How to Make Sentences Sing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century member of Parliament known for his rousing speeches, regarded every word in a sentence as “the feet upon which the sentence walks.” He said that to alter a word—exchange it for a shorter or longer one, or give it a different position—would change the whole course of the sentence.

I thought about that recently while reading a thriller. It was good on the plot and character levels (which are, of course, absolutely essential). It started off like gangbusters, and carried me through the first three chapters.

But as it went on, I found myself without that feeling of compulsion to keep reading, as one has with the best fiction experiences. I wasn’t in a rush to turn the page. Naturally, as a writer and teacher of writing, I paused to ask myself why.

The answer came to me almost immediately. The sentences were all merely functional. They were like Dutch furniture. They did their job, but nothing more. I’ve quoted this many times, but it’s worth repeating. John D. MacDonald, writing about what he looks for in an author (including himself), said, “I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.”

Is that something worth going for? I think it is. MacDonald rose to the top of the mass market heap in the 1950s in part because his writing was a cut above what one critic called the “machine-like efficiency” of his contemporaries.

So let’s have a look at things you can do to make some of your sentences sing.

Rearrange

Consider this as the first line of a novel:

The small boys came to the hanging early.

Okay, fine. It works. But what if we did it the way Ken Follett does it in The Pillars of the Earth: 

The small boys came early to the hanging.

Feel the difference? On a subconscious level, it elevates the effect. Hanging is the most vivid word, and putting at the end gives the sentence snap and verve. A novel with sentences like that can mean the difference between a good read and an unforgettable one.

Overwrite And Cut

When I get to an intense emotional moment, I like to pause and start a text doc and write a page-long sentence. I just go, putting down everything I can think of without pausing to edit. As an example, here’s an actual sentence from John Fante’s classic Ask the Dust, in the voice of a young writer named Arturo Bandini in 1930s Los Angeles.

A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, not much that Arnold Bennett, but I’d be there to sort of bolster up the Bs, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame.

Write something like that, and keep going. Then you rest a bit, come back to it, and choose the best parts. It might just be one sentence, but it will be gold and will make your book glitter.

Cutting Adverbs

Sometimes a sentence sings best when it’s lean. Which brings us to the subject of adverbs.

Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein advises cutting all the adverbs in a manuscript, then readmitting only “the necessary few after careful testing.”

That’s good advice, and not hard to follow. Do a search for –ly words and see if you can’t cut the adverb or find a stronger verb.

Be especially (!) vigilant with dialogue tags. Elmore Leonard (who is quoted much too often these days, he said solemnly) called using an adverb to modify said a “mortal sin.” Perhaps a venial sin. I’m not a Robespierre about this, sending all adverbs to the guillotine. But do make them state their case before you “sentence” them.

Resonance at the End

The last sentences of your book are the most important of all. They may be the ones that get the reader to order another of your books immediately, as opposed to ho-humming and finding something else to read.

One of the most famous ending sentences in American Lit is from the short story that put William Saroyan on the map. “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” was published in 1934, the height of the Depression. It’s the story of young writer who is starving to death. He walks the streets, looking for work, but there’s nothing for him. He’s down to one penny. He returns to his room, becomes drowsy and nauseous. He falls on his bed, thinking he should give the penny to a child, for a child could buy any number of things with a penny. The story ends:

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once—the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

That one word—unalive—is not in the dictionary. But who cares? It’s meaning is obvious. Saroyan could have written dead, but that wouldn’t have any zing. And the word perfect at the end is so surprising given the context that it leaves us pondering, feeling, perhaps even weeping. In other words, there’s resonance, that final, haunting note hanging in the air after the music stops.

Man, oh man, that’s worth reaching for.

Brother Gilstrap has written about the importance of last lines. His favorite is from To Kill a Mockingbird:

He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

Another resonant ending is from The Catcher in the Rye:

It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

And this, from my favorite Bosch, Lost Light:

I leaned forward and raised her tiny fists and held them against my closed eyes. In that moment I knew all the mysteries were solved. That I was home. That I was saved.

