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.

Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.

Year of Short Fiction Part 0

If you’re new to this blog, you might not know that 2016 was the Year of Giant Novels. I got kind of burned out on that by the end, so I decided to make 2017 the Year of Short Fiction. I thought I’d spend a post talking about my expectations for this and what I plan to read (and take suggestions).

First off, I’ve read a bunch of short stories and posted analysis here in the past. So I wanted to collect some of them here for pre-reading if you’re interested. I also want them all in one place for easy reference for myself while going through this year.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

The Stories of Cheever Part 3

Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Lost in the Funhouse

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I think there are some more, but these are the ones that get the most views on the blog.

Expectations: I’m pretty excited for this, because well-written short stories can be great. I also think the novella is a vastly underappreciated form. There are a ton of hidden gem novellas that haven’t been discovered because they aren’t marketable. The length is too short to appeal to people that like novels and too long for people who want 15 minute stories. This didn’t used to be the case when you look to the past: James, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Wharton, and even Dickens (and more) have excellent and popular novellas.

Short fiction can accomplish much of the emotional or thematic resonance of a long novel in a fraction of the space. But to do this, the language must be much tighter. Novels can afford to meander or falter on the amount of description. Short fiction can’t.

This means I should be able to dive deep into the art and craft of prose. I should also spend a lot less time complaining about filler. I think that was my biggest surprise with the Year of Giant Novels. Some great novels need all that room, but most do not. I found myself sifting through a tedium of excess that should have been cut by an editor who knew better.

My guess is that this series should mostly replace my Examining Pro’s Prose series, since we’ll being doing it in the course of this series.

I also hope to encounter short story collections that don’t work. Many novelists take a crack at short story collections without realizing it is a completely different skill. If the description/pacing/etc are done in the same way as a novel, it will fail miserably. It could be instructive to dive into ways short fiction fails.

Right now, for me, Joyce’s Dubliners is the quintessential example of the short story collection done right. Some of those stories pack a serious punch with deep emotional content with fewer words than this blog post. I hope to find some more examples of this to point people to this year.

Right now, I don’t plan on re-reading story collections I’ve read in the past. This, unfortunately, rules out some great stuff like anything by David Foster Wallace or James Joyce. The goal is to expand my horizons.

Here’s what I have on the list so far:

Short Story Collections:

Gene Wolfe – The Fifth Head of Cerberus (these might be better classified as novellas?)

Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies

Roxane Gay – An Untamed State

Italo Calvino – Cosmicomics

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Novellas:

Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I’ve never read this?!)

Kate Chopin – The Awakening

Henry James – Daisy Miller

I’ll continue to add to this list as I come up with stuff. If you know of any you want me to do, please leave a comment. I’m very interested in finding great novellas written in the past 20 years. I know almost all of the above classify as “literary fiction,” but I’m not limiting myself to this. Tell me of some great sci-fi/fantasy if you know of any! Or even flash fiction collections could be interesting to look at.

 

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?

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.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

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.

A Case Study in POV

Point of view (POV) is one of those things that is hardly noticed when done well but can ruin a story if done poorly. Today we’ll examine how POV affects Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me.

Never have I encountered such perfect novels for this case study. Gilead is widely regarded as a modern classic. Abide With Me is mostly unknown. Yet they both tell remarkably similar stories. Both have Protestant ministers as main characters in small town America in the 50’s. Both authors have won Pulitzer Prizes. They were published a mere two years apart (2004 and 2006). They deal with the same themes. Their lengths are roughly the same. So why the difference in reception? I think it can be completely attributed to Strout’s error in POV usage.

Gilead is told as a sequence of first-person letters from a Congregationalist minister to a son who will not know him. It is deeply personal and reflective to use this POV and serves as an excellent way to delve into discussions of faith in a broadly secular society, religion, theology, disappointment, judgment, fears, and so on. These manifest through conflict the minister has with his small town and what the minister sees as his own personal failings regarding his family.

