Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New trends in prose I'm going to edit out...

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's "my voice". But any idiosyncrasy is going to lose all claim to power the story or to reflect the character (or author) voice, if it is used constantly as if it's standard English. Less is more, for cripes' sake. LESS IS MORE!!!

So if you're doubling predicates (without an AND) every paragraph or so, do not be surprised when your grumpy editor edits almost all of them back to standard English. Is this some new trend? I'm seeing it all the time in submissions and contest entries (almost never, nota bene, in published fiction). Here's an example I'm making up:

He reached out, touched her.

Oh, another-- these never come as singlets. They are usually throughout the whole chapter, regardless of POV character (that is, we can't blame the character voice).

Gilead climbed, clambered up the wall.

And yet another:

Her head ached, reeled with pain.

You know, this is actually one of those times you can use a participle! (Theresa said memorably that three things can happen when you use participles, and two of them are bad-- well, here's the good one.)

Her head ached, reeling with pain.

Well, I don't know if a head can reel, but that is actually part of the problem with this doubling of predicate. You have two predicates. Do they actually both use the same subject? Sometimes the sloppiness of this construction means that the first predicate is actually an action of the subject, but the second predicate applies apparently to some missing subject that I guess the reader is supposed to supply, like:

His hand itched to smack the kid, welled up with anger.

Well, the hand didn't well up with anger, so is it the kid welling up? The "he" that owns the hand? Predicates and subjects need to match. If you disagree with that, please find another language to write in.

(Oh, sure, you can occasionally, for some effect you can identify, break the rules. But if you do it all the time, it's you establishing a new rule, not breaking the rules. And if you want to define a rule -and abide by it-- wherein you have doubled predicates with one subject that connects directly with only one of those predicates, well, go ahead. Elucidate. Explain your logic, when the rule applies and when it doesn't, and give examples. If you don't want to do that, don't expect me or the reader to do your work for you.)

Another problem is that the practice leads to redundancy.

Gilead climbed, clambered up the wall.

I see this one a lot, where the writer apparently can't decide between two synonyms and so uses them both. (The former trend, fortunately lost in the mists of time, was to put a slash mark between them: Gilead climbed/clambered up the wall.)

Sin boldly. Choose. Climbed, clambered-- which fits better here? CHOOSE. You are in charge.

There's a great way to handle sentences where one person commits two actions, and yes, it uses two predicates. It also uses a handy little word, sometimes called a "conjunction" because it conjoins two like things (for example, actions). Conjunctions are useful because they not only show that two things are related, but HOW they are related (so "but" shows they are related by contrast or conflict). So:

He reached out and touched her.

Does that sound trite? Yes? Well, maybe it IS trite. Maybe it's too trite to write. Maybe you should make that sentence do more than repeat a long-distance commercial, huh? If you make a grammatical sentence and it says nothing of import, it's not going to suddenly become meaningful because you make it an ungrammatical sentence. Concentrate on saying something that matters.

Something to keep in mind is that editors get everything amplified. What seems to you to be a trendy or clever opening is, by the time you send it to us, rather hackneyed-- twenty other writers have already thought of that and sent it to us. So your clever opening-- oh, like the hero and heroine colliding in the corridor, my favorite clever opening that I've only seen 10K times-- isn't going to seem too clever. And how unique and true will your story seem, if it's opened in a way that opens so many other stories?

I digress. What I meant was-- if the editor has seen your "voice" thingy so much it's become annoying and has its own unflattering moniker and yahoogroups list, maybe it's not the best representation of your voice, and maybe this aspect of your voice is not actually so representative of your uniqueness.

Does that mean you should never break the rules, never listen to your inner rhythms, never try to replicate the character's voice? Of course not. It just means that you shouldn't choose one transgressive technique and use it over and over and over again. Your voice is more than one lapse in grammar, one used, moreover, by a lot of other writers-- and, uh, one that your editor is likely to "fix" anyway.

What are other "transgressive" but common techniques? I think one is the breaking up of perfectly nice sentences into one sentence and a series of fragments, like:
He knew. Knew her. Her perfume. Her perfidy. (Hmm. I like that ... perfume, perfidy. I like it a lot better in one sentence. :)

Again, I don't mean that you should never break rules of grammar and syntax. But there's not power in breaking the rule if you ALWAYS break the rules. We're likely to assume that you just don't know the rules.

Alicia

5 comments:

brer Drager said...

Here! Here! So true. :)

Many aspiring writers intentionally drop the conjunction "and." They think it's an unnecessary word. *shrugs*
Maybe they're reading that on blogs that also say that "'said' is dead."

Edittorrent said...

I can actually see that the rapid-fire of stacked predicates could replicate when actions are coming so fast, they are almost simultaneous.

However, when this doubled predicate (without "and") is used throughout the story, in slow as well as fast passages, the device will lose any effectiveness and just become annoying. Our voice shouldn't sound the same all the time- it should fit the moment. And the more obvious the device, the more it should be reserved for the moments where it adds to the experience.

Alicia

brer Drager said...

er . . . I guess I had typos in my last post. :(
I guess I meant "Hear! Hear!"
*cringing from embarrassment*

Edittorrent said...

I routinely edit conjunctions into sentences like that. Some allowances have to be made for highly stylized scenes, but mostly I find this "technique" (gag) annoying.

Hey, here's another one. Who started the rumor that "then" is a conjunction? I admit to letting it slide a time or two, but the manuscripts that misuse "then" do it on every page, it seems.

Theresa

Jennifer said...

I looked at the two closest collections of short stories I had and of course Brokeback Mountain does the double predicate thing (or triple) constantly but Proulx is writing as the characters would have thought/spoken. But even someone as controlled and precise as Jhumpa Lahiri does it from time to time as well..