Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Just Because Nobody Can Understand Anything You Say..."

Huh... I believe I might be detecting an ongoing theme in my art. 's funny, it's not until I saw my Picasa page that I realized how obsessed with bones I am.

Mmm. Greasy delicious bones.

Well, I seem to see a pattern shaping up. I've written about dialog, I've written about plot. Now it's time to tackle prose.

When I tackled plot I confessed that I didn't have any real talent for storytelling. Prose is different. I'm good at prose. You may not know this since the prose here on the blog shuffles around barefoot wearing a pair of grease-stained sweatpants but I have a real knack for putting words together. Writers have commented on it, editors have commented on it, it's just the way it is. Please don't hate me for it. And please don't hate me for writing about style in my shitty internet prose.

When someone in my last writing class asked me how to sharpen their prose I was at a bit of a loss. And since then I've been thinking about how I'd really like to have answered that question. Here's a tentative start.

First off, you need to scout out the territory. You need to get a feel for how other people use words and you have to experiment with your own use of words. Here are some ideas to get you started.

You have to start with words. You have to really get a feel for the way words sound on their own. You have to understand what they mean. And it doesn't hurt to have some idea as to how the words came into being, what languages they come from, what the meaning of their root words are. I'm not an expert here by any means -- but what I do know frequently influences my decision as to what word to use where.

If you're at all unclear about a word then look it up -- and read the entire entire definition, including the etymology, related words, etc. When you go to the dictionary don't just jump in and out -- always take a few minutes to wander around and gather stray knowledge. It accumulates.

Of course words do not act alone. So the next thing to do is to read and study poetry, quotes, aphorisms, anecdotes, one-liners, etc. In these miniature formats the relationships between individual words are much more important than they are in prose. Read books of quotations and see how the great writers and speakers of English have handled phrases and sentences. How is meaning conveyed? How is emotion conveyed? Tone and atmosphere? How do a few words strung together tell us something deep about the nature of the person who wrote them?

Then write some poetry. I'm not a big fan of poetry and I'm not very good at writing it. But if I hadn't spent a good chunk of time reading and writing poetry my prose wouldn't be as fine and flexible as it is. Poetry is one of the best whetstones upon which to sharpen your blade. Read it slowly and savor the words and how they work together.

Write some aphorisms -- take an observation or a belief you hold and express it in a single sentence where meaning and grace are inextricably linked. Then write it another way and see if it works better. Do it again.

Write sentences of description -- how can you give the reader the object of your description as clearly as possible? Try describing the same things from two different perspectives -- in one you should focus on technical accuracy, in the other on evocation.

Describe a rock with so much precision that an artist could draw it recognizably from your description. Use your words to construct a diagram. Then describe the same rock (or sandwich or street scene or whatever) in a fashion intended to invoke in the reader the same emotional state or aesthetic reaction you had when you were looking at it. Or holding it. Or tasting or smelling it. Or throwing it at someone's car.

When it comes to longer pieces the only people who have the same passionate obsession with words as poets do are humorists. May I suggest spending some time with these writers -- S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Roy Blount Jr., Mark Leyner, and most especially Brian O'Nolan writing as Myles na gCopaleen. (Dorothy Parker you should be reading for poetry and one-liners, although her mean criticism is pretty damned good. Not to downplay her fiction -- it just falls out of the scope of this discussion.) Just reading his Catechism of Cliche will make you a better writer, guaranteed.

The reason for this is that humor demands precision if it is to work. Humor, as I've said in another essay, isn't a genre. It's an emotion, a reaction. A mental state. You know how some people can tell jokes and some people can't? Most of it comes down to timing. You need to hit a certain verbal and conceptual rhythm if you're gonna get someone to laugh -- humorists hit that rhythm with words and that takes skill. And that kind of skill rubs off.

Of course you should be reading as much good writing of all varieties as you can -- fiction, non-fiction, journalism, science, etc. -- but quotations, poetry, and humor are going to give you the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to improving your prose.

Now for a few principals. They didn't start with me -- but they're hoary old chestnuts because they're true. They're really, really true.

Say things as simply and directly as you can. This doesn't mean that everything you write should be simple and direct, though. If you need to write something obsure and convoluted get to it -- but do not make it any more obscure and convoluted than it absolutely has to be to deliver your message. Make things as minimal as you can while preserving your intended meaning to the full. (He yelled.)
One of those never-ending lessons is learning how to minimize the number of words you use. I'm still finding words and phrases used from habit in my work and when I remove them it makes for better prose.

And I'll go further then that. When my observational drawing skills are running hot I'll find myself looking at a phrase not as a verbal construct but as a visual one -- literally seeing the phrase on the page as a shape rather than a set of words -- and I'll know that the phrase in question takes up too much space for the meaning it conveys. You may not be able to do this but you can always ask yourself, "Is this phrase/word/sentence justified by the meaning it carries? Is there any way to reduce the amount of space it takes up on the page?"

Avoid modifiers as much as possible. Simple verbs and nouns are your friends -- adverbs are the enemy and adjectives are asshole friends, the kind you like even though they get you into trouble.

Never use adverbs for anything other than humorous effect -- and understand that modifier-heavy humor has become a cliche, particularly on the internet. It's fun to write, fun to read, and there are too damned many people working that side of the street. If a word ends in -ly regard it with grave suspicion. Instead, find the right verb. Don't make someone move quickly when they can run.

Minimize the use of adjectives. This isn't as hard and fast as the rule on adverbs but the same basic principal applies -- rather than using one word to modify another, find the proper word in the first place.

Now here's one that's open to debate. I would love to be the guy who really rocks his vocabulary, who regularly and cheerfully sends the reader off to the dictionary. That guy is a hero of mine.

But my time in writer's groups and classes has beaten that tendency right out of me -- and I think my writing's the better for it. Here's an example from an upcoming story of mine.

I initially described the attack of a flying creature as a 'stoop.' This is the precise term for what the creature was doing -- when a bird of prey folds its wings and drops onto its victim, that is a stoop. Everyone corrected it to 'swoop.' Because they sucked. Fucking ignorant troop of myopic mandrills.

But when I described the physical act rather than use the technical term it brought the passage to life -- and it made me realize that it's not a matter of simply using the smallest number of words, it's hitting that sweet spot where intended meaning and phrasing coincide.

And something that I've recently become aware of is the gerund. A gerund is a word modified by the -ing suffix. Work, working. Only use gerunds when they allow you the most graceful available phrasing -- and never ever use them in an action scene.

And, finally, here's a little story. When I was nineteen or twenty a friend of mine once got really, really mad at me and said something I think about every single time I sit down to write...

"Just because nobody can understand anything you say doesn't mean you're smart!"

Words to live by.


Deborah Kuchar said...

Sean, this is a really great post. I think you are a good teacher.

Your insight into humor is excellent, I learned a lot.

In particular I liked the points you made throughout like being succinct, the visual aspect of space on paper, the demon modifier, being 'in it' with a descriptive write, and how we can all be generous with ourselves as we learn to be better writers.

robp said...

Re. modifiers - I forget where I read it, but someone for whom English asked "What is the meaning of the word 'very'? It doesn't seem to mean anything. If something is very pretty, it is pretty."

Basically, don't use adjectives that don't say anything. If you're trying to be more precise, 'very' doesn't help; you need a whole new phrase.

Re. rocking vocab: the early works of T. Coraghessan Boyle used to send me to the dictionary pretty often. My reaction varied, because I really liked his writing but sometimes it felt like he was showing off. If you want to write cliffhanger chapters though, read some of that stuff, especially Water Music.

Or, vocab dude, in your novel you use the word 'voluptuous' correctly to mean something that I don't think of it as meaning; I didn't mark it in my line edits because it was correct, but there is always the possibility that you're taking a reader out of the story when you use a word's less familiar meaning. This is where workshopping can come in handy; if too many people have a reaction that you're not anticipating, it's time to look at your target audience and decide whether to change what you've written or change who you're showing it to.

Sean Craven said...

Thanks, Deborah! Maybe when I get a big stack of this stuff together I'll do a rewrite and post 'em or publish 'em.

Rob, you're spot on. Damnit, I guess I'll have to change that 'voluptuous' but at the same time part of me feels as if I'm dumbing things down and contributing to the overall rising tide of stupidity. Maybe if I get to the point where I've got a solid audience I'll start making them look shit up.

Anonymous said...

"'s not a matter of simply using the smallest number of words, it's hitting that sweet spot where intended meaning and phrasing coincide."

Sean, this is the stuff of epiphanies...

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Doeba, you know you were the intended audience for this one!

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