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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

So I want to talk a little more about A Scattering of Jades, and what I think works and doesn't work in it on a prose level, and why. Poor Alex. He really doesn't deserve to be picked on this much, but I'm having some lessons majorly reinforced here, and I need to talk it out to get the benefit of it. Because my brain is funny that way.

I've picked out two passages from the middle of the book, one which I think exemplifies the problems I mentioned in the earlier entry, and the other of which I rather like and think works quite well.

Exhibit A:

"Bright sparks burst behind her eyes, and she slumped in his grasp, unable to resist as he dragged her farther into the trees. Through the ringing in her ears Jane heard another man crashing through the brush behind them. They came out into a level clearing and Jane tumbled to the ground. She tried to get up, but her head kept spinning her back to the ground."

There is absolutely nothing I like about this paragraph on a prose level. It's not bad. Not at all bad, really; there's nothing wrong with it. (Oh, the dreaded "there's nothing wrong with this.") But it's not good, either. It's not doing enough right.

Specifically, there is the problem of first- and second-order cliches. First order cliches are the ones they teach you in grammar school. "Red as an apple." "Quick as a flash." The one that catches my eye here is "Bright sparks burst behind her eyes...."

Okay, writing about pain is hard. We all know it. We all have to do it anyway. We're stuck with writing about pain; pain is a part of fiction. But it seems to me that I've read a combination of words very similar to this many times before. The blow, the bright sparks, the bursting, the eyes. Sometimes it's in front of the eyes. It's an attenuation of an even more common cliche--"seeing stars." It bugs me.

Then there are the second-order cliches. (and thank you, msisolak, for the categories of cliche.) What those are, are words that go together so frequently that as you are reading along, you anticipate the conclusion of the phrase as you are reading the beginning. So:

"Bright sparks... behind her eyes.. slumped in his grasp... unable to resist... the ringing in her ears... crashing through the brush... level clearing... tumbled to the ground... her head kept spinning"

Okay. And even one or two of those might slide in there without robbing the paragraph of vigor and muscularity. (Muscular prose can be very froofy, by the way--when I say muscular, I mean it maintains its narrative energy.) However, the problem of a bunch of them in one place is multifold. First of all, when the reader thinks he knows was to expect, he reads faster. He skims, without realizing it, because he can grasp the sense of a paragraph or even and entire page without effort.

A lot of mass-market paperbacks that are meant to be read quickly are written this way. They're designed so you can digest entire pages at a glance. But that doesn't make it good writing.

What it is is the symbol of the action rather than the action itself. (You know how we've talked before about how fabulous reality is important, and telling detail, and how it grounds the reader viscerally in the action and puts him right there? Not a briar patch, but this briar patch. Not a hand over Jane's mouth, but this hand over Jane's mouth. Right. That's the other thing that I feel is missing here.)

This is hard to explain, because these two things--the cliche phrasing and the lack of specific telling detail--ally themselves to reinforce the same problem. The action is not real. It's make-believe; it's not a vivid, continuous illusory reality. It's just a bunch of symbols. Like the difference between a child drawing a symbol of a tree (a brown stick, some green scribbles) and a trained artist drawing a particular tree, shadow and line and negative space, this is not real. You can superimpose your own experience (or fantasy) of a kidnapping over it, but it's not this kidnapping, viscerally, now.

Jointly, this leaches power from the prose, I'm afraid.

Exhibit B:

"The window wouldn't budge, and drops of rain were beginning to fall from the ceiling. Archie took a step back and swung the valise, aiming for the center of the cross formed by the four panes. The iron-capped corner of the valise shattered the window, leaving the broken sash hanging in the frame. The crackling behind Archie grew in intensity, and a pin from one of the door's hinges sprang loose and pinged on the wooden floor."

I like this paragraph much better. That first sentence: "The window wouldn't budge, and drops of rain were beginning to fall from the ceiling." I might change it to "began to fall," if it were my sentence, but then I might stare at it for a bit and change it back. This is good writing. I forgive the "the window wouldn't budge" as a second-order cliche here because it's a strong image, and it's chased down with the positively jarring second half of the sentence. Huh? What? It's raining from the ceiling? Weird!

That slows me down, and forces me to pay attention. It's all good.

I think there is still an air of lacking confidence here, betrayed by the too-meticulous line of direction. It's pretty much something we all have to be trained out of as writers. When we start writing, people don't just say stuff, they say stuff to other people. They walk to and from places a lot. Stuff like that. There are excess words that creep in and rob energy from the other words. Above, see, "Archie took a step back," which I might tweak to "Archie stepped back," and "the center of the cross formed by the four panes" could be "the cross formed by the four panes."

But I'm fussing a lot at that poor sentence, and it's a perfectly good sentence. Not just not a bad sentence, but a good one. It's precise, it's direct, it's specific. It presents a clear mental image.

And then there's a string of good verbs and details. Iron-capped. Shattered. The broken sash hanging in the frame. Yeah, that's detail. Good detail. Visual, unusual, telling.

I'm not so happy with "The crackling behind Archie grew in intensity," because it's kind of vague, again, and could use a more direct verb and structure. But oh, that pin from the doorhinge popping, that's good.

Also, important here is what this scene avoids telling us, that our own cliche factories can provide: the door groaning as it bulges inwards, for example. The tinkle of glass raining to the floor. And so on. We know that stuff already, we readers. It's programmed into us by long exposure to storytelling, the same way it's programmed into the writer.

Instead, in this passage, Irvine avoids telling the reader things he already knows. As such, he doesn't get tuned out, the way your husband gets tuned out when he tells you the same college story for the 75th time. If you already know it, you don't have to listen. If you don't know it, though, you're inspired to pay attention.

But this, it's grounded, it's real, and it's vivid. This, I like.

Of course, because there are no rules in this writing gig, sometimes cliches come in handy. Sometimes they're funny, especially used in first-person narrative or in dialogue for an effect. Sometimes, they can be bitterly ironic.

I guess the point is, as a writer, one really does have to think about every single word one puts on the paper, even when it's a pain in the butt, because they do count. They add up. No one choice is going to kill you, but a collection of them get together... and piled up, they can create--or derail--an effect. Or your effective narrative.


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Good stuff, this. Thanks!
Welcome! I love thinking about this stuff. I do feel guilty picking on this perfectly nice book, though, especially when I suspect my first novel isn't any better. *g*
I think the 'second level of cliches' is a good way of putting it, and more importantly (to me) reading that paragraph felt like when I've had to write an action scene and just not been feeling the action-love. Y'know, that gray afternoon when you say to yourself, self, this scene must be written and then we can move on, and what comes out is a sort of hash of second-level cliches, because they're quick and easy to write, require little forethought, and there's not really the energy to break them down--and maybe it's a mental thing to say, I'll come back and whack at this later, and then later never comes.

Thing is, when I've written like that, it feels flat, it feels awkward, and I can't figure out why the scene doesn't pop like it should. I can write better than that but it's not like the grammar's bad, or the writing's necessarily weak on the face of it, but it still feels...dull. I'd say those second-level cliches are probably the cause of it, some lazy writing in which "level plain" and "raining hard" and "seeing stars" come to the forefront when really they need to be mangled and the results allowed to bubble up.

Yowser, speaking of which, must go write action. 'Scuse me.
Yeah, that exactly. Good luck with your action!


I love your long entries, but use an LJ-cut, please. For the children.
The anthropologist in me wonders why that merited anonymity.

No...I'm seriously wondering.
first and second-order, as defined here.
Not sure if I like you reading my stuff or not.

I must be the most undemanding of readers. If I like the characters, I'll forgive just about anything. While I notice evocative prose, and appreciate it--as long as it doesn't slow things down too much--I tend to not notice cliches to any great degree. I think I've mentioned before that this concerns me.

