many people take the loose view that grammar and language evolves over time, and therefore you should go with whatever sounds right. Others argue the that/which distinction has basically disappeared. I want to do a comparison to prove once and for all the distinction is necessary. It isn’t preference. They aren’t interchangeable. The meaning of the sentence gets changed by swapping one for the other.

Let me be clear. I am not some obsessive grammar person. I kind of suck at it. But the way people dismiss this point as unimportant and a matter of personal taste (including professional editors!) drives me crazy. It isn’t taste. It’s important.

Many great sources fail miserably in describing the difference between that and which. I’m looking at you Grammar Girl (I love you for everything else) and you Chicago Manual of Style (an excellent doorstop as well). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a source that gives you the same sentence with “that” and “which” swapped to show the distinction. Everyone has one sentence with “that” to show the use and then a different sentence with “which” to show the use. How is that helpful? It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Let’s start simple.

Example 1: I played with the marbles, which were blue.

When you use which, you imply that every single marble was blue. This is what is meant by “which is nonrestrictive.” You aren’t restricting your attention to just the blue ones out of a bunch of colors. You’re saying they were all blue. This implication matters. Consider what happens with a simple substitute of “that.”

Example 2: I played with the marbles that were blue.

This sentence has a totally different meaning! “That” implies you have a bunch of marbles of all sorts of different colors in front of you, but you’ve decided to only play with the ones that were blue. This is what is meant by “that is restrictive” or “that is essential.”

Example 3: The puppies, which were cute, ran across the yard.
Example 4: The puppies that were cute ran across the yard.

In example 3, all the puppies ran across the yard. It just so happens they were also all cute. In example 4, only some of the puppies were cute, and only those few puppies ran across the yard. Read these over and over until it makes sense.

Now be horrified at all the times you used these incorrectly and probably implied something you didn’t mean to (did you seriously just imply there are non-cute puppies? Are you sure?). Now look what you’ve done. He’s self-conscious:

Some people argue it’s the comma causing this change in meaning and not that/which. Walk away from that argument. You’ve found someone wrong on the internet, and it isn’t worth your time to engage them. They’re probably a troll anyway. What’s more probable: the distinction made for hundreds of years in a rigorous way still retains some meaning or the words have no meaning anymore and the meaning has magically shifted to comma usage even though the words are still there? Think about it.

I’ve seen a bunch of rules for trying to distinguish between that and which. To me, they’re all pretty terrible. Here’s the easiest rule, which will work 99% of the time.

Step 1: What noun comes before that/which?
Step 2: Does the thing after that/which apply to all of [insert Step 1 answer] or just the ones you’ve described?
Step 3: If Step 2 answer is “all,” use which. If Step 2 answer is “only those described,” use that.

Officially, I wanted to end the post here, but I just know that someone is going to complain I’ve only told you how to tell the difference between that/which when they distinguish between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses. Not only is the other type of distinction easier, I’m much less concerned with it. Here things can be a bit more stylistic, because the use (often) doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Rule: If you can delete the stuff after that/which without causing confusion, use which. Otherwise, use that.

These examples are slightly harder to give, because they often require context to know if the information is needed.

Example 5: I went to the store, which had roast beef.
Example 6: I went to the store that had roast beef.

If you’re writing a story and there’s only one store. You can delete “which had roast beef” without confusion. The clause “which had roast beef” is inessential. The store just happens to have it. No big deal.

If the story is about a person who must get a serial killer roast beef or they will kill again, and they find out that three of the four stores in their area are out, then “that had roast beef” specifies which of the four stores you went to. It’s essential information, because if you delete it, the reader will think: which store? Are they wasting time picking up some quinoa pasta at the Whole Foods when they need to be getting to the roast beef store?

As you can see, the meaning doesn’t change all that much if you use the wrong one here, but there’s still a correct choice between the two words. If you play fast and loose with this distinction, puppies aren’t going to start hiding their faces, so the stakes aren’t as high.

And there you have it. Some comparisons that actually make sense. I hope that helped.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 4

Today we’re going to examine some prose from Nell Zink’s newest novel Mislaid. She came to prominence last year, when her debut novel, The Wallcreeper was championed by the New York Times as a notable book of the year. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be quite harsh. I won’t focus on any single “writing rule,” but instead I’ll go through and point things out that catch my eye. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but from a prose standpoint, it is pretty terrible. All the examples below occur within the span of a few pages. The examples are far from exhaustive. Almost every sentence breaks a rule.

