Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who is teaching this stuff?

Sometimes Theresa and I will consult on some odd prose thingy that has suddenly popped up in nearly every submission we get, and one of us will say, "Who is teaching this stuff?" That's because whenever many submissions have some feature that we don't actually see in many published books, we suspect (perhaps wrongly) that there's some influential teacher or editor or agent or big name writer who suggested this in some interview or class, and the suggestion has bounced from writer to writer, critique group to critique group, and suddenly half the writers out there have added this whatever to their voice arsenal.

Maybe that's unfair. Maybe every writer who uses this independently and simultaneously developed it. Maybe every single one of them just developed their voice in that direction. I don't know. Maybe a whole bunch of writers just got a blast from their muse: "Start half your sentences with present participles! It's variety!"

But I think someone is teaching these things.

This year I'm getting a bunch of submissions with doubled terms, usually predicates.
She spoke, muttered, "Get out of my sight."
The cat jumped, leaped for the window.

But I'm also seeing this in modifiers:
He moved quickly, rapidly.
Her face was red, pink with frustration.

A few thoughts here:
1) A teacher of course should never say, "Don't learn from others," so I won't say that. I also won't say, "Voice can't be taught," though I think that's true-- voice can't be taught, but it can be refined and developed, and certainly the input and wisdom and example of others can help with that.
However, whatever you learn and apply should be something that fits your voice, that helps (especially the Almost There writers who have already developed skills at plotting and characterization) individualize your voice in an attractive way. That actually is not likely to be the same thing that a hundred other writers are suddenly using-- how can you individualize your voice if you're doing the same thing everyone else is doing? So when someone passes on some cool new prose thing, really examine whether it fits in with your voice, whether your voice is evolving in that direction. Some prose innovations really don't go with some voices.
If, for example, you like to replicate the character voice, well, really, does it make sense that ALL your characters would suddenly start talking and thinking with this new construction?
Or if you have a rather formal voice, is it likely a NEW trend is going to be formal?
Or if you have a casual, conversational voice, is this new trend going to fit that? I doubt it, because most of these trends tend to lead to rather arcane and artificial constructions which are not going to be conversational-- they are more "writerly".

So just consider that a prose trend from a spam email sent to every writer in the world (I'm figuring that's how it gets transmitted: "To My Beloved Writter" heading: "Dear one. I am Sir Justice Legatt, the literary Executor for the esteemed Late Mrs. Louise Backover, the Nobel Prize Winning Writer. When she died last year of a Broken Heart, she left in my trust a manuscript that is certain to earn $1oooooo. I was given your name as a distinguished author who might be looking for a partnership....") isn't likely to be appropriate for your voice.

2) Think about how this came into your ken. If in fact you evolved this all by yourself (and do think about this, because, as I said, these little memes tend to come from writers in clumps, and they probably all think they came up with this themselves), then I say, go with it. It might not end up being something that you actually add to your repertoire, but your voice will always benefit from your own experimentation and innovation. But experimentation, of course, means fiddling with the use, the placement, the construction, and figuring out what works and when. A good voice comes from sensitivity, and that means being selective. Just because it's cool in this paragraph doesn't mean it'll be cool on every page. :)

3) If you realize you got this from an outside source (and that's great-- that's a way to learn... I got my love of parentheticals from CS Lewis, and I figure, hey, if it was cool in Narnia, it will be cool for me too) and you kind of like this phrasing or trend or whatever it is, do a bit of evaluation. First, I'd say, if this is such a clever thing, it probably should be showing up in published work too. Buy some of the latest books by newer authors in your sub-genre and see if it shows up at all there. Now of course, you don't just want to do what the published books do, you want to be fresh and unique and all that. But really, YOU should supply the freshness and uniqueness by how you use this thingy. It's a good idea to remind yourself of that, so you don't think merely using this is in and of itself fresh.

