Thursday, December 8, 2016

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

"Do you have embarrassing writing tics? Words you overuse? Things every single last character does in every book?"

I started what turned into a lively thread about this on Facebook last week, when I shared a couple of my copy editor's deletions from the manuscript she'd just returned to me. "Blinked my eyes" and "sounded like fireworks going off" both made me laugh. I had to stop blinking my kidneys I was laughing so much. Luckily, the noise of some fireworks lying in their box in the cupboard drowned me out.

Comments were of two main types.

A lot of writing pals fessed up to having their characters endlessly shrug their shoulders, nod their heads, and even kneel down on their knees. We shared a collective "duh".

Even more pals sprang to my defence (and so I should think!), pointing out that writing a novel isn't like writing a memo. You're not just trying to get the bare meaning across. You're also trying for rhythm, style, voice, and the whole big glorious gulp of being drunk on words.

Why, though, would that even need to be said? Where did the idea come from that cutting is king and stetting has to be argued, that spare prose is inherently better than luxurious prose, that less is always, always more. I mean, yes of course, hooray for Hemingway. But what about Dickens? I still devour every word Joan Didion writes, but I'd hate to be without Joyce Carol Oates for the other 362 reading days of the year.

We know where it came from, don't we? Strunk and White's "omit needless words" has to be the most misused piece of writing advice ever. And what a survivor! The Elements of Style came out in 1959 and we're still in thrall. To guys whose writing skills couldn't handle the existence of women. Well, pardon me, but I'm going to take my cue from people who're not vanquished by the pronoun system of such a straightforward language as English. Imagine if they'd tried Hungarian with its 14+ cases. They'd be lying down with a cool cloth on their heads.

So. Strunk and White. I'm not a fan. And Elmore Leonard didn't help either, although I'm pretty sure he was kidding. In either case, I give them all a raspberry and, above, you'll have noticed me deliberately giving you a sentence with three "that"s and a repeated adverb. You didn't? What can I say?

Deliberateness is the key, for me. Intent and purpose are another two words for it. Okay, I'll stop now. Tics on the other hand are what we do thoughtlessly. They're first draft things. Needless words are the words we think the better of when we edit. But editing out style, voice, rhythm and humour (oh yes, I've had an editor take out jokes because sentences could be tighter without them and they add nothing to the great god meaning) . . . editing out the joy? Why would you do that?

I wouldn't. I didn't. I wrote "stet - rhythm" "stet - idiom" and "stet - voice" all over the manuscript. But I didn't, in the end, specify what the character blinked. I bet no one emails to ask me..


Paul D. Marks said...

Catriona, I couldn't agree more. Write what works for you and your story. One of the things I love about Raymond Chandler is the description and I miss that in many modern novels. (And in fact, I'm planning a post on that for SleuthSayers, the other blog I write for.)

People lay down rules, others pick them up and then we're all supposed to follow along like lemmings. As you say, we're not just going for plot but for "rhythm, style, voice." So a big "Stet you" to your editors ;-)

Art Taylor said...

Great perspectives and advice here, Catriona--and this in itself was blissfully fun to read.

Dana King said...

Since you mentioned Elmore Leonard, I'll chime in. I'm a devotee of leaving out the parts people tend to skip. That said, they don't skip well written prose. (at least I don't.) While I love Leonard's work and lean toward those with sparser styles, I still love me some Chandler and James Lee Burke and Declan Hughes. Execution is what matters. So while I'm still an advocate of never using nine where six will do, those six WON'T do if they fail to convey the mood and style the author is looking for.

catriona said...

I cut a major rant out of this blog, believe it or not(because it's still quite rantsome), on the subject of writing manuals and teachers. The good ones I've come across treat other people's emergent style like an egg with the shell picked off and the membrane trembling but some just say "I know what is good, do it and you will succeed" and that lot always do the spare, pared down, vigorous, muscular (paging Dr Freud) dance. The cynic in me suspects it's just easier to teach cutting than anything else.

Art Taylor said...

Yep, Catriona--speaking from a teacher's perspective, I agree. I do teach the value of cutting (including showing then two versions of the same Raymond Carver story, with all of them thinking the revision is the longer version, where it's really the shorter one). However, first and foremost I believe that the writer needs to find his or her style--not mine or someone else's--and so in addition to teaching cutting, we also look at a variety of styles and structures and approaches, for a wide variety of options.
And again, thanks for the comments here!

Dana King said...

The rant on writing manuals and teachers probably deserves a post of its own. I’m in the early stages of putting together a proposal to teach a class on writing PI fiction at a local writer’s center and that has me wrapped around the axle a little, how to get them to write in their own unique voices without imposing my personal tendencies on them. Might be the most important part of the class, when I get right down to it. Passing along general information is easy.

jrlindermuth said...

Who gets to decide what's a 'needless' word? A rose may be a rose by another name, but the individual writer should get to decide what to call it and always have the option to change his/her mind later.

catriona said...

Dana - I owe you a drink. Because I've got two blogs to write in the next two days and my brain was running low.

RJ Harlick said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Catriona. However when your publisher demands you stick to a word count and you have a tendency to go way over, like I do, you end up doing a lot of reducing the words to the bare essence.

Dana King said...


Well, then, I hope to see you in Toronto. :)

Unknown said...

Definitely need your own swing. I've never heard of using the stet notation for the editor. Is that your own invention, or industry standard? Because I could use it too...!