Thursday, October 18, 2012

Six Things to Screw up Your Prose

1. Sentences that begin with “It.”  Takes us all the way back to Bulwer-Lytton and his dark and stormy night.  Used in connection with the verb to be, “It” triggers the sound of trains approaching—trains on the same track.  It was.  It is.  It could have been.  It might.  It never.  It always.  All these its cannot help trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  It was cold.  Okay; what was cold?  Let’s hear it for proper nouns and for pronouns as these parts of speech relate to the dramatis personae in a story.  It was raining when Fred got out of the car, already in trouble for being an intrusive, authorial stage direction, can return the focus to where it belongs, with Fred.  “A steady rain was falling when Fred got out of the car, making him wish he’d brought his raincoat.”  Oh, ho; this means the rain is not coming from nowhere, and is having a direct effect on Fred.  You first began to notice this monster when you used it yourself in a story or novel.  You could not at first relate the use of it to the fact of being thrown out of the narrative each time you did.  The reason was the invariable sound of the relentless inner editor, asking you that infuriating “What?” each time.  What was raining?  What was cold?  You don’t want to mess with the inner editor until about the third run through.  Starting sentences with the neutral, indefinite “it” creates a kind of inner cross-examination between you and your inner editor reminiscent of a much younger you being asked where you were, why you didn’t call.  You find it difficult to stay in the story zone with that kind of irritation.  Difficult enough for you to write from a place of irritation or anger related to a moral disconnect or social issue.  Starting sentences with it gives you one more thing to look out for when revising.  You already have a laundry list of things to look out for.

2. Sentences beginning with “as” become problematic because they dilute the sense of action by comparing it with another action.  “As Fred entered the room, he saw…” No, thanks.  “Fred entered the room.  A large group had congregated near the refreshment table.” From that point, Fred can get on with his agenda.

3. You could say much the same thing about beginning sentences with “There” as you have about “It.”  Worth noting is how frequent such beginnings tend to hook up with the verb to be, which is a visa to get you in without pat downs into the country of passive voice.  There are.  Yep.  There were.  Oh, how tempting.  You maybe have something against Carson McCullers, starting The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter with “There were…” Okay, things change.  Narrative styles evolve.  But look:  There was no answer when Fred knocked on the door.  Maybe because you mentioned it, you’re sensitive to it, yet “Fred knocked on the door.  No answer.”  Back in the day, Mark Twain, no slouch when it came to the language, nailed the notion in place with the opening of Tom Sawyer.  “Tom?”  No answer.  Would have knocked it off the table if he’d said, “There was no answer.”  Keep reading there.  It only gets better.  “You, Tom.”  Still no answer.  Twain knew enough about language and story to make both of them sit up and bark. “Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no effect on society.”

4. Very.  Hard to pin down what very means.  Very cold.  How cold is that?  Colder, you presume, than mere cold, but then what?  Let’s see some effect of the cold on someone.  The weather in Central Park was so cold that the flashers were only describing themselves.

5. Replied.  Maybe once in a while.  Retorted?  Never.  Responded?  Forget it.  Scratch also grumbled, barked, remonstrated, requested.  All valid words, but unnecessary in most cases because said is such an invisible word, and once you have a conversation between two characters going, you can consider dispensing with the said.  Snorted is out.  Ditto sneered.

6. You get into animated conversations when the subject of adverbs arises, at which point you remember as though it were yesterday reading a volume of Graham Greene’s autobiography in which he was not kind to himself for having used an adverb in a recent novel.  One fucking adverb.  He even told what it was and how it was used:  “—she said, sadly.”  So okay, the adverb is a legitimate if over privileged part of speech, so let’s use it with care, which is to say one per page at the maximum, and no double adverbs such as eerily, uncannily--  

There are many such words and tropes to watch for in writing.  You are acute to the number of times you hear in conversations about you the tropes “You know,” “You know what I mean?” and “I mean.”  You cringe when you hear yourself using them, only recently causing one conversant to ask you if you had a toothache.  You’d said, “You know” not moments before saying something was very pleasing to you.

Life is indeed first draft for story, essay, and even these vagrant lines.  You do not always get the opportunity to edit life, your conversations in particular, but you do have opportunities to seize upon when it comes to the written word.

No comments: