Thursday, September 4, 2014

Literary Stretch Marks

Stretch marks appear on the body as narrow vertical grooves, reminiscent of laugh lines around the mouth or crow's feet about the brow ridges.  They betray a rapid weight loss or the creeping determination of sustained gain. In effect, they are scars, resulting from tears within layers of skin.  

For many individuals who have them, and depending where they are located, stretch marks represent a continuous challenge.  Even if they can be camouflaged or hidden under clothing or undergarments, their host knows they are there, influencing the behaviors of denial or rationalization.

With a combination of exercise and disciplined approach to a healty lifestyle, persons who have stretch marks can remove significant amounts of their traces. In some instances, these scars may be removed altogether.  

For many, however, stretch marks are a lingering presence, a benchmark of excess or deprivation.  For others still, stretch marks provoke considerable interior monologues and questions related to the advisability of tattoo.

Stretch marks often appear in the stories of emerging writers as descriptions and explanations.  Neither of these is needed to any significant degree, but such is the nature of many storytellers in the early stages of their career that they see descriptions and explanations as indications of their writing ability.  Emerging readers collude in this belief.  They often mistake elegant descriptions and explanations for story.

Other literary stretch marks may be seen in the form of long, conversational exchanges.  Such exchanges are offered between quotation marks as dialogue, but they are in fact little more than descriptions, thinly disguised as narration, but sandwiched between quotation marks.

With a combination of a focused approach to reading the works of other writers and heeding suggestions from that wonderful outlier of a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, writers can acquire an awareness of the places in their own composition where stretch marks dwell, waiting for opportunities to spring forth and proliferate.

Not all literary stretch marks leave scars.  Habit words, for example, leave the kinds of irritation that proliferate the way flies and ants seem to know when you're interested in spending quality time outside in general and dining al fresco in particular. 

Any word can become a habit word, if used often enough.  You've spent a few years, trying to pluck the word "accordingly" out of your tool kit, and because consequently seems like a nice alternate, you ding that as well, because it is an adverb.  What about "as a result"?  Another habit word you've put out an APB and BOLO for is "and," which even now you find yourself slipping in more than you wish.  

Not to forget your own personal fingernail on the blackboard sound, although who has blackboards these days?  You go well out of your way to avoid using "that," consulting your own secret, inner editorial Fitbit to measure the number of thats in an entire manuscript.  Two thats on a page are enough to set off your inner cringe alarm.  

While we're on the subject of habit words, how about all the times you begin sentences, even paragraphs, with "Not to forget," which has become overdone as a substitute for "furthermore," or "in addition."  You'd be remiss if you did not also add to the list of stretch mark wannabes such tropes as "Then," "And then," and "Then, too," all of which, if used with care, move the text right along without attracting undue attention.

While not a habit word trope as such, beginning sentences with the word "it" will bring the first cousin of the stretch mark into play as a speed bump, causing the reader to stop for a moment to question the provenance of the it.  Starting a sentence with "as" brings in the potential mischief of cutting the momentum of meaning in two.  "As he entered the room, he heard music."  The effect there is to flatten out the emphasis.  Which was more important, his entry into the room, his hearing the music, or the simultaneous combination of the two?

Stretch marks also appear when too many gerunds appear in close succession.  "Reaching the top floor while reloading his gun, then securing the safety catch, he--"  Whoa.  Just whoa, although you might wish to give some thought to putting the word "just" on your B list.  Just sayin'.  There is a difference between reading text and hearing it read aloud.  A clutter of gerunds in rapid succession sounds like the after effects of cafeteria lunches on middle school tummies, right after meal time.  

Almost forgot another potential stretch mark culprit, ending a sentence with "this."  "Are you happy with this?"  Am I happy with what?

The most significant questions of all:  Do you grasp the broadband potential of stretch marks? Have you taken the necessary precautions to insure your manuscript does not go out into the world while still displaying them.

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