But anyway, if you don't see it anywhere in newly published work, it could be because it really is fresh. Or it could be because published authors don't think it's that cool. Or it could be that they do think it's that cool but the editor yanked it all out. It's sort of like when you're in high school and you get that issue of InStyle or Seventeen and there's this cute model in a kicky outfit, you know, just a long purple sweatshirt over long john pants, the white thermal waffle-weave type (that make anyone over 16 look like she has thunder-thighs), and you decide you simply have to wear that. And you go to school the next day and half the girls are dressed just like that, in which case you feel sort of un-unique and realize they too all got their issue of Seventeen in the mail yesterday, or you pull on those long john pants and waltz off to school and NO ONE is wearing it, and in fact, the most fashionable girl in your class studies you through her lorgnette (this high school is in Regency London ), and says in that languid way, "Did you forget to put on your ski bibs?" and you know that in fact this really isn't a trend everyone loves. And somewhere in your soul you think maybe they're right that this isn't all that awesome a look.

Well, if you never or almost never see this thingy in published work, it could be because no one has ever thought of it before. Or it could be because it's really not that awesome.

4) Hey, maybe it is that awesome! Maybe the languid girl puts down her lorgnette and asks if you want to sit at her table at lunch. But are you going to wear the long sweatshirt and the long johns every day from now on? Even in May? Even to the senior prom? Even when the trend has changed from sporty to girly? Even when your breasts grow bigger and the sweatshirt gets too tight (which impresses the boys, but not Her Lorgnette)?

As an editor or reader, I probably wouldn't notice or highlight or laugh at one use of this awesome device. And if it really works in a context, I might even admire it and invite you to sit at my lunch table. But we notice and decry all these thingys because they are overused, to the point that they become a joke. Yes. Okay, it's not a FUNNY joke, but editor jokes aren't usually funny. They're more rueful. Really, I wouldn't bother worrying about a couple lines where you've doubled the predicate. Maybe I'll figure you have a good reason I'm too tired to puzzle out. Maybe I figure I should just trust you. Maybe I'll think that you're a good stylist and you know your audience and they'll like this even if I'm not blown away. Maybe I'll be blown away. But if I see this same thingy fifty times in your 200 pages, well, I'll start wondering what the heck this is doing in this action scene when you just used it in the introspection for another POV character, and is it really effective in both instances, plus the other 48?

5) Certain prose stylings draw attention to themselves. (Sudden "bursts" of unattributed dialogue at the start of scenes, say. Stacked modifiers. ) That's good occasionally, but if you do it too often, you might be dragging the reader's attention away from the story. That's a big difference, I think, between literary fiction and popular fiction. Nowadays, literary fiction is often more about the presentation, and you can see the appreciation for sentences and metaphors in the reviews, which often quote these. But in popular fiction, I think if someone says, "That's a fabulous metaphor on page 22," it's sort of saying, "I was so caught by that metaphor I stopped reading the story." That's not to say you can't have great sentences and metaphors in popular fiction, or that pop fic writers can't be great stylists-- but I do think they have to be more stealthy about it. The pop fic writer can obsess about technique as long as he remembers always that the pop fic reader is more interested in the story. Anything that adds to the experience of the story will be good. But "kill your darlings" is good advice when you find yourself frequently using very clever prose thingys that draw the reader's eye and stop the reading.

And repetition doesn't make reading this a more pleasant experience. After the third or fourth doubled predicate, the reader will really start noticing. And she won't notice the way the protagonist is dealing with the conflict, she'll notice the doubled predicate and think, "Don't regard and study mean about the same thing? So why does she put both there?"

You don't want the reader stepping away from your story to wonder at your word choice.

6) Using these thingys could actually keep you from finding or creating your own voice. That's an important determination-- what do you sound like? What do you want to sound like? What's right for this book? What's right for this character?
To tell you the truth, sometimes I get a submission and I can highlight five or six of these trendy thingys, oh, right, this one is from the late lamented "duh" offsides trend; and she must have picked this rhetorical question meme last year when it was going around; oh, yeah, there's the list of brandnames-- she stole that one from DeLillo-- and yep, right on schedule, here's the one-word paragraph thing-- ayee, it burns, it burns.... That is, some submitters have "voices" that are mostly a collections of clever thingys they picked up the last few years. Those are not your voice. Your voice is your unique way of presenting your story. Don't ever forget that.

