Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Complications Ensue: Writing Styles Pt.2

Long, flowing prose, made up of the perfect words placed in melodic paragraphs, can be a pleasure to write, and even (occasionally) a pleasure to read. But the danger is that you’ll become mired in a swamp of indulgent vocabulary and wet spaghetti sentences. Complex doesn’t mean convoluted.

William Faulkner’s Barn Burning:
The store in which the justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.

You might think, Golly gee (which is how I imagine you talk) this is a wonderful description of a room, a town store that is being used as a makeshift courtroom, you can almost feel you’re there, and what a masterful job of realisation of a setting. Scene setting at its most vivid. And you would be wrong.

No doubt the language is masterful and it is a pleasure to read in and of itself. But this isn’t a description of a room, this is a description of what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of the boy in the story. This is characterisation.

If you write a long rambling description like this without understanding that, you will most likely get people telling you your prose is too purple, the descriptions too ornate. And you might think, Puh! Some people don’t appreciate literary fiction like what I does. And again the mistake would be yours, not theirs.

It is easy to get distracted by the pretty words and their sing-song poetry, but what a reader finds appealing on the surface can belie the ramrod construction underpinning the flashy stuff. You may read the excerpt above and you may not understand what he’s going on about, you just know you like it. You’d like to write like that. But assuming those parts that aren’t explicit or obvious are therefore not necessary, is where a lot of writers who try to write in this style fall down.

Just because the reader might not consciously register the deeper meaning doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it doesn’t affect the reader. You write without those additional layers of meaning and the words will ring hollow and gratuitous.

Whose point of view is it? What are they trying to say? What are you trying to say through them? How does what you’ve written achieve those things? You can't leave these things to chance, you have to be aware of them and you have to make sure they're there.

Then again, whichever style you are drawn to, the short and simple, or the extended and eloquent, what you want to concentrate on is story. What is the story you want to tell? Why is it worth telling? Everything comes secondary to that. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Faulkner remarked, “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.

If you found this post useful please retweet it. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No one's ever accused me of being too ornate!

LD Masterson said...

Hmmm - Blogger won't let me comment on your blog using my Google account. Says I don't have permission. Was it something I said?

I enjoyed this post. Fancy writing is too often like cotton candy. Very pretty but no substance.

Kim said...

How did you know I say Golly Gee? Great post - I love: "But this isn’t a description of a room, this is a description of what it’s like to see the world through the eyes of the boy in the story." Thanks for emphasizing that stories are about people...

Libby said...

How did you know I said "golly gee?"

Jen said...

Excellent post, Mood! You're right that the descriptions tells us as much about the boy as it does about the room. I don't think I will ever write in this stye - I'm not sure I have that much lyricism in me. I love reading it though!

Weaver said...

Alex, me either.

"It is easy to get distracted by the pretty words and their sing-song poetry, but what a reader finds appealing on the surface can belie the ramrod construction underpinning the flashy stuff."
Love this, Moody.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Sometimes William Gibson gets too purple for me and I have to take a break.

mooderino said...

@Alex-not that there's anyting wring with that.

@LD-I'm not sure why that is, you have my full permission to say what you want. Blogger is so tempremenal, you wouldn't think they had billions of dollars just lying aroud doing nothing.

@Kim-cheers for the comment.

@Libby-oh, you know, phone tapping, hacking emails, it's all the rage.

@Jen-I tend to get self conscious if I get too flowery in the prose department.

@Donna-Thank you.

@Michael-scifi/fantasy authors do have a tendency to get carried away describing the worlds they've created.

Great comments, cheers.

Misha Gerrick said...

Good post! I have to admit that I was reading the excerpt, wondering if the writer would get to the point before my demise of old age.

Which is probably why I'm much less lyrical in my writing. ;-)

Unknown said...

Not really a fan of this type. I really have to be in the mood to read it. Thanks though for your suggestions about Critique Circles. I added it to my post with your link.

Jen said...

I think you make an excellent point here, but I'm curious: would you like to write like this? (Your example, I mean.)

Margo Berendsen said...

Great insight from Faulkner's quote and from that example you shared. Yay - I am relieved that I caught the characterization bit. And YAY! Story trumps technique!

lindy said...

Whew! I zoned out after "the silver curve of fish-". Way too much going on here for my taste. I agree, long, descriptive prose like this is self-indulgent--the real challenge is refraining from it, to make our writing palatable for the reader.

mooderino said...

@Misha-this kind of writing is very attractive to some writers, but I think it helps to have an awareness that it can easliy lead to reactions like yours.

@Clarissa-thanks, I'm a big fan of CC.

@Jen-No, I'm far too impatient to stretch things out to this extent (perhaps to my detriment). Wha I'm most impressed by is the ability to say multiple things in the most concise manner.

@Margo-I think the best writers are aware of the shortcomings of being overly prescriptive with writers. You have to be able to go beyond basic techniques.

@lindy-it's also a matter of horses for courses. Some people love to get lost in a mudbath of words. It's just that the people who enjoy reading it are rarely good at writing it.

Anonymous said...

And I thought I wrote long sentences. Thankfully someone invented commas!

Ciara said...

I'm more short and sweet. :)

Unknown said...

Oh man, I know I get caught up in descriptions like these all the time. And during every critique my manuscript comes back with big, red pen marks on it.

Samantha said...

I try not to write to "flowery" because then I feel like the reader is aware that they are reading a story, instead of believing that they are actually there.


Writing Through College

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Once upon a time I fell in love with purple prose because I had fallen in love with sensory detail. I wrote and made it flowery pretty. But when I decided to take my writing a step further, I learned that purple was not the in thing. It made me sad, but I've learned to cope!

I would LOVE your opinion if you think my writing is well balanced with some lavender in it. ;0) Could you please send me a message in the CONTACT form of my website of your thoughts?

Have a great weekend!

Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

But it goes beyond that Moody. Don't get me wrong. I love me some William Gibson but have you read Neuromancer? After a while my eyes get tired. I need to post a review of Neuromancer because I think these days, that me talking about a book that was written three decades ago confuses people.

who said...

do you ever find words from one piece of work that are connected intrinsically by story and cadence to other words of a completely unrelated writing?

mooderino said...

@Stephen-sometimes even commas aren't enough.

@Ciara-you certainly are.

@Caitlin-writing is rewriting.

@Samantha-I think any technique can be used effectively in the right hands. And poorly in the wrong ones.

@Elizabeth-will be happy to take a look.

@Michael-I think it also makes a difference when it's a brilliant or original idea no one's encountered before. Gibson's ideas seem old hat now that so many people have ripped him off, but thirty years ago peopel woulod have devoured them more readily (perhaps).

@who-what now?

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm a short and simple girl - and that's how I like my writing :)
<a href=">Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers</a>

Christa Desir said...

Nicely done. And I love Faulkner, although I'm more "As I Lay Dying."

Anonymous said...

I'm just happy to read something that makes me give a rat's patootie about what happens to the people involved. Come to think of it, that's what I aim for when I write, too.

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