My advice is to write your last few sentences several times. Each time, say them out loud. How do they sound? How do they make you feel? Go for the heart. Teach them to sing.

Discuss!

Do You Bleed on the Page?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the more ubiquitous quotes about writing out there, almost always attributed to Hemingway, is: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Great quote, eh? Only problem is, Hemingway never said it, never wrote it, and probably never even thought it.

So why is he considered the source? Because some quote aggregator back in the 1970s thought it sounded like something Hemingway would say. You know, the running-with-the-bulls guy, the likes-to-box guy. He’d be all about blood.

Not.

Later, the line was given to him in a mediocre TV movie called Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). So now you see it almost daily on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, along with another thing Hemingway never said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.” I’m starting to feel like that Britney Spears guy. “Leave Ernest Hemingway alone!!!!”

The real source for the blood quote comes down to a choice between two writers: Paul Gallico (author of The Poseidon Adventure) and the great sports columnist Red Smith. In a 1946 book, Confessions of a Story Writer, Gallico wrote:

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.

This is good advice. You can write competent fiction without feeling. Heck, that’s what AI does. But you won’t get that deep connection with the readers—and turn them into fans—unless you pour your own heart’s blood into the characters and your prose.

Shortly after Gallico’s book came out, the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell quoted Red Smith as saying, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s likely, then, that Winchell and/or Smith paraphrased Gallico.

Smith apparently liked the blood metaphor, for in a profile in 1961 in Time magazine, he was asked how hard it was to produce a sports column every day. “Writing a column is easy,” he replied. “You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

This has a different meaning than the “bleed on the page” quote. It’s an obvious reference to the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Smith was talking about the agony of having to come up with a fresh column idea every 24 hours (not easy!) and then write it in his singular style.

Putting these two sentiments together, I find it essential to feel something when I write a scene. Music helps. I have a playlist of various moods taken from movie soundtracks. I need an inner vibration to make a scene come alive.

And while I wouldn’t describe myself as “agonizing” (Proust-like) over my style, I do go over my words at least three times. There’s the daily editing of the previous day’s work; then the first read-through in hard copy; and a final polish. I pursue that “unobtrusive poetry” John D. MacDonald talked about. The effort, for me at least, is entirely worth it.

Mega-bestselling author John Green (Turtles All the Way Down) put it this way:

[W]riting is difficult for me. Sometimes it is difficult because I do not know what I want to say, but usually it is difficult because I know exactly what I want to say but what I want to say has not yet taken the shape of language. When I’m writing, I’m trying to translate ideas and feelings and wild abstractions into language, and that translation is complicated and challenging work. (But it is also — in moments, anyway — fun.)

It is indeed fun, and fully satisfying, to sit back and look at something you’ve written and think, “Ya know, that’s pretty darn good.” Maybe that’s what Hemingway meant when he (really) said, “For a long time now I have tried simply to write the best I can. Sometimes I have good luck and write better than I can.”

So…do you ever think of yourself as “bleeding” on the page? Should you?

Down in the Writing Weeds

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love talking to fellow writers who are craft nuts. I love getting into the weeds to discuss things like adverbs, POV violations, and whether you should use a comma in the phrase “Oh God.” (On that last one, strict rules of style say yes. I say it depends on how the character is reacting—somberly or fearfully?)

Today I want to discuss four weed words (and I’m not talking about euphemisms for a certain plant). This is about as granular as you can get, but where else but on a famous writing blog can all this be hashed out? Try discussing dialogue attributions with your insurance agent, or exclamation points with your CPA!

So, TKZ community, let’s hack some weeds.

Then

I sipped my flat Coke and gave her the head start she’d asked for. Then I picked up my change and left a buck on the bar. I went out the door, up the stairs to the street. (Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)

The word Then is used here for rhythm. The action isn’t “hot.” The author is controlling pace. I do this myself. When the action is hot, I don’t use Then. I cut sentences to the bone. But if things are a bit slower it comes in handy.

