Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 14

Today we’ll look at some prose from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. It is both some of the best fantasy prose writing I’ve seen, and one of the most original and captivating fantasy novels I’ve read. I’m kind of in awe of it still. I’ve come across so many passages I wanted to use for this series, but I didn’t mark them. So here’s one I found at random.

It is the start of a scene, so I don’t have much setting up to do.

In a secluded glade in the forest, Quick Ben poured white sand in a circle and sat down in its center. He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam. The center stick, the highest, rose about three feet; the ones on either side stood at two feet and the outer ones at a foot.

The wizard uncoiled a yard’s length of thin gut string. He took one end and fashioned a scaled-down noose, which he tightened over the center stick near the top. He ran the line to the left, looping it once over the next shaft, then crossed over to the right side and looped it again.

The scene continues like this for quite some time. The number one takeaway from this is very easy to state. The whole scene is one person sitting alone. Yet all of the prose is active. For pages, I can’t find a single “was.” This is hard enough to do in a natural way when people are fighting or some other high action moment.

Let’s do a reverse analysis on this. Let’s guess how some earlier draft version might have gone to see why this final version is better. It’s somewhat telling that this is a hard task on this passage.

First, it begins with the clause “in a secluded glade in the forest.” I could imagine myself trying to be as descriptive as possible and waxing poetic with this. “Dark green leaves draped over Quick Ben. He had made his way deep into the forest, where no one could find him…” Even that would probably get fleshed out with more sensory detail in revisions.

I can easily identify two reasons why Erikson’s version is better. First, it’s just not that important. The actual content of the scene is what Quick Ben does. By spending so many words on it, it draws unnecessary attention to irrelevant information.

Second, it’s important to think if a “more detailed” version actually contains more detail. Erikson uses highly evocative and succinct words in that clause. The term “secluded glade” already encompasses the entire phrase “deep into the forest, where no one could find him.”  So my version is the same, but more clunky and difficult to read.

The next sentence I had an easier time thinking how a first draft might read. “Five sticks were in front of him, and they were in arranged with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” This is a train wreck of a sentence, but very common in early drafts.

First, it passively sets the scene, so Erikson wants Quick Ben to do the acting. It gets better immediately: “He set five sticks in front of him and arranged them with the middle the highest and outer the lowest.” But here we have the opposite problem from the first clause. Our version is attempting to do too much in a single sentence. It’s hard to understand what is going on.

The way to fix this is to describe the action, and then prepare the mental image of the description of the end result. This gets us to Erikson’s version:

He took five sharpened sticks and set them in a row before him, pushing them to various depths in the loam.

“Sharpened” is a descriptor that prepares us to see them pushed into the ground. We’re then told that they are pushed in at “various depths,” this also prepares us to visualize the different depths in the next sentence. So we don’t merely use two sentences to break apart the sentence that had too much in it, but we do it in a way that keeps priming the reader for proper understanding.

We could keep doing this and find similar things. It would be so easy to write the whole thing passively. “The wizard had string and it was put on a stick…” Erikson manages to take a person sitting by himself and get all these interesting active verbs into the paragraph: uncoiled, fashioned, tightened, ran, looped, crossed over.

This is one of the hallmarks of great prose. Passages like this push the reader along. We get highly detailed descriptions in our head, and we see them unfolding because of the active verbs.

I don’t want to spend time bashing another writer, but take someone like Terry Brooks, who I’ve also been reading recently. His prose does almost the exact opposite. Here’s a passage from The Elves of Cintra:

He had met Erisha and old Culph as planned at the entrance to the Ashenell burial grounds at just past midday, excited and anxious to begin their search. But Ashenell was vast and sprawling, a forest of headstones and monuments, mausoleums and simple markers that defied any easy method of sorting out. The terrain itself was daunting, hilly and wooded, the burial sections chopped apart by deep ravines and rocky precipices that made it difficult to determine where anything was.

In light of our discussion, everything is passive. Most sentences try to have too much, which in turn makes it hard for the reader to visualize any of it. It’s also not necessary to get this information up front. Why not take the search (an active thing) and let the descriptions flow from that as they appear?



Examining Pro’s Prose Part 13

Graham Greene is one of my favorite “classical” English language writers (I guess I mean he’s taught in some schools). I first read The Power and the Glory eleven years ago, and I was blown away by it. I haven’t returned to the novel since then, but I wanted to use it to dig into Greene’s prose a bit.

I’m not religious, and I wasn’t back when I read it either. One of the things that struck me most about the novel is its ambiguous stance toward religion. The book takes place in a (future?) time where religion is banned. Literally every single reference to any religion is destroyed by the government.

