Thursday, January 14, 2010

Skittering

I want to make one quick point about the last post where we practiced communicating emotion without stating the emotion directly. (You all did a wonderful job, by the way, and wasn't it fun to see how many different ways the same action could be interpreted?)

This kind of writing might feel hard when you first start doing it, but it gets easier with practice. Before too long, you'll start realizing there are other ways to communicate concepts without putting them in giant neon letters. HEY READER! MY THEME IS, "KARMA GONNA GET HIM!" We hardly ever see such direct statements in fiction, right? But authors have still found ways to communicate these indirect concepts. It's the nature of storytelling. And even though it might feel hard or challenging now to control unstated notions on the smallest scale, as we did in the last post, eventually you'll find ways to broaden that technique and find ways to incorporate implied concepts on a much larger scale.

We might even take a look at that some day. But for today, I want to keep the focus tight and look at something that several of you mentioned in comments and email. "Skittered." You liked that use of that word. It's a good verb because it's slightly unusual, vivid, dynamic, and has a hint of emotion which we could draw out in the context. How much weaker would the sentence have been if we'd started with, "Henry leaped," or "Henry jumped," or the dreaded, "Henry moved." Nothing wrong with these verb choices. They're perfectly serviceable. But they're not quite as awake as skittered, are they?

We talk a lot about verbs here. We've made lists of overused verbs, and we've done endless sentence revisions to show you ways to cut down on verbals, and we've sung the praises of good verb choices. Why so much focus on verbs? They're the heavy lifters in a sentence, and yet so many manuscripts treat them like also-rans. Think about, for example,

She looked at the lush purple heather glowing faintly crimson under the striped pink-and-orange sunset and the puffy tinted clouds.

We see variations of this basic problem over and over again -- we might even file this one under "Marks of the Amateur." I think of this as a balance issue. The two most powerful word slots in that sentence -- in any sentence -- are the subject and main verb. And what do we have in those two power slots? A drab pronoun and a flat verb. The sentence is backloaded (and overloaded) with descriptive words in lesser positions.

Sometimes you want to do this to achieve a particular effect. But when sentence after sentence is written this way, the effect is clunky, overwritten, off-balance prose.

What's a quick fix for this sentence? Assume the point of view is clear, and post your revised sentences in the comments. I'm willing to bet we'll find several ways to improve it. But regardless of the method chosen, I'm also willing to bet that the main verb of the sentence becomes much more powerful.

Theresa

33 comments:

Brenda said...

The lush purple heather glowed faintly crimson under the pink and orange bands striating the puffy, sunset clouds.

But my real questions are:

Is the heather purple or crimson?
If crimson, how does this work since the clouds are pink and orange?
What kind of tint is puffy?
What kind of bands of color aren’t striated?

Dave Shaw said...

Puffy clouds tinted by the striped pink-and-orange sunset cast a faintly crimson glow over the lush purple heather. She reveled in its beauty.

When the quail erupted from the cover, she skittered backward in three quick, light steps and missed her shot.

Oops, wrong exercise. ;-)

Stacy McKitrick said...

I'm not long on description - I tend to keep it simple. I could not understand what was meant by the example you provided, but came up with something simpler:

The lush heather glowed under the crimson sky.

Maybe it's not what you had in mind, but it makes more sense to me.

Iapetus999 said...

I think I just puked up a My Little Pony.

The skittering clouds puffed across the ray-striped ocher sunset, shading the boisterous heather in a crimson glow.

I dunno. Too many -ing's in there. But I did add skittering! :)

Edittorrent said...

*snerk* I was trying to give you guys something to work with. Too much? lol@Iapetus -- at least the clouds weren't sparkly.

Brenda, kudos for cutting the "she looked" and using a stronger subject and verb. That was a smart choice.

Dave, splitting ideas into separate sentences is another strong technique for dealing with an overweighty sentence.

Stacy, part of voice is in finding that perfect balance between simplicity and vividness that suits your unique style. Your sentence is light and clear. Also worth noting -- I did try to incorporate some confusion into that sample sentence. You weren't imagining that.

Theresa

Edittorrent said...

Also wanted to note -- group exercises like this are useful in refining voice. Do you see why? We can compare notes and understand our own approach a little better as a result.

Theresa

writtenwyrdd said...

She frowned at the view, purple heather and fluffy clouds licked by sunset flame.

I really wanted that sentence to do double duty, and that I wanted to bring the reader into the pov character's head. So I aimed for emotion. (In this case, I liked the idea of a beautiful scene which contrast the character's bad mood.)