There’s another use of the word then I like. It’s when you want to emphasize an emotional moment.

She came to me then and put her arms around me.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need then. But then again…ahem…it has a subtle and enhancing effect.

Suddenly

This word gets a lot of chatter down here in the weeds. Some say you never need it, as the action itself should prove the suddenness. One of Elmore Leonard’s “rules” (discussed here this past week) is: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

First off, this “rule” can confuse newbies, who might think you should never use suddenly at all, not even in dialogue. Obviously false.

But Leonard was talking about narrative. We have to remember that he wrote his books in 3d Person. In 3d, the word Suddenly is coming from the author. It’s a “tell.” There are better ways to convey such moments (see commenter Marilynn Byerly’s examples in Brother Gilstrap’s post).

But in First Person, Suddenly is perfectly acceptable. In my latest thriller, Romeo’s Rage, I have a scene with Mike and Sophie at an eatery where a minor protest is happening. Mike is confronted by the gadflies and their upraised camera phones. He starts confounding one of them with verbal jiu-jitsu.

“Shut up!” shouts the gadfly, and it looks like things might get heated.

Suddenly, Sophie was by my side and looking at the cameras.

That’s how Mike experiences the moment. It’s like an internal thought. And since this is First Person, we can go there. Without the Suddenly, readers might think Sophie was standing next to Mike all the while, instead of showing this new side of her—a willingness to jump into a fray.

Here’s another example of an internal thought, from another Mike. Hammer, to be exact, in Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly. In chapter one Hammer has picked up a mysterious woman wandering on the road. He is going to take her into New York to drop her off, but another car speeds in front of them and stops, causing a crash. Mike jumps out of his car, and so do men from the other. Gun shots. Mike takes a sap to the head. Down he goes. As he fights to come to [italics in original, and notice our friend Then making an appearance]—

It was like a sleep that you awaken from because you had been sleeping cramped up. It was a forced awakening that hurts and you hear yourself groan as you try to straighten out. Then suddenly there’s an immediate sharpness to the awakening as you realize that it hadn’t been a bad dream after all, but something alive and terrifying instead.

Now, just for the heck of it, let me say something about all hell broke loose. I think most of us would agree it’s a cliché and that it’s better to show what the breaking hell looks like.

But in First Person you can use a cliché if you freshen it up, as in All hell broke loose and kicked every dog in the neighborhood.

That’s fun to do.

Very

This one I usually avoid. It’s flabby and indistinct. An exception is when it’s used sardonically in First Person POV, as in: Needless to say, when he saw the toilets, Sarge got very upset.

And, of course, a character might use it in dialogue.

But in narrative portions, don’t write: He was very big. Instead, write something like: He was the size of a beer truck.

Had

This one is constantly overused by writers when the narrative goes into the past. Consider:

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she’d chosen Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. and Yale. That didn’t please her father, who had made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They’d had a lot of arguments over that.

Here’s a rule for you (that’s right, I said rule): Use one had to get you into the past, but after that you don’t need it.

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she chose Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. That didn’t please her father, who made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They argued a lot over that.

Nothing lost, and the narrative is crisper.

I now put down my Weed Wacker and invite comments. What other weed words or phrases do you see popping up in our wonderful craft garden?

Read, Write, Suffer

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

James N. Frey, author of the popular craft books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I & II, once gave a talk to a group of wannabe writers. He told them he’d give them ten rules which would guarantee they’d learn to write great fiction. Here they are:

Read! Read! Read!

Write! Write! Write!

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

Actually, that’s only nine. His tenth will be revealed anon. Let’s first do a little unpacking.

Read! Read! Read!

By this, Frey meant not just reading fiction, but also widely in all areas. “A fiction writer needs a grasp of history and philosophy, art, religion, poetry, and so on, in order to understand different viewpoints and world views, to make his or her characters whole. As a fiction writer, you need to be curious about the world and read about things you might not be interested in personally. Professionally, you need to be interested in everything.”

