Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Literalmindedness and the Terrible 40

Some years ago, a chance meeting with a friend in the Summerland Post Office produced the information from your friend that he was no longer using the word "very" in his written communication and programming himself to avoid its use in conversation.  His reason made sense.  How much is very?  How does one quantify it?  What good does it serve?  If, for instance, one is very tired, what does that mean?  In comparison, if one feels exhausted, some sensual information radiates from that use.

Since that afternoon, you've begun compiling a list, which soon grew to twenty items.  Doing such things help the individual to focus.  Soon, you were up to thirty, and now, a friend who has been making notes of these additions has sent you a list, at once humbling, because it makes you put more effort into thinking about your intention before you speak, and daunting, because it makes you realize how prone conversation is to tilt toward ambiguity and uncertainty.

As the list now stands, it has these forty elements.  Not all these words should be avoided entirely.  How, for instance, would you introduce a list of items or characteristics without using the word "and" as a connector.  Knowing your habit word is likely to be "and" in the matter of linking independent clauses helps you build in techniques that produce a more vigorous paragraph, where a good deal of churning and activity appear to be taking place.

The Terrible 40

✔︎ any form of the verb: to be*
✔︎ into and onto when in and on are better
✔︎ Sentences that begin or end with It 
✔︎ a bit         ✔︎may
✔︎ almost ✔︎ might
✔︎ am* ✔︎ must
✔︎ and ✔︎ now
✔︎ are* ✔︎ occasionally ✔︎ be* ✔︎ shall
✔︎ been* ✔︎ should
✔︎ being* ✔︎ so
✔︎ can ✔︎ some
✔︎ could ✔︎ somewhat
✔︎ do ✔︎ still
✔︎ even ✔︎ suddenly. all of a sudden
✔︎ had ✔︎ that
✔︎ has ✔︎ then
✔︎ have ✔︎ was*  
✔︎ is* ✔︎ were
✔︎ just ✔︎ very
✔︎ with
✔︎ would

* These words add little to your writing and they force  you to use the passive voice.
** Although there is nothing wrong with the passive voice in the grammatical sense, and in many otherwise wonderful conversations, comes pouring out in a way that seems to defeat or at least slow down crisp, dramatic writing, you watch for its appearance in your own work, pounce upon it, then do things to turn it to a more active vector.  

To get a sense of the play and feel of the passive voice, which in effect causes the object in a sentence to trump the subject, you enjoy considering and playing with the permutations " Now is the time," and "The time is now."  Both sentences are led astray by that to be verb, and to your ears, the latter sounds more immediate and effective because time is the subject, of course is becomes the predicate, and now is the predicate nominative.

Still on the subject of words and phrases that slow sentences down, derail them from dramatic effect, and introduce the worm of opaqueness into the apple of story, you have yet another culprit, which to your experience is more often found in the composition of individuals who have become professionals in such disciplines as the law, medicine, and in general the so-called hard sciences such as geology, biology, astronomy, and physics.  The name you attach to this culprit is literalmindedness.

A literal description of a person, place, thing, event, or feeling can often be impressive with its specificity and elegance of detail.  If the description is presented so as to seem to come from the character in stead of the author, the problem of literalness is solved.  To wax metaphoric, in such a case, a major speed bump is removed from the narrative.  The reader moves seamlessly from the filtering character's narrative perceptions to interior monologue and, when necessary, to dialogue.

Fiction is many things; you even go so far as to call it a simulacrum.  But your chances of describing fiction into being on a  denominator of logic are slim chances, indeed, referred to by many professional writers and editors as "tells" or "stage direction," and you have seen more times than you might wish the kind of literalmindedness wherein the writer attempts to disguise a stage direction by having one character speak it.  

For an example of this disguised stage directions, "So, you really have no overall objection but are just taking out your frustration for what happened earlier at the office, on the theory that you'll at least have got some revenge directed at some place where you have some sense of control."  And you could not have invented this response, "Yes, you got it exactly.  So good to have a friend who understands me so well.  No wonder we get on."

Professional papers and many works of nonfiction such as history are written and given subsequent editorial support to remove ambiguity, to produce an almost complete consensus among readers.  Fiction is designed to evoke certain emotional conclusions.  Both authors and publishers are not uninterested in reader responses, but they have become more accepting of the possibility for a wider spectrum of response among readers, including the surprise when readers appear to favor a subsidiary character neither author nor publisher had much hope for.

When you tell most entry-level writers to stop thinking until they've completed an entire draft, you see the levels of literalmindedness drop in direct proportion to the mount of hours per day the writer writes.

When you tell high-achievement professionals who are seeking expertise in fiction and drama to hold off on thinking until a complete draft has been completed, you are aware of them looking at you, then watching you, insulted, disturbed, determined to show you what a little logic will do for a scene and what a great deal of it will do for an entire book.

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