Abide With Me is told in a very loose, meandering third-person (semi-omniscient) POV. The focus is still on a minister in a small town and his conflicts with the parishioners about theology and personal failings regarding his family. One could try to make an argument that Abide With Me focuses on the town itself as the main character, and this is the point of using a meandering POV. But I can’t get behind this. My guess is that over 80% of the novel is in a close third-person limited view of the minister, so the POV is wrong even for that argument. Also, all of the drama and emotional content come from the minister’s POV. To me, this novel would have been a much cleaner and powerful one if those few POV switches were cut or changed to the minister’s.

Let’s dig a little into why first-person worked so well in Gilead. Here’s a sample:

I get much more respect than I deserve. This seems harmless enough in most cases. People want to respect the pastor and I’m not going to interfere with that. But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.

We learn so much from this one brief passage. The pastor is modest and sympathetic. We get to hear his voice and see how he thinks. We learn how others see him and how he understands how they see him. He’s funny! His sense of humor comes through, because it is in his voice. When you read a whole novel like this, you feel like you personally know him, and I think this is why the novel resonates so well with people. It’s the POV, not the content. This is why Strout’s novel is not held in the same regard.

But Mrs. Slatin arrived for a visit, and took Lauren shopping for curtains, a bathroom rug, a crib, dishes with apples painted on them. And when Mrs. Slatin left, saying, “Well, you won’t be here for long, dear. This is just temporary,” Lauren said she wanted the horrid old place painted pink, she couldn’t stand it, and so Tyler asked the church, and then painted the walls of the living room and the dining room pink. “Perfect!” Lauren said. “I love you!”

Joy filled him, and trepidation, for the job of being pastor of this church was, for Tyler, an assignment of great seriousness. He was moved by the kindness of his parish, how they sometimes left notes for him by his office in the church, saying how his sermon had touched them.

I chose this passage, because I think it is trying to do a similar thing to the other one: establish how the pastor is received by the congregation and how he understands what they think. Look at that opening, though. It focuses on his wife’s POV. We get some of her character, but we’re kept at arm’s length by this distant third-person narration.

This distance is necessary to easily flow between points of view, but it leaves us feeling cold here. When we do switch to Tyler’s POV, we’re just told how he is received. We don’t get his voice. We don’t feel like we fully understand his thoughts. It is a one-dimensional description of his feelings and lacks his voice.

The whole novel reads this way, and it is a strange choice. I’m not sure why Strout chose to tell such a deeply personal story from such a distant and cold POV. There are few times in published literature where one can point to such a blatant mistake, but I think this is one of those times. I can only imagine what this novel could have been if a more personal POV was used.

Tonal Consistency in Fantasy Writing

Today I’m going to discuss a topic that ranges from extreme, blatant violations to subtle, accidental slip-ups and why they matter. The language of fantasy writing is much harder to get right than many “literary fiction” writers give it credit for. In fact, I’d say it is much, much harder than novels set in modern times on Earth.

Let’s start with Shannara, because I recently decided to watch the MTV series based on The Elfstones of Shannara.

Major spoilers for the books; minor spoilers for the TV series.

Shannara puts a clever twist on the fantasy setting. Instead of it being some mystical past, Terry Brooks made it a futuristic world. The implication is that a nuclear war happened, destroying technology, and then the radiation mutation of people became elves, gnomes, goblins, humans, etc. I think this is described in one of the “prequel” trilogies/books, but I never read them to be sure.

The number one concern when doing something like this is consistency. Some people might not like this change up because it violates genre conventions, but I could care less. If something is done consistently, then you should be allowed to do it.

The series does a pretty good job at keeping everything consistent with this setting. For example, the hero has to journey to a place called Safe Hold. We find out that this is the Sa(n) Fr(ancisco) (G)old(en Gate Bridge), where the sign has the letters smudged out and disfigured to create the words: Safe Hold. This is a pretty neat discovery, fully consistent with the setting.