The main character is a Catholic priest secretly keeping religion alive and standing up to the evil government. It sounds like the setup to a cheesy, made-for-tv, inspirational religious movie. But the priest is a drunkard (known as the “whisky priest”). He’s gluttonous and immoral. Now it sounds like anti-religious fiction about hypocrisy in the Catholic church.

Eventually I realized that thinking in terms of these competing narratives was a mistake. This setup was merely a powerful tool to examine the human condition. Each of us has virtues and vices. Each of us has a moral compass we try to live by, and part of the novel is to show how even the strongest of us can throw these ideals away when put in dire situations.

Greene writes with a simplicity and clarity necessary to drive these points home. The book could have easily slid into excess drama and cliche and angst if done by a less-skilled writer. Instead, we get a beautiful story of human frailty.

Anyway, I thought that preface was necessary to understand an analysis of the prose style. Here’s a segment from the second chapter:

The lieutenant walked home through the shuttered town. All his life had lain here: the Syndicate of Workers and Peasants had once been a school. He had helped to wipe out that unhappy memory. The whole town was changed: the cement playground up the hill near the cemetery where iron swings stood like gallows in the moony darkness was the site of the cathedral. The new children would have new memories: nothing would ever be as it was. There was something of a priest in his intent observant walk- a theologian going back over the errors of the past to destroy them again.

One of the hallmarks of non-professional writing is the misapplication of “show, don’t tell.” Something that is supposed to be a small detail blows up into paragraphs of showing for no reason. The brilliance of Greene here is how he uses single, carefully chosen descriptive words to evoke feelings, mood, scenery, backstory, and more. Lesson: one can show more with less words if those words do work.

One could imagine an exuberant young writer letting that first sentence get out of hand with descriptions of the shutters and houses and the general mood and atmosphere of the town. Instead, Greene’s use of the phrase “shuttered town” does all this work for us. We understand the people are terrified. They’ve shut themselves in. No one is out and about. It’s desolate and bleak.

All of this “showing” happens in our head, because Greene struck upon a great word. If the word “shuttered” were something like “terrified,” we’d only get the mood. If it were something like “locked up,” we’d get a visual, but not the mood.

Next, Greene does multiple things at once. He describes select places in the town in order to get backstory on the lieutenant and paint a picture and explain the current political climate.

When the lieutenant was a child, there was a school. He was part of wiping it out and replacing it with the “Syndicate of Workers and Peasants.” Greene doesn’t take the time to explain what this is, but it’s clear. This is some bureaucratic government thing. The name evokes this without further need to explain.

A cathedral was destroyed, and a playground put in. But if Greene had said it this way, we might think this is a happy place. Instead, he gives us the simile “iron swings stood like gallows.” It evokes the disturbing thought of children having to do with chopping people’s heads off. Careful juxtaposition like this can paint vivid imagery in people’s minds. Greene continues this theme. The playground is “cement.” It’s near the cemetery.

Everything about the description of this place is disturbing, and what’s brilliant is that he reveals so much about the character and the town while doing this. This is a man remembering his own history with these places: how he helped wreck the town.

Then he uses a parallel concept. The new children will have new memories. Greene shifts from the character’s childhood to new children and what they’ll think.

The paragraph closes by drawing a parallel to the priest. He connects two of the characters in the novel and draws out a theme. All people want redemption from their past mistakes. But sometimes things we do to absolve a “mistake” only makes things worse. Those “mistakes” might not even have been mistakes at all, but we only see this in hindsight.

The takeaway from Greene’s prose is that one can show more with a few carefully chosen details than if one were to spend paragraphs describing it all. This stripped back style strikes emotional resonance in the novel (especially the haunting last chapter).

Of course, style must be chosen to suit the needs of the work, so this might not be the best choice for everything. But it’s hard to think of a modern novel that wouldn’t be made better by moving in this direction a little.

Using Poetry to Improve Prose

This is going to be a short one. I recently broke my ankle, so I’ve been kind of busy with other things.

I often talk about what makes good prose style. Most of these posts follow and give convention writing advice. I’ve done a few posts on poetry but not much. One of the most important pieces of advice for improving prose style that I never see given is to write some poetry.

You have to take the right attitude for this exercise, though. The point of doing this is to work intensely at exact and evocative word choices; brief sensory detail; creative metaphor; flow and rhythm of the phrases; and so on.

To compose a good six line poem could take weeks or months, but you’ll come out of the other side of the experience with a very different concept of how words can be used to create meaning in a better way.