I like that. I am always reading nonfiction to expand my knowledge base. I even read random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica set left to me by my grandfather (who sold them during the Depression). Inevitably, I find something which I’ll work into a short story or even a WIP.

Frey does advise reading fiction in your genre to know what’s going on in the market. True that as well.

Write! Write! Write!

We all know you have to write, a lot, to get good. That’s why I’ve always stressed the quota. As Frey puts it, “The more you write every day, the faster you learn.”

I’d add a caveat to that, however. The basketball coach Bob Knight once said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

In other words, you can write, write, write, but if you’re not also learning how to make your writing better, you’re just ingraining bad habits. You don’t want to be like those thousand monkeys hammering typewriters for a thousand years to randomly come up with Shakespeare.

So you get feedback and study the craft along with your daily writing. When I started on this road I bought craft books by the barrel, because I’d been told you can’t learn how to write great fiction. I knew I couldn’t, so set out to see if I could prove that admonition wrong. I think I’ve made a pretty good case. When I got a five-book contract I started calling it “The Big Lie.”

So write, write, write and learn, learn, learn.

And write not only for publication, but to practice various styles. Find that elusive thing called Voice. Frey offers the sage advice of taking stylists you like and copying their prose, word for word. Not to be them, but to get their cadences in your head, the sound and the flow of the words. Let that all meld in your head and you’ll soon develop a style of your own.

Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!

“Learning the craft of writing is difficult,” says Frey. “Creating stories is sometimes agonizing, rewriting is torturous. Dealing with editors is like being tossed into the lions’ den at lunch time. Then when you’re finally published, often your publisher will not do enough publicity and the critics will probably crown you with thorns.”

Frey wrote this before the self-publishing revolution, but the advice still holds. Even as an indie you have to work through obstacles, like an indifferent or hostile public (file this under “Reviews, one-star”).

So why do we do it? Frey: “To experience the ecstasy inherent in the act of participation in the creation of the world, my friend….Living a writer’s life, a life of reflection, of personal growth, of accomplishment, of working and striving and suffering for one’s art, that is its own glory.” (See also the responses to Garry’s recent post.)

I’m reminded of the famous “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld. Remember? His soup is so amazing everyone lines up to get it. But you must order it a certain way. No talking in line, no extraneous comments, or you’ll hear, “No soup for you!”

“No soup for you!”

Kramer becomes his one ally, and says to him, “You suffer for your soup!”

The Soup Nazi nods. “How can I tolerate any less from my customers?”

Indeed! We all want to make the best soup. We want to gift our readers the best writing we can muster. That takes work. But when you see the results…when you get an email—that’s not from your mother—telling you how much they loved your story….that is its own reward.

As good old Aristotle put it, “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.”

And what of Frey’s tenth rule? It is: “Don’t use too many exclamation points!”

I agree with that!

My eleventh rule would be this: “Repeat over and over the rest of your life.”

Because you’re a writer. It’s what you do.

So what do you think of this list? What would you add or expand?

Mr. Frey’s article can be found here.

Reader Friday: Music to Your Words

 

Reading for the Pleasure of Reading?

Looking for Lyrical?

 

 

Definitions:

  • Lyrics – words of a poem, words to a song, from ancient Greek poetry accompanied by the lyre – a portable harp
  • Lyrical style (literature) – expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way

I recently read in Dean Koontz’s How to Write Best Selling Fiction, “The average reader demands eight things…” Number 8 was “…a style which embodies at least a trace of lyrical language and as many striking images as possible.”

John D. MacDonald was quoted in a Writer’s Digest, 3/15/16, interview, that he wanted “a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

Constance Hale, in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, quoted Joan Didion: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power.”

  1. When you are looking for an enjoyable read, just for the pleasure of reading, do you have a favorite poet or a favorite author with a lyrical style?
  2. Who are those favorite poets and authors?

 If anyone would like a list from today’s discussion, I will compile a list and post it at the bottom of the comments (late tonight or tomorrow morning).