But consistency of setting isn’t the only type of consistency. There is also something I’ll call tonal consistency. Despite being the future, the tone of the series keeps to a traditional fantasy tone. This means no guns, no modern music, and so on. This is where the TV series is at its worst. When guns appear in an episode, it is big shock that totally pulls you out of the tone up to that point. When modern music and a video projector appear, you lose the suspension of disbelief for the tone.

As I’ve already said, you can put all of this stuff in your fantasy setting if you want. The problem isn’t the breaking of a genre convention. The problem is that the reader/watcher has experienced hours of this world and seen no evidence that such things exist. There must be consistency from the start (or done for very deliberate and good reason).

These types of errors occur in a lot of period fiction, but no single example is usually enough to ruin anything. The problem is that you can only lose the tone of a work a certain number of times before you get pulled totally out of the atmosphere it tries to create. It’s mostly a subconscious thing that you probably don’t even notice until it’s too late to get back into the mood.

Let’s talk about some more subtle examples that are the reason this is so hard to do well. The language itself can be the source of these consistency problems. One obvious one is using the word “earth” when the characters don’t know about the planet Earth.

It is so easy to accidentally do this (not actually from Shannara): “Wil dug into the ground and felt the warm earth fall between his fingers.” You can pretend that the narrator has “translated” this for the reader. The word here is technically synonymous with “soil” or “dirt” and not referencing the name of the planet. But then why take the risk? Just use “soil” or “dirt” if that is what you mean. If the characters haven’t heard of Earth the planet, then they wouldn’t be using the word “earth” ever. Period.

The way this usually sneaks in is with similes and metaphors. “The pieces fit together like clockwork.” Wait a minute. Does this world have clocks? Are they precisely put together? “An emotional roller coaster.” Really? This world has roller coasters? Idioms can be problematic as well. “When hell freezes over.” Does anyone in the setting believe that hell is normally full of fire and brimstone?

Those ones slip in but are usually pretty obvious and easy to catch if you’re paying attention to it. The truly nefarious ones are when a word is perfectly ordinary and not a noun referring to something that doesn’t exist, but it’s etymology contains something that doesn’t exist. Wow these are subtle, but a great fantasy writer will make every effort to weed these out as well for consistency of tone.

Here’s one: quixotic (this is actually used in The Scions of Shannara, which I started reading, inspired by the show). It means foolishly impractical in the pursuit of ideals. But wait a second. The only reason it means that is because of Don Quixote. So if this book doesn’t exist in your setting, this word also doesn’t exist.

I’m torn on whether this is appropriate in Shannara. Since we know the book did exist, it seems okay. But still, it seems to conflict with the tone, since the prequels hadn’t been written yet, and we aren’t supposed to know it’s okay.

Measurement tends to be a judgment call. I could go either way. English and metric units definitely ruin consistency of tone, but this might be one of those “lesser of two evils” situations. If there is an easy way out, for example, use “two-day walk” instead of “eighteen miles,” always go with that. Sometimes you have to get creative enough that it ends up causing more confusion than it’s worth. My rule is to avoid precise measurement in that case, but there may be situations where it is needed.

As a final note, I’ll say this can go too far. Every writer has to decide for themselves where the cutoff is. Is “stoic” okay even though it originates from the ancient Greek school of philosophy Stoicism? I draw the line with these cases by allowing a third person narrator to use them if that narrator is clearly not someone in/from the world. A character is not allowed to think or say words that originate from a culture that didn’t exist in their setting.

Along the same lines, what about “philosophy?” The word itself is borrowed from Greek, and so if Greece doesn’t exist on their world, does this break tone? I’d say that’s going too far. Both narrators and characters are allowed to say borrowed words as long as the word isn’t in reference to a concrete person, place, movement, etc. You have to realize that most words in English are borrowed or have pretty clear traces from other languages, so you can’t remove all of these for practical reasons.

Anyway. Sorry for spoiling anything. The series got me thinking about this topic, and I realized I had never written about it.

Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.