Jami G. said...

I'm not sure this is actually in my voice, as it's still a bit overladen for my tastes, but this was my first take and I'll run with it...

The pink and orange sunset leap-frogged across the sky from cloud to cloud. The glow from the nearest puffy cloud cast a crimson light over the lush field of purple heather around her.

Jami G.
(Who's having a hard time visualizing a striped sunset with puffy clouds - sunset color is usually found on the clouds, not the empty sky, so stripes and puffy don't seem to go together. ;) )

Edittorrent said...

In that case, Jami, it makes sense to focus on one or the other of the two images. Stripey or puffy. Dealer's choice. :)

Theresa

Jami G. said...

Theresa,

Exactly - that's why I left the striped part out of mine. :)

Jami G.

Jordan said...

Um, wow. My quick fix would be the delete key. I know, I'm harsh (and a cheater). It just doesn't look like the sentence actually serves any purpose other than to mention as many colors as possible.

I do like writtenwyrdd's efforts to make the sentence serve a purpose.

(Okay, yes, scene-setting is a purpose, but if I read that in a novel, I wouldn't see anything. It's like telling me their couch was green. Great. So what?)

Jami G. said...

Jordan,

LOL! And I agree with you 100%. The best descriptions are there for a reason, to show some sort of reaction from the character (the whole 'how does it make her feel' aspect).

Jami G.

sylvia said...

Ohhhhh. Did you all here that penny drop?

These examples are good. I sat here trying to work out how to replace "she" and a better word for "looked" and I got nowhere.

Also wanted to note -- group exercises like this are useful in refining voice. Do you see why? We can compare notes and understand our own approach a little better as a result.

Totally. This is great - if you posted the example with a fix, I would just think "yeah, I know you can do it but I can't" ... reading various approaches by other people makes all the difference.

Murphy said...

The heather glowed in crimson hues under the fiery sunset.

Reasons:

She looked - (axed because it’s telling)
Lush -axed because my CP has cured me of using that word (unless I’m describing a drunk woman).
Purple - unnecessary as it’s stated that the heather is tinted a different color anyway.
Faintly - um, does that mean light red?
Striped pink-and-orange? Nope. Well, I guess I’d include it - if she were looking through her jail cell window bars - but looked is no longer included - so, *sigh with relief* that too, is off the list.
Puffy? Can I just pause here to insert a: *gag me* I hate that! And tinted? Puffy tinted? Man, Theresa, that sounds like a Rapper’s name. Announcing: Puffy Tinted Marshmallow Monsta!

Note to Jordan. *waves* This line must be included as the heroine has been looking for this elusive heather for 427 pages. It holds the cure (once steeped with camomile tea) to eliminate the alien virus that’s nearly wiped out the human race. And after she's witnessed, firsthand, what the virus did to the French, she figured she better start picking -despite the late hour. Hokie-doodle! She had an island to save! :D

Murphy - sending a big shout out to JG - because she actually had the balls to use leap-frogged across the sky cloud to cloud as a sentence. What a visual! ;)

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, sometimes description is something more than mere landscaping. I remember the final line in the A. Manette Ansey book, Vinegar Hill -- well, I don't remember it verbatim, but it was something like,

She held her daughter's hand and looked out over the flat coin of the lake.

Flat coin of the lake -- that was a resonant image, and that book would have suffered without it. It was an image of hope and peace, and it connected to some of the key themes of the book. I remember struggling with that book (like most of the Oprah books, it was grim and depressing), but that final image was the payoff that made it all worthwhile.

Taking an image out of context might not yield the same impact. If you haven't read Vinegar Hill, that descriptive detail would not mean much. But, well, deleting description isn't always the answer. Even with a sentence as crappy as my sample.

Theresa

Edittorrent said...

@Murphy -- "Puffy" is one of my favorite insult words, thanks to Entourage. E called Vince Vaughn a puffy motherfucker, and thus anointed that word forever. So, yeah, I had to pull it out for my craptastic sample sentence. *ggg*

Theresa

writeidea said...

She hunched over and examined the purple heather. To her exhausted eyes, it appeared to pulse and glow, but the illusion might only be a reflection from the exotic sunset.

em said...

I love this!

The lush purple heather glowed faintly crimson under the puffy clouds of the pink-and-orange sunset.

@ Theresa and Murphy, LOL! I don't mind puffy. Craptastic and hokie doodle? Priceless!:)

Jami G. said...

Em,

I can't even tell you how many sayings from this blog have seeped into my real life - crapatolla, mantasy, craptastic, etc. LOL! We should have an edittorrent dictionary...

Murphy,

Hallelujah! I proclaim you cured of the "over-describing" virus. LOL! Seriously, your sentence was great, but your reasons for not including things were priceless (the Rapper name? Hysterical!).

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

@writeidea
I really like the way you made it about the character -- the emotional state, the interpretation of the landscape. This is a strong way to incorporate description.

Theresa

Karennina said...

She stared, unseeing, at the heather glowing crimson under the burning sky.

Stella Omega said...

With a nod to Tolkein or maybe Peake...

The heather was purple in the shadows and crimson where it caught the glow of that striated sunset; but, though she walked in lush fields, she saw only the arid lands she had left behind.

Whirlochre said...

Sunlight struck the heather, stunned her with a bruise-purple smack.

Probably only makes any sort of sense if you've read the original sentence.

Falen said...

hmm i dunno. Something more along the lines of

The orange sunset transformed the lush heather to crimson under the tinted clouds.

Meh, still needs work, but i like it better than the original. That one had too many colors, which rendered them all meaningless.

Murphy said...

What can I say,Theresa? You bring out the best in me. :D

Lyrics of the Rap Masta A.K.A Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man: I’m stealing the great beginning from the Lieutenant on American Idol. :D

When your pants fall down and they’re on the ground,
No need to mutter we got the fluff-n- nutter.
You can eat your fill - don’t mess your grill,
Taste that marshmallow you greedy fellow!

When your pants fall down and they’re on the ground,
No need to mutter we got the fluff-n- nutter.
I won’t call you puffy - but it might be a toughie
As your pants don’t fit - you annoying little shit!

When your pants fall down and they’re on the ground,
No need to mutter we got the fluff-n- nutter.
You can eat it naked or take the time and fully bake it,
Some may say you’re a sucker - but ain’t that better than T’s shout out: puffy mutherfucker?


Stay-Puft- (tinted yellow with old age) Marshmallow Man- Rap- Monsta - OUT!

Dave Shaw said...

Murphy, dear, didn't you get the memo? The goal is to get rid of rap, not make it better! LOL

MitMoi said...

What a surprise. The spring desert was lush in its purple heather skirts.

Our day ended with a pink-and-orange sunset. The puffy clouds glowing faintly crimson. If only my ball gown could match such striped splendor.

em said...

I agree with Dave!

Murphy, I'm ROTFLMAO as usual!:)

Leona said...

Okay, I had to do the exersice before reading the comments or I would chicken out. I tell you, Murphy intimidates the hell out of me.

The lush heather glowed under the dying day. The sunset turning the purple to crimson blood as the orange and pink rays reflected off the innocent clouds. She contemplated the symbolism as she absorbed the day’s end into her being.

I'm definitely in a morbid mood. Time to kill off a few more characters. Also, I'm in need of a good critique partner. I have a lot of good books that need a fresh eye and my husband has procrastinated long enough that I don't believe he's going to do it :( Major bummer cuz he's very good at it.

Leona said...

LMAO Now I've read the comments and it's hilarious!! Murphy, your descriptions are delightful (okay, tongue in cheek here LOL).

Seriously, the struggle to define and give voice to a craptastic sentence is bringing some colorful characters to the forefront.

I learn something from everyone trying, not just a few. BTW, here in Central Washington, our sunsets are often "striped" to the naked eye. It's as if each ray of sun has collected a different prism and decided to display it. With the mountain back drop, it is visually stunning. If you have never seen one, I can see where the striped image would be confusing and hard to imagine.


Back to the drawing puffy clouds :P JK my couds are artistic and visually interesting.

writeidea said...

Thanks Theresa. Blush.

Jordan McCollum said...

@Theresa—That's actually my point. The description you mention serves a purpose. This description doesn't (as you mention, especially not in isolation), and frankly, I'm not convinced it can (Murphy's efforts notwithstanding ;) )—possibly because it's more concerned with listing as many colors as possible and less with any significance beyond painting a picture without any specific meaning to the character or the reader.

But this is also because it's not from a story. (We hope.)

Leona said...

@Jordan - I decided to rwrite mine with a purpose. Did you get that from my example? That maybe there's more you need to read?

I think Theresa wanted us to take that craptastic sentence and make it worth reading, if possible. LOL