YOU, my friend, are 100% Canadian! You are what
Canadians are all about! (and that's about. not
a boot.) You, my friend, are AWESOME!
How Canadian Are You?
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Well, that shocked nobody. Maybe if my politics become sufficiently unpopular here south of the 49th, they'll take me in a refugee. I can see it now, huddled over the kerosene stove in a threadbare toque, barely warming my hands, slurping a cold double-double and forking Pacific wild salmon from a can in the vast refugee tent camps of Manitoba...
...man, that would suck. Except for the salmon.
Best question: "What's the capitol of Canada?"
(There's a trick to the quiz, by the way; it's rigged. jmeadows figured it out. Shhh.)
shawn_scarber was kind enough to drop me an email yesterday asking about something I'd said a while back about teaching myself sentence-level craft, or what we call in the business, "writing pretty." (Usage: "Gee, that nineweaving, she sure writes pretty.")
NB: Pretty writing doesn't have to be flowery. It can also be vivid, muscular, thoughtful, heartbreakingly plain. It can be baroque or it can be straightforward. Terse or tender. Heck, at its very best, it's all of these by turns.
So, here goes.
The bad news is, we call it sentence-level craft, but it's not, really. What it is, in simplest definition, is the Lost Art Of Rhetoric.
(Repeat after me:
The Player: We're more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive, but we can't give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. We're all blood, you see.
Rosencrantz (or Guidenstern): Is that what people want?
The Player: It's what we do. )
Right. Now that we have that sorted out. Okay, what's rhetoric? Yay! I'm glad you asked.
Okay, now that we've got that cleared up, go fix yourself a stiff drink, if you're a drinking type, or a stiff cup of tea, if you're not, or a cool glass of seltzer with lime, if you're off the caffeine, too. Got what you need to keep you happy?
Good. Come on in. Settle down.
Now, you'll notice that most of those definitions have something in common; they mention persuasive writing. Now you may say, if you're not an essayist, "but I don't want to persuade anyone of anything." Well, my friend, that's where you're wrong.
You want to persuade the reader to keep reading your story. And that doesn't matter if you're a fanfiction writer, or a short story writer sending off your first sub to a semipro rag like the one I slush for, or a novelist with a stack of major awards under her belt. (Or on her mantelpiece, if you prefer.)
And as a fiction writer, your job is to entertain.
That's it. Just entertain. That's what keeps him reading, this nefarious and oh-so-slippery reader type. If he's enjoying what you do, he'll keep reading. And you can do all those other fun things you like to do, such as edify, inform, delight, enlighten, and explore. And convince, if you're a convincing-type writer.
Now we get to another problematic issue. As Velvet Brown said, (and I'm quoting from memory here, so bear with me if I get it wrong) "They're all tangled up together. You can't cut one clean." Which is to say, the sentence-level stuff (which we should probably call prose crafting, because sentences are really only part of it) blurs into things like sharply observed telling detail, and fabulous reality, and so forth.
But I'm not here to talk about fabulous reality today. I'm here to talk about crafting sharp memorable prose.
Basically, it's a matter of identifying and utilizing the tools. Problem number one. There's a lot of tools. There's stuff like meter and rhythm (which do matter in prose) and all the rhetorical tricks like assonance, consonance, rhyme, repetition, synecdoche, metonymy-- well, never mind, here's a list. So, one thing a writer needs to do to become a really powerful sentence-level writer is, learn how to use these things. Learn when and why and where and how they're appropriate.
But first, she needs to unlearn her bad habits. She needs to develop an ear for how the prose sounds, just as a musician needs to develop an ear for music. She needs to use vigorous verbs. She needs to learn what passive voice is for, and when it's her most potent weapon. She needs to learn misdirection and sleight of hand and she needs to learn the line between purple and plain, and how to work it. She needs to learn basic stuff like not chasing her tail, and not stepping on her own good lines, and how to use paragraph hooks and sentence hooks and breaks and flow and staccato and breathlessness and--
She needs to eliminate scaffolding and weasel words from her work. She needs to develop narrative urgency, which is such a mysterious thing that I can't even define it, except to say, when I finally got it, whatever it is, is when I started selling regularly. (I can explain how I got it, which was that I started thinking of every single sentence I wrote as a fractal of each scene--that every sentence had to do a number of things, it had to do work, in other words, and if it wasn't doing work--worldbuilding, developing character, or providing exposition--and in some way developing the tension of the book, which is to say, heightening it, resolving it, setting it up for a shift--in other words, if it didn't advance the plot in some measurable way, it came out. I have no room in my organization for words that are only doing one job.)
In other words, the first rule of sentence-level craft is:
Omit needless words! Omit needless words!
Now, here's an interesting thing. People read that to mean "omit nonessential words." But that's not what it says. The briefest way is not necessarily the best way, because all those other things--rhythm, muscularity, vigor, beauty--must be considered as well. Terse is not necessarily better. And moreover, if Strunk & White had meant "Omit nonessential words," they wouldn't have felt the need to say it twice, would they?
Right. Moving on. Okay, so "Omit needless words!" gets rid of the scaffolding, and the helping verbs that just get in the way of the action, and the weasel words, and the unnecessary prepositional phrases cluttering up your life, and so forth.
Another thing I did when I was learning this was tighten the POV. The POV, mind you, can be omniscient. But one thing that I did, that a lot of writers do, is use a lot of words to tell me what a character is feeling. "He felt her hand touch his hair." Generally, no. "Her hand grazed his hair." Better. Less scaffolding, stronger verb. And look at the verb--the word "grazed" has a suggestion of violence. That's a word that's doing a little extra work.
Efficiency is good.
Mark Twain had a few terse words to say about using the right word, not the almost-right word. (Actually, he had a few terse words to say about most everything.)
The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.
Use the right word. It saves you ten of the wrong ones.
As for the rest... except on a case-by-case basis, the answer is practice. Lots, and lots of practice. Because once the writer has assimilated those tools, she has to learn to use them. All together, all at once. Almost without thinking.
And it's hard. I mean, I've been doing this semiseriously, off and on, for the better part of two decades, and I still find things I've written that are just howlers. My God, bad. And I still learn new things about prose, and about sentence-level craft. And many people seem to think I write okay, these days.
Oh, one more thing. I suspect many if not most writers who get serious about prose will pass through a phase where all they can see is what's wrong in what they read. They'll want to rewrite every word. They'll go mad with power.
It passes. And then you get to the point where, if the other writer has any style at all, you start seeing all the cool things he is doing, and stealing them like mad. You'll start to get the hang of the tricks, and go, "Ah hah! Look at that verb! Look at that sentence of description! Damn, he made me feel the cold wet on those roof slates! Right ON, man!"
Because it is, after all, not about not doing things wrong. It's about doing things right.
That's what keeps them entertained. And persuaded to come back again.