Will We All Be Grunting Soon?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Remember when we used to call them “grammar schools”? The idea was to train the young in the foundational rules for communicating in our language, especially in written form. Such teaching has fallen on hard times. Fewer and fewer teachers are adequately trained or interested in the rules of grammar. The fallout can be seen everywhere, from schoolrooms to boardrooms, from books to blogs.

If this slide continues, what will we be left with? Grunting, I suppose. We could end up communicating like the monster in Young Frankenstein:

In years past, all journals and newspapers had crusty editors who were deeply grounded in rules of style and grammar, and could train their cubs to be more precise and understandable. But this species of grammarian has largely died out. And with the onset of digital and instant media, the flubs are flowing more freely than cheap beer at a bowling alley wedding.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no grammar expert. Unless I’m reminded, I don’t know a gerund from Geritol. To me, conjugation sounds like what prison inmates get when their wives visit. Nevertheless, I try to do service to the King’s English by regularly checking reference books like Write Right!

So allow me to cite a few examples of grammatical drift I’ve come across recently, mostly from “reputable” sites. They may seem innocuous now, but they’re like pebbles that precede a landslide. Let us watch our wording lest we get buried under rocks of perpetual bafflement!

Apple have been focused on your point of sale dollars for hardware.

A verb has to agree with its subject. Apple is singular, so has is required.

He has been more prolific in his career than either Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.

It’s either/or, not either/and.

Yet why does more than 1 billion devices worldwide, in all socioeconomic strata and often most dominant in emerging markets, only account for 6% of publishers’ sales typically?

Can you spot the error in this mangle of a sentence?

The best hope for conference chaos this Fall after the Big Ten canceled football season lied with Ohio State.

Hoo boy. The lie, lay, lied, laid distinction is one of the trickiest in our language. I confess it confuses me still. But it doesn’t take an English degree to sense that lied is wrong. What to do? Consult a stylebook, or find an online explanation like this one that explains the differences.

Another editorial judgment is whether to just rewrite the sentence for greater clarity. In this case, I would. First off, is the writer saying people “hope” for “conference chaos”? Or is the gist of the thought that a hopeful end to the chaos would come via Ohio State?

I suspect it’s the latter, and if so the main thought of the sentence is deflated somewhat by its structure. We need a rearrangement and a comma. And we don’t need that big capital F jumping out at us in the middle. (Almost always, a season should be lowercase. How do I know? I looked it up!)

I would recast the sentence thus:

After the Big Ten canceled football season, the best hope for ending conference chaos this fall was Ohio State.

Instead, Costas had to take a pop shot at one of the sports he helped cover for a large part of his 38-year career at NBC Sports.

Did Costas throw a can of soda? Or was this a potshot (one word), an off-hand critical remark?

How Zoom’s new features will fair in the video conferencing landscape.

One wonders how Zoom can put up a Ferris wheel and sell cotton candy in a conferencing landscape.

They’ve heard the writing on the wall.

A neat trick!

We have to tip your hat to them.

I’ll do what I please with my own hat, thank you very much.

Now the FBI goes to work pouring over surveillance videos.

Pouring what? Coffee? Won’t that hinder the investigation? I’ll need to pore over more articles to figure out what they’re doing.

We were all waiting with baited breath.

I wonder what they baited their breath with? I’ve tried anchovies, but my wife objects.

In the absence of editors, what’s a writer in a hurry to do? (Here I’m distinguishing articles and the like from novel-length books, where we do have more time for beta readers and editors. See also Terry’s excellent self-editing tips.)

I know there are digital grammar apps, like Grammarly, that might help. Most of them require a subscription and I’ve heard they’re not 100% accurate. At least you should take the time to check your doc with Word’s spelling-and-grammar tool, and listen to your document via text-to-speech.

Words and how they sound are our bread and butter. So don’t jam up the works with clunky grammar. That’s just not fare to our readers, who tip our hats to us.

Should a Fiction Writer Use a Thesaurus?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dr. Peter Mark Roget

In college my roommates and I used to play a game with a dictionary. We cleverly called it “The Dictionary Game.” It was played with a big dictionary and scraps of paper. When it was your turn you’d look through the dictionary until you came across a word no one was familiar with. You wrote down the correct definition. The other players made up fake definitions that sounded right. The object was to fool as many people in the game as you could. You got a point if you guessed the correct definition. You got a point if somebody guessed your fake definition. The person who chose the word would get a point for every wrong guess.

I learned some cool words this way. The one that has stayed with me for over forty years is borborygmus. It means a “rumbling in the bowels caused by gas.”

This still cracks me up. It’s an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like the thing it describes (although onomatopoeia itself is definitely not an onomatopoeia). And it makes for a great insult: You borborygmic swine! That’ll stop a bad guy in his tracks!

Which brings me to the subject of word choices. We have them. We have a whole passel of them (passel: a large number or amount). We even have a resource dedicated to word choices—the thesaurus (brainchild of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779 – 1869], a British physician and lexicographer).

Which invites (not begs) the question: should a fiction writer use a thesaurus? Mr. Stephen King has an oft-quoted opinion on this matter, as expressed in “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully—in Ten Minutes.” This article appears in the 1989 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, which I just happen to have on my shelf (you can also find King’s essay here).

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Well now! What are we to think … I mean, what are we to surmise, suppose, conjecture, conclude, and determine about Mr. King’s rule?

Some might call it bunk (balderdash, bosh, codswallop, twaddle). But the context of this quote comes under the heading: Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. King wants you to get that story down, in flow. So much so that he has advice on another form of flow:

When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else but go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

Ahem.

Anyway, I mostly agree with King. When you’re first setting down your tale, you should do so as expeditiously (swiftly, rapidly, efficiently) as possible. Don’t stop and go looking for a ten-dollar word when a buck or a fiver will do the job.

But I will offer a wee (used in the sense of little) exception. When King wrote his piece we were only in the beginnings of the personal computer age. At the time, King was using a dedicated word processor—a big (huge, bulky, Brobdingnagian) machine that did only one thing: saved your typing on floppy disks. Thesauruses (Thesauri?) were bound, paper books. It would take you precious flow-minutes to look up a word.

Now, of course, we all have personal computers with a Dictionary/Thesaurus app. I use mine most often to find a synonym for something mundane, like walk. Sure, a character can walk into a room. That doesn’t do much for the reader. So I open my computer thesaurus and in five seconds find: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, limp, stumble, and lurch.

Recently, I was working on my NIP (novella in progress). I was writing a scene with a drug kingpin and his pet monkey. The monkey keeps shrieking. But I didn’t want to use that same word over and over. So I popped open the thesaurus and immediately found: scream, screech, squeal, squawk, roar, howl, shout, yelp. Just what I needed. I used five of them.

The alternative to using the thesaurus in this manner is that you sit at the keyboard for several minutes trying to come up with alternatives. But in this case “the hunt”— to use Mr. King’s term (expression, phrase, idiom, locution) — is faster and more efficient with a thesaurus app.

Is there another exception to Mr. King’s rule? I think so. I like to lightly edit my previous day’s work before jumping back into the first draft. When I do this I’ll sometimes find a spot where I wish to apply Mark Twain’s dictum: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” A minute or two here pays off in stylistic coin that will please your readers.

So I’m not ready to discard (jettison, scrap, chuck, dump, dish) my thesaurus.

What about you?

Stir Your Echoes

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Some of you will recognize in my title an homage to Richard Matheson and his novel Stir of Echoes (one of his best!) Not very clever, but I had a heck of a time coming up with something better.

But I digress.

What I wanted to tell you is that the other day I picked up a novel in a long-running series by a mega bestselling writer (now deceased). It was one of the later books in the series which, truth be told, was starting to run a little thin. Some critics have noted this, but I’m a fan of the early books so I thought, What the hey?

Unfortunately, I was only a few chapters in when I decided to set the book aside. I just got the feeling that this one was mailed in, that the writer wasn’t working hard anymore.

The final straw was a grating echo.

A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:

Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.

The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.

So don’t put them in.

But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.

In the novel I’m talking about, either the editor was asleep at the switch or, more likely, the manuscript went straight to copy editing. After all, the mega bestselling author sold 80,000 hardcovers out of the gate. Plus, he probably made it clear he was not going to edit the thing anyway.

So a clunky, clumsy echo found its way into the book:

Shepherded by the detail cop, it backed up out of sight. Somebody held up a clacker board in front of the camera.

A few paragraphs later:

Shepherded by the detail cop, the limo backed up out of sight. I’d been around movie sets before.

Now, one might argue that this glaring echo was somehow intentional stylistically. But there is no stylistic reason for it. If you’re going to echo intentionally for effect, you do it in a way that is unambiguous—usually following the “rule of three.” To wit:

I devoured the sandwich.
I devoured the fries.
I devoured the news, then decided it was time to get my butt in gear.

Or you can do a double:

I cancelled my subscription, then Twitter cancelled me.

All the way home I screamed at the injustice of it all. When I walked through the door, Stan screamed at me for being late.

In both cases, the echo is a pleasant one, and the reader knows it.

Two observations:

  1. The more distinct the word, the greater the echo

Common verbs like run, walk, went don’t stick out so much, though in the same paragraph you should really choose another verb. Someone who runs into a room can scurry out, for example. Just don’t have them scurry in, too.

  1. Do a word to search for your personal bugaboos

I always have a word or phrase that repeats in my first drafts. Mrs. B catches these, and I then search for that echo throughout the document and make changes accordingly.

Do you ever catch echoes in your own writing? What are some of your frequently repeated words or phrases?

Write Tight

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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Unless you’re writing literary fiction, where an expansive style is part of the experience (e.g., Thomas Wolfe), you should strive to write tight. You’re telling a story. Your goal is to draw readers into that story, fast, and keep them there. Every sentence should serve that purpose. Writing tight means no excessive prose, no over-padded paragraphs, nothing to get in the way of the fictive dream.

Now, this does not mean you can’t have what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. The key word is unobtrusive. It does its work pleasantly, then steps out of the way. Not this:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. (Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe)

Eh? What? Is that a typo? Phthisic? What the heck is that? (It’s actually a word. You can look it up. Which is not a good way to write, sending readers to the dang dictionary!)

Instead, this:

The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garrett Kingsley’s office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up. (Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker)

So let’s look at some ways you can write tighter.

Cut Flab

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein defined flab as “superfluous words and phrases.” Most flab comes in the form of adjectives and adverbs. Stein’s advice is to cut all the adjectives and adverbs in a manuscript, then readmit only “the necessary few after careful testing.”

As an example, I want to show you a sentence I read in a non-fiction article posted on a popular sports website. It had to do with NBA Mavericks owner Mark Cuban getting into hot water with the league (a habit with him):

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and ultimately blamed the officials for the Mavericks ultimately losing the game.

We’ll get to the repetition of the adverb ultimately in a moment. But first, does that word help this sentence in any way? No. It adds nothing but flab. How much stronger it is this way:

Cuban felt the refs did his team dirty and blamed the officials for the Mavericks losing the game.

And, of course, using that adverb twice in the same sentence is truly felonious. You need to watch for the same thing in your paragraphs, too. I call these…

Echoes

Take a look at this:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

The repetition of alone is an echo. While it doesn’t violate any rule of grammar, it is what I would call a little “speed bump” that momentarily takes the reader out of the scene. The repeated sound is jarring.

The solution is simple: cut one of them. You could do it this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he just wanted to be left alone.

Or this way:

Max walked into the bar. It stank of beer and sweat. He spotted Henderson sitting at a table, alone. He walked over and stood there, arms folded. Henderson looked up. His eyes told Max he didn’t want to talk to anybody.

The exception to this guideline is when you purposely want to emphasize a word, as in the following:

His shirt was black. His pants were black. His boots were even blacker, if that was possible. He looked like Johnny Cash at a funeral.