First, the novel is a collection of sentences that tell you what happened. In my last post, we looked at the various levels of showing a scene, action, or character trait versus telling it. It is difficult to find even one scene in the first half of the book (what I’ve read so far) which shows you anything. Everything is told. Giving examples can’t give you a grasp on how large this problem is, but here’s an attempt.

“Soon the detective, a working-class townsman, sympathized with Peggy.”

First, we’re told he sympathized. Why not show it? Also, “a working-class townsman” adds nothing (and introduces point of view inconsistencies: how does the main character know this?). Extraneous bits like this abound in the novel and are weak attempts to “add detail,” but are without substance.

“Nor would they have found anything anyway. The runaway was keeping a very, very low profile.”

These sentence fragments occur on almost every page. A rule we haven’t talked about yet is: only ignore proper grammar and usage rules if you are going for a special effect. This should be done so sparingly that no one notices (three times over the course of a whole novel maybe?).

The effect is stilted, choppy prose. I can’t find it now, but there is a paragraph where there are more sentence fragments than complete sentences. Another rule is to minimize modifiers. If you have to modify a verb or noun, you probably haven’t put enough work into choosing the right words. Never use the modifier “very.” At least make it interesting if you’re going to break the rule. The use of “very, very” is inexcusable under all circumstances. Also, past progressive tense creeps in here.

I’ll do a whole paragraph now:

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children. He watched for anyone at all. It was a quiet afternoon, paced by the rhythm of traffic lights. He stood up and walked, thinking he might ask after her, if he happened to see her kind of store. He walked the length of town and as far as the railroad tracks. Ice cream, real estate, musical instruments. Porcelain figurines and teacups. He shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

He …

First off, avoid repetition. It is hard as heck when writing about one person to not start every sentence with “he,” but with work it can be done. Look at any of the greats we’ve already discussed. They will never have 8 out of 9 sentences start the same way. The sentence fragment thing appears again.

These sentences all tell you what he did but never do we get beyond a superficial level of showing. The longest sentence in the middle breaks the rule of being clear and direct (and is grammatically incorrect). I still don’t get the comma construction in the middle of it. It reads like an appositive, but can’t be, because then the if-clause makes no sense.

To prove it can be done, I’ll “fix” these problems without altering content or breaking with the intended effect of the style. I’ll even remove the “was.”

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children or anyone at all. The rhythm of the traffic lights paced the quiet afternoon. Lee walked the length of town and thought he might ask after her if he happened to see her kind of store. Along the vacant street, ice cream, real estate, musical instruments, and porcelain figurines caught his attention. Lee traveled as far as the railroad tracks before he shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

It’s better but not great. I would like for this to expand out into three paragraphs and really pull the reader in. The whole book suffers from this, because I always feel at arms length from the characters. This novel gets praised for making us think about complicated topics like race and sexuality. Since I never get inside the characters’ heads, all I end up thinking about is how unbelievable their actions are.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is point of view (POV). This is more important than most people want to believe. You either write something highly experimental or you stick to one clear POV. If you use third person limited and change POV, it must be clear. The fluid POV in this novel makes many sentences confusing and forces the writer to use even more extraneous phrases.

“Stillwater Lake retreated far from the bamboo grove. It stood in yellowish-gray mud streaked with reddish brown that looked to Lee like diarrhea.”

If it were clear that this is Lee’s POV, the phrase “to Lee” is unnecessary. It is almost always considered a bad writing practice to indicate a simile is a character’s opinion (unless in an open third person omniscient situation, which this isn’t). With clear POV and narrative voice, we understand all sentences to be the character’s opinion. It is redundant to specify. Also, that alliteration (looked to Lee like) is terrible and should be removed. It is interesting that removing “to Lee” fixes both problems at once.

