Posts Tagged prose style
Literary and historical novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)
As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.
This time the submissions had a theme – literary and historical, so in our discussions we aimed to define the characteristics of these. We discussed how literary blurbs are not like genre blurbs, and how a blurb can create the wrong impression about a book or give away too much. We discussed how you might create a coherent literary work out of a story with many points of view. We looked at how an author might unify a novel by setting it in a short space of time or a particular geographical place. We identified a fantastic example of showing instead of telling.
We considered openings that were thematically effective but seemed to need a more human centre. We considered titles – the risks of using a name as a title, and a title that gave the wrong message about the tone of the book. We also discussed awkward phrasing – which led us to identify another hallmark of literary work, the author’s control of language and nuance.
We also discussed Matt’s own fiction, which is emerging – in various guises – from his phenomenal experiences reporting on four wars. How do you make real life into fiction? What about transitioning from journalism to fiction writing – are there stylistic habits that journalists have to unlearn? (Spoiler: yes there are…)
There’s a lot more about beginnings and genre/non-genre notes in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I’m aware the title of this blogpost might sound like old-fogey nagging, but it has a serious point. And, to reassure you, the cure is easy.
We learn storytelling from just about anything, and much of it without realising. TV and movies are a huge part of our lives and while they’re great teachers for some aspects, they’re not so good for others.
There are several common issues I see in novel manuscripts where the writer is thinking with TV/movie brain. So here’s how to reboot your prose brain.
Problem: lack of description
The writer doesn’t set up the scene with description. In a movie or TV show, the scene-setting isn’t dwelt on, so it doesn’t get noticed. It comes alongside the action and dialogue. However, prose needs to take deliberate extra beats to create the environment because the reader can’t see what’s around the characters. If we don’t show this, it creates a peculiar effect, like being blindfolded. I’ve read manuscripts where I thought the character was confined to one room in a kind of blank mind-jail, when actually he was staying in a nice hotel.
Some writers load the description at the start of the scene, then fail to keep it in the reader’s mind. They concentrate on the characters’ spoken lines and actions, but don’t keep the environment alive. This is disorientating for the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Readers need their inner vision to be fed – and their inner hearing too. Think of a radio play – it’s quite obvious there how the scene is ‘decorated’. If the characters are in a café, there might be a spoon chinking against a mug, a low hum of chatter from other customers. You barely notice it because it’s going on at the same time as the foregrounded action, but it’s been deliberately added to make the scene lifelike. There might be one or two moments where a character interacts with the environment in an aside – in the café they might make a remark about the cake they’re trying to resist.
And that’s how you keep the environment alive in a prose scene. Use it as part of the action. If a character’s sitting at a desk, they could tap their finger on it while thinking about what to say next. Make them react to it too – like the character longing for cake.
Use anything physical to bring the scene alive. What about their clothes? If a character is wearing a ballgown, the skirt material might rustle as they shift position.
Problem: lack of background about the viewpoint characters
I see quite a lot of manuscripts where we aren’t told enough about the viewpoint character. We see them doing things, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are there, how old they are – and this isn’t a deliberate artistic choice. Although we don’t want to overload the reader with the characters’ life stories, there are certain things we simply can’t work out.
In a movie or TV show, we get all this at a glance. In prose, we need to be told.
Reboot your prose brain Make yourself a checklist – ensure you sneak this information in somehow. Have you let us know your character’s life circumstances? How old they are? How successful? How healthy? How happy? What relationships they have? All these details provide important context.
Problem: lack of interiority and reaction
In movies and TV, we usually can’t get inside a viewpoint character’s mind. So if something happens that provokes a reaction, we have to see it expressed – physically or verbally. But if this is how you show reactions in prose, it looks quite empty. But prose has a delightful quality that some writers underuse – it can put us inside the character’s mind and heart.
Reboot your prose brain If your narrative style allows, remember you can let the reader experience the reaction in the character’s mind and heart. Don’t just show it on the outside with facial expressions and dialogue. You have a whole other register for communication – your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.
There are many possible ways a character could react to a plot event – you have to specify those reactions! Furthermore, you can show the complexity of the people you’ve created. You can explore mixed feelings and unexpected responses.
But what if you want to be economical and let the reader fill the gaps from their knowledge of the context? Yes, you can do that – but you have to teach the reader about the character first. So in the early part of the story you show the reader that, for instance, a character is secretly in love with another character. Much later, you can show the character being rejected and you might not need to show the devastation this will cause – the reader will know. But if you’ve never taught the reader what emotion a character feels about a thing or another person… the reader won’t know.
Don’t forget to go inside a viewpoint character’s reaction.
Problem: dialogue lacks an interior dimension
This is similar to the previous point. TV and movie dialogue does a lot with the characters’ actions or tone of voice. A writer might attempt to describe these in a dialogue scene – so we get reactions, gestures and expressions, but they might not mean a lot to the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Gestures and expressions can certainly be useful, but they’re not the most effective way to help the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Use interiority as well, as above.
Problem: dialogue has too many mundanities
TV and movie dialogue often has a lot of warm-up. Hello, how was your journey, sit over there, I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on, I was up at four this morning because the bairn wouldn’t sleep.
This human noise is necessary because we’re following the action in real time, it looks natural, and we’re also settling in for the real meat of the scene – perhaps seeing relationships, an environment (see my first point), getting a sense of anticipation. The actors’ actual words are quite mundane, but we’re not meant to be paying much attention to them.
However, this mundane dialogue doesn’t work so well in prose. I see a lot of scenes in novels that go:
‘Hello, how was your journey?’
‘I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on.’
‘Oh, thank you, I need caffeine, I’ve been up since four because…’
That’s four whole lines of not very much.
Of course, there are situations where this might be valuable – if there is something interesting for the reader to notice. For instance, if you’ve laid the ground for the reader to interpret awkwardness or tension, or to be very curious about every moment of this encounter. But many writers do this just to get a scene under way, because that’s how TV does it.
Reboot your prose brain Although you need some of this, and scene setting is important, you don’t need nearly as much as a TV or movie script would. You certainly don’t need to follow every step in real time – an artful condensing will work just as well. Use it, as I’ve said, if there is something the reader will enjoy noticing. Otherwise, pare down as much as possible.
Don’t just learn your storytelling from films and TV! Keep reading prose as well, to keep in practice with that medium – so you give the reader the best possible experience.
There’s a lot more about this in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?
We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.
Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.
The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.
We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.
Tip 3: Suit the occasion
Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.
For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.
I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman
It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.
More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.
All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Find books you want to savour
I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.
Tip 5: Try many styles
A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.
Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.
Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.
Here it is in a nutshell:
1 Strive to be understood
2 Develop an ear
3 Suit the occasion
4 Find books you want to savour
5 Try many styles
Or: to avoid this
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me
Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.
Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos