Poets in Prose

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” ~ Charles Baudelaire

Rules for Writers #2: About “that” . . .

So, along with The Kiss of Death, or The Word Which Shall Not Be Named, there’s another insidious word which has crept gratuitously, and rather stealthily, into English usage.

That.

Yep.  Little thing, isn’t it? But you’d be AMAZED at the number of times it pops up in all kinds of written works.  Usually unnecessary, “that” does have a rightful place among words, just as does “to be”.  Just not after every phrase or before every verb.  I believe its prevalence in speech has given it unwonted purchase in print.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Just do me, and your readers, a favor.  After you’ve written anything, run a quick search and destroy for “that”.  You might be surprised at how many times that it appears. ;o)

That one feeling, you know?

Sometimes I get this feeling when I’m thinking about, well, stuff.  Something of nostalgia, something of insight, something of treasure.  Ephemeral, yet persistent.  I can recall its shadow at will, remembering what it felt like, but I can never (and I mean, never) summon back the thoughts and connections that conjured it.  It’s as if that feeling belongs to the company of my muse, and heralds her presence like a perfume.

What cues tell you its time to write? That what has come into your head isn’t yours to keep up there, but must be recorded or lost? Or have you captured the secret to recalling those flitting bits of inspiration so you can pursue them to completion?

Escape

“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Editing, or The Process of Not Insulting Your Readers

So, as I worked on my last post, tweaking and wordsmithing and deleting and shifting, I wondered to myself how it is that other writers edit.  Would it be interesting, helpful, whatever, to see what my posts begin like, and then what they end up as? A “Before and After” showcase?  I do quite a bit of editing as I write, (for example, I scratched the phrase “their stuff” just after it appeared after “other writers edit” in that first sentence), but I still do a lot afterward, as well.  I watch the use of conjunctions and juxtapositions, ruthlessly hunting down every word that doesn’t need saying.  But honestly, the culling thrills me.  Yes, it’s rather hard on word count . . . but the results shine as their own reward.

“It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)”

― Dr. Seuss

Maybe this works better in shorter works; articles or blogging rather than novels.  Then again, I’ve read novels written just that way. Nothing flabby, nothing redundant. Every word brought images to life or advanced plot.  Every. word.  I have a hard time reading novels (or whatever) with extraneous language.  (Remember the Kiss of Death? And “that”? Yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, and more.)  I don’t claim to always, in everything, write without a single extraneous word, but I do try.

And as for not insulting your readers, that’s most often done with extraneous language.  Or condescendingly repeating introductions/titles every time a name appears.  It’s possible to give the reader clues to identity without writing “Susie, her sister” every. time. Susie. appears.  Sisterly affection/rivalry could come into play, or knowing one another as only siblings can.  Poetry relies on associations to provide mountains of information with a few words. Good haiku does it every time.

The piercing chill I feel
my dead wife’s comb, in our bedroom
under my heel . . .

—Taniguchi Buson

And then there is William Carlos Williams’ apology.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And one of my ultimate favorites, Girl Help, by Janet Loxley Lewis.

Mild and slow and young,
She moves about the room,
And stirs the summer dust
With her wide broom.
In the warm, lofted air,
Soft lips together pressed,
Soft wispy hair,
She stops to rest,
And stops to breathe,
Amid the summer hum,
The great white lilac bloom
Scented with days to come.

 The next time you put quill to paper, remember these.  Remember to show your readers . . . start a movie reel in your mind, and describe what you see.  Don’t settle for “Julie cried.”

Try something like: “Julie swiped at her cheeks, leaving muddy, uneven trails that her tears tried to wash away.”

Or, in another story: “Julie closed her tear-blurred eyes, her chin rising of its own accord in strange contrast to her shoulders still shuddering in silent sobs.”

When you write, think of what your character is doing right then . . . imagine you’re describing the scene to the blind; after all, no reader is clairvoyant.  Or at least few enough of them to make vivid description necessary. ;o)

Now, your turn.  Tell me who you think Julie is in each of those . . . how old could she be? What situation might she be in? What might have just happened?

Lies speaking truth.

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.”

― Neil Gaiman

That quote has swirled in my mind ever since I read it early last week.  Eddying and flowing, it picked up old thoughts and conceptions, tossing them about like playthings, shaking loose their cobwebby respectedness, their longstanding honor of establishment.  And, as I sit here, eating a late lunch of Justin’s Hazelnut Chocolate nut butter by the spoonful, I can’t remember a single one of them.  That’ll teach me to let life sweep me so far into frenzied activity that I can’t reach the keyboard.

But the beauty of that paradox—lies that tell the truth, often in ways far more powerful than our own stories, our own experiences—follows me still.  It sheds its particularly-colored beam on my thoughts, illuminating and lending color.

Rules for Writers #1: “To Be” or The Kiss of Death

So, back in the day, I was an English Major at Brigham Young University in Provo. Truth be told, I’m still an English Major . . . but more on that later. Right now, I’ve got a rant on the brain, and I’m gonna share some of it.

Back in early July, I read Edenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson. A fantastic debut for those of us who love a good romance (where bodices stay intact), it stands as the first book I read, without duress, multiple times. Three times in about five days, I think. That kicked off a huge reading surge over the intervening days and weeks and months. Reading that much provided me with some interesting perspectives, and showed me some trends. It also allowed me to keep my mind (somewhat) off the fact that Julianne Donaldson is still months and months away from her next release. (Anybody else remember that old Mervyn’s commercial . . . “Open Open Open . . . “? Yeah. I’m so there.)

But, back to what I was saying . . . writing.  Yeah.

I love working with writers. I love writing my own stuff, but just as thrilling to me (or maybe more) is working with someone else to really dig deep and bring out the hidden images in their language, coming closer to really good writing . . . writing that pulls you in and weaves a spell you can’t explain. Stuff like Wendell Berry’s “You All Right?” from Fidelity. I’ll never forget the magic of the evening, the still, flooded forest, the flowers and stars in that story. And yet, when I went to read Vern the lines that caught me in that spell, I couldn’t find them. Berry’s writing slips past like a gentle breeze, all the while bringing you into a world of his making without you noticing. He’s a man I hope to meet someday.

But I digress. Again. Without further ado, here’s what I’d like to say to writers (especially of regency romance ebooks with low ratings):

In nearly all cases in storytelling, versions of the verb “to be” obscure meaning. “To be” hides the real action of the sentence elsewhere, pushing it into the background. It stultifies and distances, formalizes and diminishes. And it inflates word count. Elmore Leonard comes to mind: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” (I only wish I could skip this kind of stuff, instead of mentally rewriting it as I go.)  Truly rare are the sentences in which using “to be” cannot be avoided. Like that one. No, wait . . . let me think. Here: Only rarely will you find sentences truly requiring “to be”. I like the first one better, but it just goes to show you. The trick lies in skipping “to be” as much as possible, while avoiding stilted, stuffy writing. If your sentence can’t be restructured smoothly without “to be”, go back to your concept and rework it entirely. Here’s an example from one book* I read a couple months ago. I had to highlight these lines, so egregious did I find them:

“All was noise and confusion. Private carriages were coming and going, some of them being driven by coachmen and some being driven by dandified young gentlemen.”

My version:“Noise and confusion reigned. Private carriages came and went in a tumultuous stream, driven by coachmen or dandified young gentlemen.”

Now, I would really rather take the concept and tell it in a completely different way, but that stands as a good example of how easy one might evict that paralyzing verb. There are plenty of other examples. [Ahem] Examples abound. Maybe I should post some here, with reworked versions, just for kicks. (Writers = word geeks. ;o)

Now, that said, “to be” is, after all, a verb. Witness: I just used it. Again. Truly declarative writing suffers without it. It lays claim to a proper place in writing, but should NOT be strewn about, or used as the primary verb to declare past tense. Er . . . writers should not strew it about. (See what I mean, about hiding things? That time it hid the subject entirely, which was writers.) The book quoted above did so–the author used “to be” every chance she got possible chance. (“Got” is another sore spot with me, but I’ll save it for another post.) Not sure what her editor was thinking. Do ebook publishers even have editors or proofreaders that go over books before publication? They should. I should be one. ;o)

So, tune in next time for Rules for Writers #2: “That” or Crumbs in My Sheets.

*The book had a great story, and really likeable characters.  I just had a really hard time with the writing. It needed another round or two of reworking with a good writing coach.

** This post is a reworked version of something originally posted at my personal blog.

Not “to be”.

Over the weekend, I read a really cute, really fun, really uplifting romance novel.  (Review to come later, at GoodReads.  I’m Annalea over there, too. Never finding my name on a pencil or fake license plate for my bike has paid off in adulthood.)  I’m glad I wasn’t in a really picky, editorial mood, though.  The first four (eensy-weensy iphone 100-word) pages would have killed any desire to read further.

Why?

In those first pages, I encountered 29 instances of “was”.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  Twenty-nine of that verb in those first ~400 words.

And, added to those mind-numbing, soul-stealing, action-killing verbs, I tripped over 31 instances of “that”. (Yet another of my writerly pet peeves.)

I’ll write more, soon, on those two words. But in the meantime, please, puhlllllleeeeeeeasssssse, when you read over what you’ve written, whenever you see any form of “to be” or the word “that”, mark it in red, smack yourself upside the head, and look for the next one. When you’re done, go back to the beginning and rework the sentences so the verbs hidden by “was” or “is” step into the spotlight, and you slap every extraneous “that” right off the page.*

And as you do so, remember George Orwell’s Rule #6: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Thank you.  You may now return to your regularly-scheduled whatever.

*Even I have to watch myself carefully.  The end of that sentence first appeared as “and every extraneous “that” can be slapped right off the page”.  Do you see it?  “Be” steals the spotlight there, even though slapped still makes a pretty good bid for it.  It only took a little rearranging to exile that little passive bit and tighten things up.

The White Rhino

I’ve heard the blank page called that.  It stares you down, daring you to try something . . . and makes your efforts laughable once scribed on its hide, now black stripes on white.  Maybe writing is like that–transforming something belligerent and intimidating into something different entirely.  Rhino to Zebra . . . impression to image.

I often wonder if the rule of thousands holds in writing, too.  An artist once told me you have to paint a thousand bad paintings before you get one good one, as she finished a little watercolor of the marina and breakwater across from the sandy strip where our children played.  If the rule does apply, I’m awfully glad my materials are infinitely reusable.

As for my friend’s work, I wanted to beg her for that little picture . . . good or not, I thought it beautiful.  Obviously, my standard of success with paintings varies widely from hers.

What do you do to tackle the rhino?

How do you subdue him?

How successful are you?

How often do you write?

How often do you feel successful?

What are your measures of success?

The Novel as Seer

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” ― G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

This, my friends . . . this is what scares the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of most authors.  This is what stopped me from writing stories long, long ago. I saw too much of my own inexperience staring back at me.

So, what you gonna do about it?

Orwell’s List

Nearly every writer has a set of rules, personal or otherwise, they write by. While I can’t say I’ve really loved any of Orwell’s books, this list resonates with me.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

-George Orwell

Here’s to an end of barbaric writing. :)

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