I’d advise not using a standard form. If you’re trying to fit the words into a preset rhythm or rhyme scheme, then you’ll be thinking about the wrong things. The focus should be on the right words and flow to achieve the purpose—not on finding a word that’s close enough and completes a preset scheme (though that is a good different exercise).

I have a set of 20-30 poems I’ve been tinkering with for about 3 years now. They’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re embarrassing anymore, but it’s taken a long, long time. I started releasing them to the public at a rate of about one a week through Poets Unlimited on Medium.

I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ll continue to do it. If you’re curious you can check them out here.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 12

It’s been about five months since I’ve done one of these. My how time flies. I’ve almost exclusively used “literary” writers for this series. Today I want to examine the prose of John Irving. He’s had a lot of commercial success, but he straddles the literary/commercial divide more than many give him credit for. This is the opening line from A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

I don’t remember how I picked this book up, but I distinctly remember reading this opening line and being hooked. We’ll look at its structure and how it establishes so much in so little space.

We’ll start with the obvious. The sentence starts with “I,” so we are getting the voice of the narrator. But immediately, the whole sentence is about someone else. We can be pretty sure (especially with knowledge of the title) that the main character of the novel will be this other person. It’s like The Great Gatsby; the narrator will tell of his past with the main character.

“I am doomed to remember…” This opening phrase establishes that the story is going to be tragic in some way. The word “doomed” is no accident. If we look to the end of the sentence, we see “God” and “Christian.” There were a lot of words Irving could have chosen here, but “doomed” is consistent in tone and given a lot more power when reaching the end of the sentence. This isn’t a mere haunting memory. In the context of God, the word “doomed” tends to have one meaning: doomed to hell during the Final Judgement. The opening clause says: pay attention, this is serious.

The follow-up is “a boy with a wrecked voice.” It immediately forces a lot of questions into the reader’s mind. Wait. He’s only a boy? What could have been that bad? Why is his voice wrecked? This sounds even less threatening.

Irving em dashes into a sequence of clarifications. The clarifications serve the dual purpose of fleshing out the main character and raising the stakes of the forthcoming novel. Each detail gets a little more confusing and intense.

The boy is the smallest person he ever knew. Even more so than the voice, how could this boy be threatening at all? Then the kicker comes. The boy was the instrument of the narrator’s mother’s death. Now we really wonder: who could this boy be to have caused such a thing? And even then, we’re told there’s something more. The mother’s death isn’t even the reason the narrator is doomed to remember. This sequence ramps up the tension more and more until we get our relief at the true reason.

The boy is the reason he believes in God. Semicolon. We then get further clarification. He’s Christian because of this boy. It’s almost a let down when the reason turns out to be so anticlimactic. But, in a sense, this makes it better. What traumatic event happened that it surpassed his mother’s death by this boy?

And we’re hooked. By the end of the first sentence we have so many unanswered questions. Moreover, the sequencing of the questions makes them feel unanswerable.

When examining why prose works, it’s often useful to think why similar attempts don’t work. Think how boring this opening would have been if Irving merely wanted to establish the narrator’s voice and tell a few facts about Owen Meany.

I recall a boy with a wrecked voice. He was the smallest person I ever knew, and yet he was also the instrument of my mother’s death. I believe in God because of Owen Meany.

I could see many people starting their novels this way. Without comparison, it might seem fine. It still establishes point of view. It still lists some traits of Owen Meany. It still raises many of the same questions. But it lacks some extremely important points. There’s no dramatic tension. The questions feel easily answerable in this form.

I could see myself saying, “Eh. Some boy killed this guy’s mother. He now believes in God. I guess I’ll find out what happened soon enough.” These are serious matters, but the prose doesn’t feel serious. It almost has a comical tone in this form because, one, it lacks the word “doomed,” but two, because the juxtaposition of these sentiments is such a sudden and stark contrast with no build up.

Seeing these fake several sentences also brings up another point. It isn’t the right voice for the narrator. The narrator of this novel used an extremely complicated sentence structure: full clause, em dash, three negative clauses separated by commas building to a positive clause, semicolon, full clause clarification.

We’ll later find out that the narrator is an English teacher (and maybe writer? It’s been 15 years since I read this), but the astute reader will already have ascertained a linguistic sophistication and high education level for the narrator. The clunky sentences I wrote give none of this voice or information.

Who knew one sentence could contain so much?

Structural Analysis of Bag of Bones: Chapter 1

Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.

I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminology. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.

The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).

Scene 1:

The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.

King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook. What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested. It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.