7) Don't forget that editors constantly have to consider factors you don't generally have to consider when you're drafting. For example, you might think that one-sentence paragraphs are kind of cool and make the prose seem really active (I don't think that, far from it, so please don't ever send me a scene full of these barbarisms). You might think it really enlivens the scene. You might not think at all, I don't know. But anyway, you send it off to Ernie Editor at Big Print Publisher Books. Ernie sees all that white space and thinks, "This is like 50,000 words, but 350 pages in manuscript. Be about the same in print. No way!"

Paper costs-- a lot, these days, and of course, multiply that by X number of copies printed, plus the additional binding cost. No editor is going to want to explain to his boss why this book is going to take almost twice as many sheets of paper as the usual 50K-word book.

"But I'm sending this to an electronic press," you protest. "They don't have to worry about paper!" No, but put yourself in the mind of a customer. The editor has to do that.
What would the reader think? Okay, let's say this isn't one of the MOST readers who would get really crabby at so many one-sentence paragraphs. Let's say this is just a reader who likes to read, and she spent $5 on this novel, and she's done reading it in two hours, and she thinks, gee, that wasn't much book for $5. There are a lot of other books which feel deeper and longer for the same cost. Why did this book feel so thin? Oh, right. Look at all that white space.

Some thingys are good. Some thingys are best in moderation. Some thingys bring up all sorts of considerations you need to consider if you want to publish with many publishers.

Another example-- Some writers like to put in a lot of cusswords, especially when they're in a man's POV. I see this a lot lately. A whole lot. I was thinking of investing in Dial soap because there are a lot of fictional fellas who need their mouths washed out. Maybe you think this is good-- that's the way this guy would think. Okay. But what if the line you're aiming at is a bit more sedate? What if the editor is religious or prim (or her boss is)? As you write, you might not have to consider that, but audience primness is something you might consider when you submit.

8) If you still kind of like those long johns (yes, really, this was a trend among my students a few years back, only, horrors, they'd wear long board shorts over the long johns, so we got to appreciate these layers: Sweatshirt. Knee length baggy saggy shorts. Long johns. Doc Marten boots), think about why. Evaluate. Let's say that you like the stutter step rhythm and the nuance that comes from doubling the predicate or modifier. Okay. Then please, use it. But use it where it works, and --because it's distinctive and distinctively annoying in repetition-- use it only when it really adds to the passage, when you want that stutter step rhythm. (And trust me, you do NOT want it always.)

Then don't assume because it works here, that any combination of two predicates will work here. It's not the doubling of predicates that works, it's this particular sentence that has the doubling using these particular predicates. So what the words are will matter. Be judicious here. For example, the most annoying for me is when you have two close synonyms, either one (but not both) of which could work:
He climbed, clambered up the wall.

Come on. That's like saying "roast beef in au jus sauce." He climbed, climbed. Are you really sure you want to present that to a cynical, jaded editor?

Another annoyance is when the second word kind of contradicts the first one:
Her face flushed red, pink.

Red and pink are two different colors. If her face is flushing red, what happens to make it pink? Does it first flush red and then dull to pink? If so, why not say so? If you mean she flushed sort of between red and pink, well, first, how important is the exact color? And if the exact color is important, why not name the exact color? Rose? Deep pink?

But... this is actually something I myself do occasionally. The "arcane and artificial" above actually started as "arcane, artificial," but I changed it to make a point. If you can put "and" between them -- NOT "or"-- and it makes sense because 1) they're not the same and 2) they're not contradictory, maybe the construction (sans the "and") can work... but you want to have a good reason not to use the "and" (like these are adjectives before the noun, or the rhythm is right for the passage).

Here's a passage by a master of this construction (Faulkner). Do NOT try this at home-- this is a short sentence for him. :)
Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now-the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times.