The first sentence has an awkward choice of verb. It isn’t clear to me what exactly happened or what it means without more context (to be fair, more context comes a few paragraphs later). It is true that lakes can “retreat” if there is a drought or something. Is this what happened? Starting the next sentence with “it” is usually seen as a mistake, because the preceding sentence ends with a noun. This makes it unclear whether “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence or the ending noun.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is: all dialogue tags should be “said.” Using other words comes across as amateurish, because it is used by people who are not good at writing dialogue to make the dialogue sound more convincing. It is most commonly found in low quality pulp fiction from many decades ago. If you need to use another word, you haven’t voiced the dialogue properly. If you don’t need another word, don’t use one. I’m pretty sure this book must have been professionally edited, so I’m surprised to see the editor let these slide.

“I can spell ‘astronaut,'” Karen volunteered.
“That’s a third-grade word,” the clerk said. “You’re very smart for such a tiny little thing. You sure you don’t want to have her be white?”
“We’re black and proud,” Meg said.
“I’m blond,” Karen objected.
“There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her.

As you can see, “the clerk corrected her,” is redundant. Editors often write “RUE” for this type of thing: Resist the Urge to Explain. You don’t have to explain the clerk corrected Karen when we understand from the dialogue this is what she was doing. It isn’t even clear to me that “objected” is the right alternate to “said” in the above. “Said” works much better in that passage. On the next page we get, “Karen repeated solemnly.” Not only do we get an alternate dialogue tag, but it gets modified with an adverb.

I could do this all day, and I truly feel bad about it. I didn’t come to this post with the intention of bashing Zink’s prose. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is sitting on my desk right now, because I intended to use him. I started Zink’s book and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. We keep looking at excellent stylists. It is important to see something in comparison.

I know there will be a lot of excuses that sound good. She’s intentionally subverting the oppressive writing rules that stifle creativity to show they aren’t necessary to create a good novel. Or, she used a voice conducive to the satire and wit of the content of her material … or whatever. Let’s face it. She probably thought a lot about the plot, characters, themes, symbols, and so on and never put much thought in to how the prose came across.

This is fine. Some people write excellent prose with no content. We shouldn’t strive for either extreme. I’ll agree that rules are meant to be broken and that focusing too much on them will create mechanical, uninteresting prose. But they exist for a reason and those reasons became apparent when I had trouble reading this novel. Breaking the rules has to be a deliberate choice, and I’m not going to be convinced Zink did this deliberately until I’ve seen that she can follow the rules.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 3

Today, let’s turn to the master himself, John Cheever. As I said in the first post on the series, many say this modern “MFA” set of rules teaches people to write like Cheever. What might be surprising is just how often he doesn’t follow them. Today’s rule is the roughest of them all.

Rule 3: Avoid narrative summary.

More accurately this should be: minimize narrative summary. Narrative summary means you tell the reader something happened rather than let the reader experience it. Often this falls under “show don’t tell.”

Let’s do an example. Bob went to the store. That is narrative summary. We hit our first difficulty, because summary is not a binary concept. We could expand it to a paragraph. As Bob approached his car, he couldn’t help but be reminded of how desperately he needed a new one. At least the beat up, green ’82 Oldsmobile would get him to the store. The store sat only two miles away, so his frustration built at each successive red light. Kate’s cello lesson ended in a half hour, and he wouldn’t get to hear her play if he was late to pick her up.

There’s still a bunch of summary in there. This trip to the store could easily blow up into a 3000 word short story if you take the advice of Rule 3 too seriously. Despite the shining silver of the handle glinting in the sunlight, it never occurred to Bob to exercise some caution. His finger seared as he touched the handle of his ’82 Oldsmobile, and he pulled away with a quick, jerking motion before any serious damage could be done. His brow furrowed in annoyance as his superstition kicked in. I bet I’ll hit all the red lights with this luck.

To understand why people talk about this rule, it is important to first understand that this whole scale of summary exists, and summary can never be fully removed (nor would you want it to). The point of the rule is that the more fine your description of detail, the more you will pull a reader in. Narrative summary is a problem if it takes the reader out of the moment.

Summary is how we remember books, but the great authors only give an illusion of continuity by creating a sequence of scenes where the time between them can easily be inferred by the reader. New writers often don’t realize this and try to explicitly fill it in, because this is what they think was done.

One of the most common examples of breaking the rule (in a bad way) occurs with backstory. This may be a flashback, or may be stray information. Either way, it is almost always better to turn it into a full-fledged scene that is not summarized or fit it in some more subtle way.

Consider this example. If the main character’s mother died when he was ten, you could say “Bob’s mother died when he was ten.” But if this is relevant information to the story, it will be apparent on its own through conversations or thoughts or interactions or whatever. There is no need to summarize it explicitly like that.

This is what the rule means. Avoid the summary. If it isn’t important enough for the reader to figure out, then it isn’t important enough to summarize. If it is important, then you are repeating the information needlessly and pulling the reader out of the moment.

All this being said, summary provides a moment of respite for the reader. It can be judiciously used to slow down or speed up the pacing. If you constantly describe every little detail of every minor, tiny thing that happens, you get a very intense experience that overwhelms the reader. There must be balance.

This is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rules. If you follow the rule too literally, you mess the pacing of your writing up. Even when you are careful, if you break the rule (with good purpose!), critics/editors/reviewers have an easy target: look at this amateur, doesn’t even know to show and not tell.

Are you screwed on this rule? Kind of. The only thing you can do is read the prose of people you admire and really think about how they get their balance right. I imagine this is something the greatest writers struggle with even after decades of success. Maybe I’m wrong.

Let’s see how Cheever handles it in The Wapshot Chronicle. I’ll skip the first chapter which is basically a creative way to get some quick information on each of the main characters. The literary world seems divided on this. Half of writers think you can break the rule in the first few pages to get the reader grounded somewhere. The other half wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. The second chapter is a full family history. This, again, used to be more common back in the 50’s when the novel came out. The third chapter gets to the first real scene (we’re only talking about 15 pages in).

Mr. Pincher’s horse galloped along Hill Street for about a hundred yards–maybe two–and then, her wind gone, she fell into a heavy-footed trot. Fatty Titus followed the float in his car, planning to rescue the charter members of the Woman’s Club, but when he reached them the picture was so tranquil–it looked like a hayride–that he backed his car around and returned to the village to see the rest of the parade. The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady, she chewed tobacco and she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends. He loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

“I ain’t going to stop her now,” Mr. Pincher said. “She’s had a lot more to put up with than the rest of you. She wants to get home now and I ain’t going to stop her.”

Mrs. Wapshot and her friends resigned themselves to the news of their captivity. After all, none of them had been hurt…

The summary all but disappears. The only place I see it sneak in is when Cheever outright tells the reader “…she was worth more to Mr. Pincher than Mrs. Wapshot and all her friends…” According to Rule 3 (and even Rule 1), this is an egregious error, because we get shown this fact soon after when he prioritizes getting his horse home over letting the group of women off the float. Not only is this needless repetition, but the summary gets shown a few sentences later.

One could argue that the only natural way to guide the reader’s attention properly is to put that summary in. It flows naturally as language and lets the conversation veer in a different direction. On the other hand, it feels like you haven’t tried hard enough if you can’t think of another way to do it. Cutting much of the rest of that first paragraph and continuing with the scene takes absolutely nothing from the novel and keeps the scene moving without repetition or narrative summary:

The danger had passed for everyone but Mr. Pincher’s mare. God knows what strains she had put on her heart and her lungs–even her will to live. Her name was Lady. Mr. Pincher loved her sweet nature and admired her perseverance, and the indignity of having a firecracker exploded under her rump made him sore with anger. What was the world coming to? His heart seemed to go out to the old mare and his tender sentiments to spread over her broad back like a blanket.

You might find this to be extremely nit-picky, but this is why it sometimes takes years to edit a book (and other, less meticulous, popular writers take less time). These changes are so minor that they don’t seem worth it. It’s true that a typical reader can read something carefully polished in this way and something less polished yet good enough to get published and not be able to articulate any of these differences. But over the course of a novel, there will be thousands of these tiny differences, and they add up to a very different reading experience.

The Wapshot Chronicle was John Cheever’s first novel, and my guess is it would be harder to find these subtle repetitions and unnecessary lines of summary in later ones.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 1

If you read any modern book on writing or editing, you’ll find the same sets of rules to follow over and over. These rules come out of an aesthetic known as minimalism and is the type of thing you’ll be taught to do if you go to one of the big name MFA programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The idea of these rules is to produce tight, clear writing. Some people go so far as to say they teach you to write like John Cheever (though I find this a bit unfair as Robert Coover was faculty at Iowa, and I don’t consider his style to be minimalistic at all).

The idea of this series is to take people famous for their excellent prose and look at whether they follow some of the most common rules. I’ll also try to pick writers from at least 1950 onward, because before “modernism” there were some factors which messed with prose (Dickens was a master, but when you’re paid by installment …).

Rule 1: Avoid repetition. This is vague, but it means at the word level (I saw a saw next to the seesaw), repetition of an idea a paragraph or two later, or repetition of themes/concepts across the whole book. The reasoning is often called “1 + 1 = 1/2.” A technique or word or idea is most effective when done once. The next time it is done, people have seen it, and both lose their punch.

I’ll start with Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer in 2001, which is the novel we’ll examine. It has “rapturous passages” (Entertainment Weekly) and “sharp language” (The New York Times Book Review). I don’t point this out sarcastically. The novel is excellent, and if I ever made an X books everyone should read, it would probably be on it.

I’ll admit, this is not the easiest rule to start with. A rule like “don’t use adverbs” or “don’t use passive voice” is much easier. Luckily, after some scanning, I think I found something. Here’s the start of Part II Chapter 4:

Sammy was thirteen when his father, the Mighty Molecule, came home. The Wertz vaudeville circuit had folded that spring, a victim of Hollywood, the Depression, mismanagement, bad weather, shoddy talent, philistinism, and a number of other scourges and furies whose names Sammy’s father would invoke, with incantatory rage, in the course of the long walks they took together that summer. At one time or another he assigned blame for his sudden joblessness, with no great coherence or logic, to bankers, unions, bosses, Clark Gable, Catholics, Protestants, theater owners, sister acts, poodle acts, monkey acts, Irish tenors, English Canadians, French Canadians, and Mr. Hugo Wertz himself.

As you might have guessed, the technique that gets repeated here is making a long list. The first list contains the reasons that the Wertz vaudeville circuit closed. The second list contains what Sammy’s father blamed losing his job on.

The intended effect is humor. There is no doubt, reading that second list brings a smile to my face as I visualize someone blaming such an absurd list of things. The way it morphs as it goes on is brilliant: sister acts, poodle acts, …

It is hard to see the first list as intended humor. It is more a statement of fact. One could argue that the repetition of the technique in such close proximity is fine here because it is being used for two different purposes, but I’m not so sure.

The first list primes you for the second. Imagine if the first list only contained “the Depression” or “a victim of Hollywood,” and then all the rest got thrown into the second so it morphed from more serious blame to the absurd. My guess is that this would increase the comic effect, not having already just seen a list.

This might seem nitpicky, and I’d agree. I wouldn’t have chosen this example if it ended there. The next paragraph:

The free and careless use of obscenity, like the cigars, the lyrical rage, the fondness for explosive gestures, the bad grammar, and the habit of referring to himself in the third person were wonderful to Sammy; until that summer of 1935, he had possessed few memories or distinct impressions of his father.

I think this is where it crosses the line. Yet another list right after those first two becomes tiresome. This is almost certainly what an editor would tell you if you wrote this book and got it professionally edited. The rule exists for a reason, and if you do a quick mental re-write, you’ll see that the passage becomes much tighter and easy to read with only one list.

But it’s kind of weird to blindly critique a passage out of context like this, so let’s talk about some reasons why such a great writer broke this rule. The narrator of the book has an erudite and exhaustive style. Part of the charm of the book is that it breaks from clean minimalism to present fascinating (but possibly unnecessary) details to create a rich texture surrounding the story.

In the context of the narrative style, these lists fit perfectly. The narrator is so concerned about not being exhaustive with them that he feels the need to qualify with a parenthetical, “And any of the above qualities (among several others his father possessed) would …”

This brings us to the first Golden Rule, a rule that supersedes all others. The problem with these exceptions is that you will often trick yourself into thinking you are allowed to break a rule where you aren’t. These are not excuses! If in doubt, follow the rule.

Golden Rule 1: You may break any other rule in order to create a unique and consistent narrative voice.

This is where the book shines. The narrative voice itself provides so much entertainment independent of the plot. Note that once you break a rule for this reason, you are locked in. You have a long, bumpy road ahead of you. It will take hundreds of times more effort to keep that voice consistent than to keep to the rules.

If it ever falters, you risk giving up the illusion and losing your readers. The end result can be spectacular if you pull it off. Go read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay if you’re interested in an example where it succeeds.