Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Get Out of the Way!



I love words. And I love a well put together bit of prose as much as the next woman. Maybe more. Remember my collection of phrases that I find inspirational? From assorted genres and even from books that weren’t all that great…just that certain phrase…

Sometimes they are funny, a wicked picture painted that makes me grin. Like this one, from Jade Lee in The Dragon Earl.

A dispossessed English earl in saffron monk’s robes sitting on top of a harpsichord trying to hide an erection! This was not the homecoming he had imagined.

Sometimes they are just lovely, evocative. Like this from Connie Brockway, Skinny Dipping.

Inside, the electricity had been shut off, but the same moonlight that illuminated the outdoors had seeped in here, too.

And sometimes, they make me think of people I love, like this one, from Jim and Joyce Lavene, in Wicked Weaves.

In my vision of the world, there’s rarely a time I shouldn’t be talking.

Eh, Bosun?

So, what is the point of this blog? Well, all of these things are wonderful and they are lines I adore. But a conversation with Terri got me thinking about language and I actually made a statement to her that is probably blasphemous to the writing community. But I believe it, strongly.

Every word choice and bit of prose shouldn’t be too impressive. That if you do that, you leave no room for contrast. I think what I said specifically was don’t let the language get in the way of the story. First and foremost we are storytellers and not poets. If you want to write poetry, if you want a reader to pause at the end of each line and marvel at word choice, the lyrical picture you just painted, catch their breath at this astounding garment you just stitched together from mere words…then they aren’t going to see the story for the words. Take up poetry.

What I like about the lines I find is how they don’t interrupt the story. They add to it. The author didn’t stop the story to impress me with prose. A pause to appreciate is wonderful, a story that staggers from one bit of perfect glittery prose to another…stutters.


No, don’t stone me! I read the author I was told to read last week. And…wow, she’s great with dialogue, and her words sparkled with wit. The story? Wellllllllll….not so much for me. I could totally appreciate the words, but the story was on the ‘eh’ side. Her hero was a jerk, but I had no difficulty understanding where he was coming from and she made me understand to such a point that I didn’t buy the turn around. At all.

But wow, she can write!

It’s like with Deep POV. A book that is constant DPOV is exhausting to read. You need the light points, you need the calmer, less introspective valleys to appreciate the peaks.

With singing, the bridge is usually the most dramatic part of a song. What if the song were all bridge? No chorus, no verses, just that wonderful, intense, heart wrenching bridge…

It wouldn’t work.

So, really. My words of wisdom, which may see me tied to a stake and set on fire…don’t obsess on each and every phrase. First, tell a good story and leave room for the impressive stuff…but don’t bury your reader in glitter. Second, don’t forget to toss in the magic of a perfect phrase…when it’s part of the story you tell, when it’s important that the reader blink and pause. Third, it’s good to really dazzle the reader, at the perfect point, with a 2x4 across the back of the head and blow them away with words that vibrant with a meaning that fits what is going on with the characters and opens a window to the soul of the writer.

Craig Johnson did this in one of his Longmire books. I stopped and read this line several times, just savoring the glimpse of a  master wordsmith and adoring what this said about Walt, the character. And about Johnson, the author.

Somewhere in the distance, the synchronic circles of our pasts had tripped a domino, and the steady whirr had grown till it now drowned with the roar of contingency.

It’s a mixed metaphor and as far as I know, dominos don’t whirr…but wow. This fit the drama of the scene so perfectly… But, sisters, if you do it all the time…if you strive for every phrase to be an absolute A+ from the Sisters of Perpetual Perfect Prose…you’re gonna bury the story in diamonds.

For me, I tell stories. First. The words are for telling the story, for moving it forward, for not getting in the way of the reader’s momentum to keep reading.

Yes, get it right, but first, start with the foundation of telling the story. Then you can figure out where you need that tiara. Sometimes, less is more.

Can you think of an example of something you read that dazzled you with word skill, but left you flat with storytelling? Can you separate the two, like I do, or does it not matter to you as you read? Writers, what do you think? Am I dissing the writer’s bible when I state flat out…sometimes you need to let the words tell the story, and get your egotistical poet out of the way?

49 comments:

quantum said...

If I had to choose between beautiful lyrical prose describing a boring story and a powerful story described with OK prose I think I would go with the latter.

But why should I have to choose? A word magician can illuminate and enhance an excellent plot, revealing intriguing shades of light and dark, bringing a stunning landscape into sharp relief, take you inside the heads of the characters in ways that bring tears of joy or anguish, so many ways to enrich the plot.

If Miranda's exciting adventures were to magically enter Janga's writing word-shop, I'm pretty sure that a more poetic perspective would emerge making the time travelling siren even more alluring.

Hummm. I think I'll quit while I'm on top!
Will look in again this evening .... when the dust has settled! LOL

MsHellion said...

*LOL* My egotistical poet is sulking now, but I can agree that not every word of your story needs to be lyrical. You do need the contrast. (Incidentally, your picture of holding the stone looks vaguely dirty. But my brain is a phallic obsessed 15 year old.)

I don't agree about DPOV though. I am not a fan of what I term the "fantasy writing style" where the writing is not in anyone's POV other than the writer's. For me, it draws me out of the story and reminds me I'm just reading. When I'm in DPOV, I feel a part of the drama. Not everyone feels this way, obviously.

Harry Potter might have been a hybrid of sorts. I don't think of it as massive DPOV, but it is almost exclusive HP's POV, but the prose was not always deeply introspective. I wouldn't mind writing like that.

Great food for thought, Mo, and definitely well-needed for me today as I'm staring at all my words and they're looking BLAH. But as you say, story first.

And hilarious burn on Terri. *LOL* So true. *LOL*

Maureen said...

Quantum, I agree and I do think the longer a writer writes, the more the ease of wonderful words will come naturally. More importantly, I think the words which are plain will go unnoticed, blending with the story in a way that highlights the wonderful words and carries the story forward with grace.

The story I read last week had wonderful words, and they didn't really get in the way of the story, but! I wanted more story, less a concentration on the words...

Does that make sense?

Maureen said...

Hels! I'm trying not to get the blog in trouble by 'borrowing' images that aren't my own and you see a prick... I don't think that is my problem, it's yours! ;-P

And Terri talk is charming! As is the chatter of the character who speaks those words in the book!

Now, Deep POV has it's place in a lot of genres and I want some of it, but I think one hundred thousand words of unrelenting DPOV is exhausting. Yes, I might not be able to put the book down...if the DPOV isn't so buried in angst it gets in the way of the story!

And your current dilemma is where I hope my point makes sense... I'm not saying the wonderful words shouldn't be there. I'm just saying don't sacrifice the story because the words don't sing like a chorus of angels. Sometimes, the small voice carries the story to the chorus.

MsHellion said...

It would help if you weren't holding the rock like a prick for one.

You can argue about the DPOV, but I'm not going to agree with you.

I like the idea of harmony though, which is what you're sounding like in that all the voices contribute to the chorus.

Maureen said...

Ha! It's fine, we can agree to disagree about DPOV. I do think a master of it can make me forget it's Deep POV and that is a sweet thing. As long as there is a story behind all that reflection!

It's a rock. How else does one hold a rock?

Dani Wade said...

I know my own mind runs toward the erotic/suggestive, but I kept waiting for the penis joke because that rock does have a phallic shape... sorry! :) It might be be better to hold it like a baseball rather than, um, squeezing the 'handle'.

This post makes me feel better! I do labor over my phrases, but for the most part I feel my writing can be ordinary, portraying characterization and plot easily. I worry more about the rhythm of my words and the picture I'm painting, rather than how poetic they are. And the amount of "bestselling" authors who have horrible editing (misspellings, repeated words that drive me crazy, etc) does seem to point to the fact that a lot of readers are more interested in the story and characters than the language itself.

MsHellion said...

Thank you, Dani! *LOL* I was trying to think of how to hold the rock and couldn't come up with the description--but holding it like a baseball is it. (I'm so not athletically inclined.)

Maureen said...

Ah, see...I'm holding it like a tool... Yeah, I heard that snicker! I was thinking the monolith and 2001 and using the rock as a weapon...

Dani! Hope I made you feel better! I do think some writers get so caught up in the individual stroke that they lose track of the big picture.

Yeah, I said stroke. Ya'all got guttery minds this morning!

irisheyes said...

ITA, Maureen! I know I have read books where I was so busy re-reading to get the point the author was trying to make that the story got completely lost.

With singing, the bridge is usually the most dramatic part of a song. What if the song were all bridge? No chorus, no verses, just that wonderful, intense, heart wrenching bridge… and if you strive for every phrase to be an absolute A+ from the Sisters of Perpetual Perfect Prose…you’re gonna bury the story in diamonds.

I love it! It's like my mother always used to say to me when I was a kid - "too much of a good thing." It took until I was a little older to understand what she meant.

Maureen said...

Yeah, Irish! When we're younger there is no such thing as too much beadazzling...only when we grow up do we realize the importance of editing!

TerriOsburn said...

That picture is totally phallic. Who holds a rock that way?? And I do not have to talk ALL the time. Gah! So I've been called a motormouth before. So I have a tendency to share my opinions. Believe it or not, I spend long stretches of my day not talking at all. *sticks out tongue*

Now to the DPOV. I think we need to clarify there is an option between DPOV and the Omniscient that Hellie is talking about. You can write 3rd person POV in the characters head and not be in Deep POV.

I agree with Mo on the needed balance. I've read some authors where I'm exhausted when I put the book down. It's high intensity on every page. Like being stretched with no relief. No book she be one note. That one note carrying intensity doesn't make it any better than one note with no intensity.

TerriOsburn said...

Regarding the pretty prose, I do lament my simple style. I want to describe a character in a way other than hair color, eye color, build. And I'm working on that. But that's more turn of phrase and originality than pretty prose.

I think Crusie is the perfect example of getting this right. She's written fantastic lines but they don't get in the way and they don't pull you out of the story. Usually, the make you laugh out loud.

Maureen said...

Well, okay. I hold a rock that way. When I'm taking a picture of it... It's like holding an ice cream cone you're going to... Oh, hell. Nevermind.

Come on, that is a great quote! '...rarely a time I shouldn't be talking...' It's a philosophy!

And yeah, one can go third point of view without removing oneself entirely from the picture to omniscient. Just come up for air now and then!

MsHellion said...

I'm sure you're right, Ter--I haven't heard that you talk in your sleep or anything. :)

*LOL* Though I'm laughing that I went my extreme one or the other route. As usual. Indeed there is the version you mention. Still not my favorite though. When I think of memorable books, books that resonated with me, they were usually more DPOV. *shrugs* I think it depends on what you wanted at the time. But I imagine I'm more in a minority. It seems like most books are written more in a middle-ground area, lighter. (Where romance is concerned. I'm not sure it's done so much with thrillers or mysteries because DPOV is useful for having the mystery deeper when you have a faulty narrator.)

Maureen said...

Crusie is a great example, there is a simplicity in her prose that is perfect. And when she takes a dive into something that delights, it shines brighter because it was surrounded by the gift of simplicity.

I think the trick is to not obsess on loading every phrase with layers of glitter just for the sake of glitter.

MsHellion said...

I love glitter. I don't believe there is a thing as too much glitter.

Maureen said...

I do think when I'm reading a thriller, I want a nice deep POV. But the intensity of that can even overwhelm the story.

It is a matter of personal taste. I find Deep POV, when used exclusively, is more likely to see me put a book down. Especially if I feel it's trying too hard and didn't flow naturally.

Maureen said...

Hels! I just didn't imagine you as a glitter queen... Do you have glittery nail polish!?

MsHellion said...

Yes! My favorite nail polish right now is a midnight blue looking color with all glitter. (And even my red nail polishes have a shimmery glitter sheen.)

But to use your point--I don't paint my entire body in nail polish. Just my toes. *LOL*

But I like glittery shirts too. *LOL* Not the whole thing because I'm technically about comfort more--so cotton--but glitter and glamour on the front. Basically I'm a raccoon. I gravitate to the shiny.

MsHellion said...

See, to me, it sounds like you don't like the Voice more than you don't like the deep POV. But maybe we're looking at the same thing and calling it different things.

Maureen said...

For me, even when Deep POV is done well, it exhausts me. I might be caught by it and even agree that it's well done...but I still find it exhausting.

I think it may be my ability to absorb detail or even in how I am too easily swept into an emotional narrative.

And it may be a matter of age and how much I've read...

I still maintain that as a writer, it's too easy to get caught up in the words, at the price of a good flowing story.

The words of First Lady were lovely, perfect...I wish the story had been as satisfying.

P. Kirby said...

I agree. Art needs contrast. If the entire novel is nothing but a collection of lyrical, exquisite phrasing, then all those gorgeous turns of phrase meld together into a big, mushy blah.

The much-lauded Swamplandia (Karen Russell) was too clever for itself when it came to prose. Story was a gloomy, incoherent mess, but the narrative frequently went off on lyrical descriptions of well, everything.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta had a few wonderfully evocative passages, the kind of stuff that speaks to the deeper truths of life. But, like most literary fiction, it was mostly a study in tedious navel gazing, seen through the eyes of unlikable protagonists.

This...this is why I rarely read literary fiction.

Hellion: I love glitter, too, especially purple nail polish. Problem is, nail polish lasts about five minutes on me before it gets chipped.

MsHellion said...

But, like most literary fiction, it was mostly a study in tedious navel gazing, seen through the eyes of unlikable protagonists.

THIS is the sort of thing I find exhausting. *LOL*

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Chance - I'm totally agreeing with you. I feel the same way and your comment about Cruise is dead on.

MsHellion said...

I was trying to figure out what Mo read. I don't remember it being glittery prose, but maybe it was exhausting deep POV. She does tend to do deep POV to explain why characters are being rather toolish. That can get exhausting. But I think that's the fault of the characters and the conflict than the POV. The POV is only there to keep you reading when you make your characters rather assholish.

MsHellion said...

I also think Emotional Conflict is always more exhausting than the Outer Conflict/Action Conflict. You can easily beat something to death if you exert too much emotional conflict, but don't let the outer conflict speak for itself. Actions speak louder than words and all that.

Maureen said...

Yeah, Pat...I remember that sensation when I tried to read Dalgreen...Dahlgreen? I don't remember much other than I got rid of it because lovely words, no story. And it was a huge prize winning scifi novel.

I prefer my 'meaning of life' passages to be rare so I can savor them, not be buried in them.

Maureen said...

Scape, now and then I just totally crave Crusie. It's a matter of clarity!

P. Kirby said...

Deep POV for me, doesn't necessarily mean a constant immersion in the character's emotional landscape. I mean, to some extent, some of the romance I've read does that....and...I don't like it.

For me, deep POV means experiencing the fictional world through the character--writing that invokes the five senses. It's the difference between describing a room vs. describing a room through the character's perceptions and opinions. A good example would be Janet Evanovich (Stephanie Plum), where the narrative resonates with Stephanie's descriptions of the Burg and its residents resonate with a kind of warped affection.

Nancy Northcott said...

Maureen, I agree story comes first. At least for me. That's why I don't like a lot of literary fiction--fabulous metaphors, beautiful word images, but story seems secondary. I love words, the stranger the better, but I figure a reader who has to put down a book to look up a word may not pick it back up again.

I also tried to read Dahlgren and was absolutely, totally lost.

Maureen said...

Hellion, it didn't glitter so much as harmonize to the point of droning. I didn't feel the hero was an asshole. I could totally understand his rational and emotional distance, probably better than that of the heroine.

But she told her story with fabulous words, I didn't buy the story. And felt a bit cheated at the end.

P. Kirby said...

Maureen. Out of curiosity, I Googled Dhalgren. Heh. Yeah, it sounds like something to run, run like your butt's on fire, away from. From the Amazon description:

"While most of this big, ambitious, deeply detailed novel is beautifully pellucid, the opening pages will be difficult for some: the novel starts with the second half of an incomplete sentence, in the viewpoint of a man who doesn't know who he is."

Hah! That reads like a bad query letter over on the Slushpile Hell blog. Hard SF, like literary fiction, usually thinks it's cleverer than it is. Pass.

Maureen said...

Pat, I guess it's all about how Deep POV can just bury the story in details that might be beautiful...but destroy the continuity of the story.

Evanovich does it without - well, I have felt she overdoes it now and then - but generally, she does it without too much glitter. Perhaps it's the humor that makes the word burden lighter. Though even that can be too much.

Maybe it's more a matter of overdoing something...no matter what it is!

Maureen said...

Nancy! Good to know I wasn't the only one who never finished that book!

I do know that I love being surprised by the perfect phrase in the middle of a book that has moved nice and been enjoyable. And that is what I strive for.

Maureen said...

I'll tell you, Pat. I read about 2/3 of the book before I decided that life was too short and I had other books I wanted to read.

Too clever for itself is about right!

P. Kirby said...

FWIW, because I'm at work and B.O.R.E.D., I just spend at least thirty minutes amusing myself reading the five star and one star reviews of Dhalgren at Amazon. I'm so easily amused.

Marnee Bailey said...

I love Deep POV, but I think it has to be balanced with some shallower POV (still in one character's shoes, though) to keep it from becoming exhausting.

As to lyrical, I think it's for the second pass. I think sometimes in rough draft that if I'm trying to hard to be lyrical, I just rewrite and rewrite.

Huh, maybe I need to keep this in mind right now. I'm writing a rough draft, brain. I'll fix it later!!

Maureen said...

;/) you got it, Marn! Just don't take away from the story when you add the lyric!

Janga said...

I like First Lady and found the story quite satisfying. And I think of SEP as more storyteller than wordsmith. I think she's a terrific writer, but I don't find her prose particularly lyrical.

My favorite creators of lyrical prose are also great storytellers. I'm with Q on not seeing the two as mutually exclusive. Barbara Samuel, Sherry Thomas, Marsha Moyer--all of them write prose that sings, but their stories are compelling as well. I think there are some great storytellers among writers of literary fiction as well. Some of this is just a matter of taste and of what we look for in a "good story."

I also think that lyrical prose is not the same as florid prose. Simplicity and lucidity can be tools the poet uses as skillfully as does any fiction writer, and the most powerfully poetic prose can be both simple and lyrical.

My first blog post as a Romance Vagabond was a riff off Mark Twain's famous line: "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." My point in the post was that the writer needs to know when a lightning-bug word is needed and when a lightning word is needed. Good writers use both. I think we agree about that, Maureen, even if we disagree about First Lady and other things. :)

MsHellion said...

Barbara Samuel, Sherry Thomas, Marsha Moyer--all of them write prose that sings, but their stories are compelling as well. I think there are some great storytellers among writers of literary fiction as well. Some of this is just a matter of taste and of what we look for in a "good story."

LIKE! *LOL*

First Lady is one of the keeper books for me, as well as Lady Be Good. Although some (a few) of her heroes can be "toolish" to me, there are others who I enjoyed from the get-go, and I think these two books demonstrate that for me. She's great at introducing the kind of characters that will bring the conflict with them. *LOL*

TerriOsburn said...

We should emphasize that this is ALL a matter of taste. And my tastes have changed over the years. I've picked up a Barbara Samuel, who writes GORGEOUS prose, but I do find myself distracted from the story by the pretty words. However, I think that's a product of being a writer.

Before I jumped into this writerly endeavor, I would have appreciated that book without hesitation or reservation.

Maureen said...

Geez, Pat, if you're that bored I have more openings you could help me fix... ;-)

quantum said...

Fascinating discussion.

I keep thinking of the analogy with art where the written story translates into the subject of a picture.

In this case there is no doubt that a great painter with technical skills, insight and vision can create something of beauty that transcends the particular subject (when compared with a photograph) and will be admired by generations of art lovers.

Likewise a great writer can bring a story to life in ways that transcend a simple narration, often with lyrical prose. These are the writers that I most want to read!

Maureen, I love it when you agree with me!

Maureen said...

Always a pleasure to agree with you. I think the best comparison with art I can come with...the difference between how a black and white photograph evokes response compared to color. Or a pencil sketch compared to a vibrant oil.

Color can become a crutch that props up a mediocre subject. It can be much harder to expose the story plainly. But wow! When it works!

Maureen said...

Janga - I much prefer both but what drives me nuts is when I feel a story suffers because a writer is just trying to hard to find the right word and settles for something not quite right. Not necessarily wrong, but not right enough to be unseen when it comes to not interferring with story.

I enjoyed First Lady, I didn't buy the ending for the most part, but totally bought the hero and his feelings about getting involved with anymore 'girls'.

I thought she was lyrical in many ways with her prose. I felt unsatisfied with the storytelling... But I've only read one of hers, I'll try another!

I do find many writers who do both and do it wonderful. Irving Stone was one of those. I believe Charles de Lint hits it on the head... I'd rather have both lyrical and good storytelling, but if I what I hope I've said is that if a writer is going to err on either side, I'd rather the words be plain and the story be brilliant than the other way around.

Maureen said...

Terri - so much of this is taste. My words of wisdom are more for the struggling writer. Get the story right and explore the worlds of words as you go along. But working with newbies over the years, I've seen way too many get caught up in the words and forget the story.

You have to get out of the way of the story. And not put words between the reader and the story. Which I know sounds impossible...words are the story.

This may be one of those which came first, the chicken or the egg things...

Maureen said...

Hellion - is there a 'next' book from First Lady?

Maureen said...

And why does the crew always see a prick in the photos I use?