Dialogue

As I contend in my book on the subject, dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. An agent or editor, or reader for that matter, knows good dialogue because they’ve seen so much of the bad variety.

One of the marks of effective dialogue is compression. Unless there is a reason a character long winded, keep the dialogue tight and to the point.

The easiest way to do this is to cut words. You can almost always cut a word or two out of dialogue and make it sound better. Example:

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Max said.

“Well then, what do you suggest we do?” Henderson said.

“I don’t know, drive around to the back maybe.”

“That would be a stupid thing to do.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that’s where all the cops will be.”

Can we tighten this up? I think we can:

“This isn’t a good idea,” Max said.

“What do you suggest?” Henderson said.

“Drive around the back maybe.”

“Stupid.”

“Why?”

“That’s where all the cops’ll be.”

Obviously you adjust according to the way your characters talk. But you will be amazed how much better your dialogue sounds when you trim the fat this way.

How would you describe your default writing style? When first drafting, do you tend to write long and cut? Or do you write lean and add? 

Stretch Your Style

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Not every writer is interested in style. If they can write lean, mean plots that move, with interesting characters and a satisfying ending, that’s enough. They’d rather write fast and turn out more work than spend extra time trying to find the “right” words.

Isaac Asimov was such a writer. He purposely developed a stripped-down style so he could churn out the books. He was once asked what he would do if he found out he had just six months to live. “Type faster,” he said.

Other writers do seek to enhance their prose. One such was John D. MacDonald, considered one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. He wrote a string of paperback classics in the 1950s, and then invented an enduring series character for the 60s and beyond—Travis McGee.

He was a great plotter, but a careful stylist as well. As he himself once put it: “I want a bit of magic in the prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing.”

While “unobtrusive poetry” is not necessary for a well-plotted novel, it is an elevation. It’s a fine thing to consider stretching your prose. The main proviso is that you never let the style overplay its hand. Serve the story first.

One place where prose style is most fitting is when there is a high emotional moment. Nothing is higher than a young writer dying, in the aptly titled and justifiably famous short story that made William Saroyan’s reputation, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Go ahead and stretch your prose in the safety of your own writing room. Three ideas:

  1. Read poetry

Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest unobtrusive poet-writers, read some poetry every day. “Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough,” Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing. “Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.”

  1. Write page-long sentences

As an exercise from time to time, write a run-on sentence of 250 words or so. Don’t edit yourself. Let the words take you wherever they roam!

This is a good way to add emotional depth to a scene. When you get to a point where you describe emotion, start a fresh document and write a page-long sentence of inner description. Don’t judge it; just write it.

When you’re done, look it over. Maybe you’ll use most of it in your novel. Maybe only one line. But what you’ll have is fresh and stylistically pleasing. I’m certain this is how Jack Kerouac came up with that famous passage in his novel On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

  1. Play with metaphors

Dow Mossman, author of The Stones of Summer (the subject of a documentary, The Stone Reader) says he considered each page of his massive novel to be its own poem. Naturally it is filled with metaphors and similes.

He stood, leaning against the wooden jamb of the double glass doorway, looking back, and his eyes seemed almost dull, flatter than last year, muted somehow like reptiles not swimming in open water anymore.

Dull eyes like reptiles not swimming surprises in a pleasing way, but also fits the overall tone of the novel. The best similes and metaphors do both.

So how do you find these images?

Make a list. At the top, write the subject. In the above example, it would be dull eyes. Dull like what?

List as many images as you can, absurd and farfetched as they may be. Push past your comfort zone. Force yourself to come up with twenty possibilities. One of them will surely work.

Robert Newton Peck uses nouns in place of adjectives to plant the unexpected in his novel A Day No Pigs Would Die:

She was getting bigger than August.

The whole sky was pink and peaches.

Like Peck, you should occasionally step outside the normal, grammatical box. You’ll find some pleasant surprises when you do!

How important is style to you, when you write and when you read? We all agree that story comes first, but are you also an “unobtrusive poetry” fan? Do you think about it as you write or revise? 

NOTE: This post is adapted from PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS.

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