The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased. He ends on a cliffhanger. He sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.

I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending.

Scene 2:

It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. He establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.

“…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.”

It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation. We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things. This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?

The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive. If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!

This is a reversal of expectations. The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife. This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone attended to her.

The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger. We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.

“I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.”

Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.

Scene 3:

The funeral. Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.

It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant. This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.

Our first questions have been resolved. The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant. But now we’re left with a new unknown. Is the child the narrator’s? Our guess is no, because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.

Scene 4:

We’re still at the funeral. Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.

This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.

The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.

Scene 5:

We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help etc).

In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped. “And be careful.” “Careful of what?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.” In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?

The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.

To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit. But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.

Scene 6:

We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral. So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.

The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream. Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance. The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.

Scene 7:

New inciting incident. In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?

What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.

We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean? The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.

He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep. In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.

The chapter ends.

The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle. There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.

The chapter has an “ending payoff” when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene. Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?

The Difficulty of Invisible Description

I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 11

Today we’re going to look at the prose of J. M. Coetzee. He is a South African writer and is known for his controversial topics. His 1980 work Waiting for the Barbarians is about a town magistrate that takes on disturbing power by preying on the fears of the people about an incumbent attack by the barbarians. This novel is now seen as an eerie and accurate premonition of the events in the U.S. after 9/11 that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the forfeit of our freedoms in the name of safety.

The novel I actually want to look at is his more recent 1999 novel Disgrace. The main character is a disgraced English professor who loses his job after having sex with a student under dubious circumstances. He moves in with his daughter in the countryside to recover from the affair and try to turn his life around. While there, the two suffer a brutal attack coming from lingering apartheid tensions.

I won’t give more away, but a hallmark of Coetzee’s writing is how much he packs into so little space. This novel is short, more like a novella, yet it contains more plot and emotional content than many 90,000 word novels. And this is where I’d like to start with his prose. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend taking one or two days to go through one of his novels. The bare and exposed prose breaks every rule we’ve been taught, yet it suits his subject matter perfectly. It is unlike anything I’ve read. I can’t even compare him to other people.

To set the scene, the professor has just called Melanie, the student, at her house. Her mother answered and has left the phone to get her.

Melanie—melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.


In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.

The first segment is the professor’s thoughts. Part of the slimness of Coetzee’s writing comes from how he slides into and out of the head of the main character with no frills. No italics. No “he thought” to punctuate and emphasize what is already obvious. I like this style, and find some writer’s overemphasis on pointing out character’s thoughts as needless distrust of the reader’s comprehension.

The punctuation through this segment is brilliant. It also allows Coetzee to do away with excess words that the professor wouldn’t be thinking anyway. It flows quickly like actual thoughts would. It’s word association rather than something logical.

Then we get to the actual words. He notes the rhyme between Melanie and melody. But the brilliant thing is calling it a “meretricious” rhyme. This word does so much work in the passage. On the face of it, he wants the rhyme to be deceiving because he doesn’t want a melodic girl but a devious one. The word meretricious doesn’t merely mean deceiving though; it has the archaic meaning “of, like, or relating to a prostitute,” exactly how the professor views the student in that moment.

In four sentences, we, as readers, feel so much. We get to watch how the professor thinks about this student. We watch how his mind turns things around. We see how he starts to justify his actions to himself. In context, these four sentences give us a sense of revulsion at the main character’s true self that we wouldn’t get from a mere surface description of the act. There’s something deeper and more disturbing about the scene playing out this way.

After she answers the phone, the point of view shifts out of his thoughts, but things only get worse. Now we see that he understands that what he is doing is wrong. He understands that he needs to leave, but the narrator joins in on the justification. He’s out of control. She’s out of control.

As a reader, we start to feel helpless. Even the narrator is pushing the act along, and we learn that we cannot trust the narrator to show us the moral condemnation we hope for. We want to shout, “No! He does own himself! Stop making excuses for him. Lust is not reason enough to lose control of one’s actions.”

Shakespeare is quoted with “beauty’s rose,” reemphasizing the fact that the English professor knows his stuff, but it is more significant than that. This comes from Shakespeare’s first sonnet, and this is the first scene to start the plot of the novel. The full sonnet is about an older man who self-destructs under his selfish and gluttonous ways. That brief phrase “beauty’s rose” is a deep foreshadowing into the rest of the novel.

This is what makes Coetzee such an experience to read. His sparse prose strikes immediate emotional response into readers with no analysis necessary. But upon a deeper reading, we can find a shocking amount of extra information layered in through precise word choice.