Business is a bitch, any way you look at it. I keep meaning to post something about it, but it would take effort I need to devote to the wip.
Well, this whole writing--and especially the editing--gig has turned me into a monster. The Collective Agent tells me my standards are impossibly high.


The really annoying thing is that craft is a glass castle. As I climb up one part, I often feel myself slipping down another--and it's so much easier to see the problems in somebody else's writing than my own. :-P 'Cause lord knows, I do this *all* the time--resort to shorthand and cliche. And I know I don't catch all of them on rewrite.
What I've written so far in life is a lot of talking. Chat, chat, chatter, prettyish description, chatter, sensual description, chat. I can usually write those things without resorting to cliches because I've been playing with them for a while. But then, a couple weeks ago, I tried writing my first action story, and, well, it broke my hed. *pitiful expression* Owies. There were first and second level cliches strewn *everywhere*. Like dead men on a cliched battlefield! So many I didn't even know where they all came from. They fell like manna from the sky! They bopped me on the head like a red apple! I've been recovering and trying to figure out how to come at this action stuff ever since. I've been thinking that the cliches crop up because I haven't spent much time in ACTION SCENE headspace afore, so I'm real unsure of the lay of the land. But I was unsure of the prettyish description and the dialogue until I spent some time with it, so I'm hopeful.Your post has given me some specific points to contemplate, and work on, in addition to my naive hope, so thank you. :)
This is okay. And normal. And common, even: because you're trying to learn to do something new, so your skills aren't yet stretched enough to encompass both pretty writing and action choreography at the same time. Which is cool; do one first, and then go over and do the second. Layer, until you can do both at once.

It's like learning to juggle. One ball, then two balls, then three balls.

And remember that a fight and a conversation and a sex scene are all written the same way: it's just action and reaction.
"Bright sparks burst behind her eyes, and she slumped in his grasp, unable to resist as he dragged her farther into the trees. Through the ringing in her ears Jane heard another man crashing through the brush behind them. They came out into a level clearing and Jane tumbled to the ground. She tried to get up, but her head kept spinning her back to the ground."

One more problem - written like a movie. How does she know it's another man crashing through the brush and not a wild pig or a gorilla? Is this established prior? She doesn't really see the man. If she does know, then why another and not "the other"? Also check out the disconnect between the second and third sentence. Who are "they"? This kind of writing bugs me to know end. Yes, I know the reader can figure it out, but ... oh bleh. Anyway, like you said, there is nothing terribly wrong with it.
"to know end" Ha!
I'm well aware that description is probably my weakest point as a writer. (Except in action scenes. I think I actually do better there. Maybe because I adore them so.) My focus tends to be on the characters, on the plot, and the language is my way of getting there, so it often lapses into the merely utilitarian.

I can put in the kind of attention demanded by the kind of writing you're looking for, but I can't maintain it forever; I just don't have the endurance. Which is one of the reasons I think it's so good for me to write short stories, down to the level of flash: I can pay much finer-grained attention to my sentences then, and build up habits which will then be more likely to kick in automatically when I'm cranking out 100K words instead of 1000.
Exactly. And you've hit on one of the big problems there.

1) Writing is hard and

2) most readers don't care, so why bother?

Most readers don't care consciously, anyway: I think good writing, as long as it's not self-consciously flowery, has a subliminal effect, generating what we call "a real page-turner" if properly applied.
Good points.
Whew--I think that I've just been hit on the head with something important, and slightly painful. Because my writing, at best, might come up to that level--I feel unable to apply the concentration it takes to avoid those cliches.

On the other hand, sharp and vivid and surprising and strong writing is something I've only just begun to appreciate in other people's books. So it may take me a while yet to learn it.
It takes forever. *g* But that's okay.

Also, dealing with cliche is something that's pretty easy to address in draft. Grounding is harder for me-It's so intrinsic to the passage that I have a heck of a time going back and putting it in later--but I know other people who manage it just fine.
There's a really nice essay by George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" which vigorously backs you up on this. It's hard to excerpt, but this is a nice bit:

"...the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged..."

(He walks the walk, too, note that prefabricated henhouse.)

Of course his major point is about political writing, of which I think the best modern example is the way "introduce them to democracy" is now synonymous with "bomb the crap out of them." But as writing advice I find it pretty universal.
That's a great quote, and an excellent point. There's a lot of conversation recently on "framing the debates--" how there's power in being the one who sets the catch phrases.



And I agree about the writing advice. Avoiding cliche is a good way to introduce vigor to your prose.
I find I don't mind the first--the visuals are strong, which kept me reading. (And sparks DO form behind the eyes when one gets hit!) You could probably phrase it all more elegantly, but I wonder if one can get too elegant in an action sequence, when (presumably) the reader is to see the action, not pause and reflect on the texture of the prose?

In the second, why did you chose to restore the progressive tense? That would have been my remove: began to fall instead of were beginning. Also, 'intensified' which, though a long verb, has enough sharp, 'fiery' consonants to underscore the flaring of the sound of the fire. (I offer these as discussion points--being a visual writer, I am hopelessly dealing, at all times, with crappy prose that I think does the job but is probably lame-ass to the auditory sorts.)
That's very interesting! Because I completely bounce off that first one--all I can see are the cliches, which make it totally non-specific to me; in other words, for me, the visuals aren't strong at all. (And why are we getting visual and auditory rather than kinetic description when she's being dragged through dark woods by somebody she can't see, while her eyes are tearing and her ears are ringing and she's dazed from a blow to the head? But then, I'm a kinetic. So I'm biased.)

So I find that the texture of the prose, as you put it, distracts from the action.

Well, I would fuss at the progressive tense in the second bit. "were beginning" gives a a kind of attenuation, while "began" is much crisper and more direct. But I might want that attenuation, if I'm thinking of sprinkling raindrops.

"Intensified" isn't so much my problem with that last bit, as "the crackling sound." And the structure of the phrase, which is again distanced.

If it were my book, I'd be staring at that damned sentence forever, trying to pull it forward.
I'm with you on the sparks--I don't get that, but I do get the honest to cliche black tunnel thing--but I just wish he'd found a way of phrasing it that I hadn't seen so often.
*beginning writer smacks forehead so hard she sees stars*

I get this now a little bit more than I did before. :)

That's the point of it, after all.

Cliche Taxonomy and Exhibit B

I enjoyed your observations.

My thoughts on Exhibit B:
When I read it, I also sensed that the sentences were engaging, but felt the pacing was weak due to the paragraph and sentence structure.

"Archie took a step back and swung the valise, aiming for the center of the cross formed by the four panes."
The participle at the end weakens the sentence. It's misplaced, also, since it comes after valise and the valise is not what's "aiming for the center." That could be fixed by moving it to the front of sentence, but pacing still needs improved, so that may not be the best solution. It also dilutes the action, because it feels like a mini-flashback. We stop the action to enter Archie’s thoughts. Better to have him consider “aiming” first then act, or change it completely, shortening the sentence to imply that the action is quick and powerful.

"The iron-capped corner of the valise shattered the window..."
In this sentence, the "valise" is the subject performing the action, not Archie. By itself, maybe it’s not a problem. Combined with the problems in the previous sentence, a reader doesn’t recognize a nexus, and Archive appears more of a passive participant.

Combining your suggestions with these observations it might have been better if:
"Archie stepped back and swung the valise. Its iron-capped corner struck the cross formed by the four panes of glass and shattered the window, leaving the broken sash hanging in the frame."

A stronger causal chain is formed. The second sentence is tied to the first by the proximity of "valise" and the pronoun "Its" so it feels like a continuation of Archie's action.

Re: Cliche Taxonomy and Exhibit B

I like your rewrite a lot.
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