See how each of those three doubled phrases do something different.
the South, the deep South
This is an elaboration, a qualification. I grew up in Virginia, which is "the south, but not the deep South," and I really understood that. It's conversational -- "I grew up in the South, not the deep South"-- but it also makes the point that the deep South is something special, something apart, within the greater South.
garrulous outraged baffled ghosts
This is my favorite phrase ever, I think. It gets its weight from an accumulation of modifiers there, but notice that each adjective is very different without being contradictory. I can just imagined these ghosts who just keep talking about how mad they are and puzzled by their deadness and the deadness of the deep South after the war. "That's not fair! I can't believe it! How did that happen?" And that capstone word ghosts. Wow. No repetition, but no contradiction either-- just an accumulation of traits so when you get to the end, you know exactly what he means.
listening, having to listen,
Here, the doubled predicates! And you might say, "Hey, that's really redundant-- listen/listen." But it's not listen/listen. It's listen/have to listen. There's a deepening of meaning there, as if the character is correcting himself, and the correction itself shows the process. He starts out just listening, but pretty soon, he can't stop listening. He has to listen. He doesn't have a choice but to listen.

So maybe:
He climbed, slipped and grabbed hold again.
He climbed, scrambled up the rock face.
Or (this is a good place for a participle!):
He climbed, scrambling up the rock face.
Her face flushed first red, then a dull pink as she realized what he meant.

I'd be especially careful with words that are close synonyms. Maybe they create nuance, or maybe they just confuse. "Do you mean climbed, or clambered? Choose one!"

That is, analyze what you mean here. Make the sentence mean what you want it to mean. Don't fall so in love with some thingy that you forget that what matters is the meaning.

Remember your voice or your character's voice isn't any one of these thingys. Voice is far more than the strewn cussword or the repetitive use of a particular construction. And if your voice is going to suffer a whole lot because you take out 90% of the doubled predicates, or have them only in action scenes, well, I think the problem is that you don't have a really strong voice there, and you need to work on that, and you don't get a strong voice by following trends. You have to know yourself and know your story and, yes, know what works and doesn't work in prose, and for that, you know, the best teachers are books you love, especially books you love that are in the sub-genre you're targetting, not
me or Literary Executor Legatt.

"Mrs. Backover left in my trust five extremely literarily impressive thingys, and I would like to pass them on to a trusted member of the writing environment. You are that person. If you will deposit $42112 into this account, I will forward you these valuable thingys."



Laura K. Curtis said...

My own problem--and if anyone has a hint on how to find instances of this in my work so I can decide whether I want to keep them or not--is alliteration. I think it's my own voice in that I don't notice it anywhere and I am not certain I always want it, so I don't do it deliberately on someone else's say-so, but I know I do it often!

Laura K. Curtis said...

Oh, yeah, and I HATE HATE HATE when I see on a menu "roast beef with au jus."

Edittorrent said...

Alliteration? Why, what's wrong with that?

We should identify "our darlings." Mine are alliteration and parentheticals.

Then again, I never say, "Pie a la mode with ice cream." :)


Valerie Geary said...

Great article! Thanks!

Jordan said...

This is still a problem? (Proof I've been hanging out here too long: ).

I suppose these must not be the same people reading this blog.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I tell you, if an editor I might submit to had a blog, I'd read that before submitting. So I'm with you, Jordan.

Yes, this problem is getting WORSE. I'm seeing it in most submissions. And it doesn't get better with familiarity. :0

Edittorrent said...

I'm seeing more of it, too. "And" is not a four-letter word!


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I love alliteration, too. I got one crit that complained I use it tooooo much -- I had to go search for it to see what she meant. I hadn't even noticed.

Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now-the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times.

Oh, no! I thought Murphy wrote that.

Anonymous said...

There is no "too much" with alliteration!!!!

Okay, Deb, confess, how many alliterates have you had in one sentences? I once had 5.


Anonymous said...

I admit, I'm a fan of alliteration too.

I think I'd picked up a thingy from a few published writers - the dreaded PPP (start a sentence with "variety"). I've no doubts I'm the one who miscontrued its proper usage. Until I found this blog :)

Thankfully, I'm not guilty of your examples. I find doubled phrases a jarring read (and so not natural to write), unless it's like Faulkner. Exquisite quote BTW.

My thingy I will be looking at in my MS when I type "the end" (very soon!), is echoing. It might be getting a beating. I need to check if it's a good one or a bad one!

Jami Gold said...


To answer your question on one count, yes, I was actually officially taught to start sentences with PPPs to vary sentence structure. And yes, the instructor's examples had him using them every other sentence. I think that's the worst of my old habits. But luckily, I can un-learn something as quickly as I learn it. :) I thank you for your corrective lessons.

This same instructor told us to start every chapter/scene with dialogue too. :) (I think his point there was to emphasis starting with a scene.) I just have to remind myself that because he was wrong about these things doesn't mean that he was wrong about everything (his plotting and emotional arc lessons are still entirely valid).

And am I the only one that reads the Faulkner thing and has a hard time understanding why that's considered good writing? Or is it just that it's Faulkner? It doesn't create any kind of image or idea in my head, just a "huh?" Maybe it would make sense in context, but I seriously doubt I could make it through a whole book of sentences like that. :)

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia says:
You have to know yourself and know your story and, yes, know what works and doesn't work in prose, and for that, you know, the best teachers are books you love, especially books you love that are in the sub-genre you're targetting, not me or Literary Executor Legatt.

I like this because if you read the books you love, there might be something in those pages, or character voice, or dialogue, that you don't like, and if you're paying attention, you can figure out that dislike and correct it - making your prose closer to your own voice. It might be a repetitive phrase, or a systematically placed fragment block, or whatever. The point is, if you notice this, so have other readers, and you're probably not the only one who's been annoyed in the reading process. As a writer, I think this is where you can stand alone in your work. It’s one thing to emulate great writing, in tone and style, but it’s another to be able to spot the weakness in those we love (we’re so forgiving, aren’t we?) and learn from them.

Deb says:
Oh, no! I thought Murphy wrote that.

:D I know what it was that made you think of me. The second you read the phrase garrulous outraged baffled ghosts my name popped right into your head, right?


PJD said...

The doubling up sounds like it came from cable TV news.

Eva Gale said...

And is NOT a dirty word. Thank you.

Now, see, I have a love affiar with And. Recently my story got disemboweled of ands. TO ME it sounded like someone was lead on the gas then slamming on the brakes. *shrugs* I signed up for it, though and so I'm chopping them. *sniff* No more than three clauses and a conjunction. *sniff sniff*

Alicia said...

Rachel, what do you mean by "echoing"? I think I do that too. Too. Too. :)


Pauline Allan said...

Thank you for the wonderful information. I like to write prose and I'm trying to learn to put the single line statements in the mix. That style seems to be very popular in the books and novellas I read. I do feel cheated if I purchase a book that has too many in there. I feel better knowing that I don't have to throw a bunch of those in my work just because it seems to be the trend right now.

Dave Shaw said...

Oh, crap! She's figured it out. Hmm, how do you feel about 'Writing Professor MacNamara' as a replacement for 'Literary Executor Legatt'? Gotta subvert the competition somehow... >:-D

Ladies, would you mind going back to the things I screw up, rather than what everyone else does wrong? Hehe.

alicia said...

pjd, yes, it does sound like the news! I notice they often use -ing verbs instead of real verbs:
"The GDP rising at an impressive rate. The Broncos winning at home."

I used to (blush) write Tom Brokaw and complain about his tendency to do this. I bet he's glad I have a blog and don't have to rant at him anymore.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I like, love this post!

Its super, rad kewl.
Knowing it was coming, I would have been less garrulous outraged baffled lately.


Anonymous said...

Alicia, LOL!

Seriously, in my head I'm calling it "echoing" but I'm sure it's simply my imagination or my ignorance :)

I tend to echo a word or two through a paragraph. Whilst this may not be a problem, if I do it too much, it might become annoying for the reader. So I do need to check it when I come to edit/polish. For an example (BTW a raw, first draft example), this is what I mean:

The metal of the blade burned with a deep etching, like hot dying embers of a fire. It was not a blinding glow, and yet it bewitched his eyes. For in the glow, he could clearly see two dragons intertwined. Beyond the dragons, in the depths of the intense orange glow of the blade, he gazed in bewildered astonishment as a barrage of energy strikes raced toward him.

Here I echo "glow" and "deep"/"depths".

Does that make sense?