Writing: Five Simple Questions For Better Prose
I’m not usually a fan of these enumerated listy things. Of course, I say that every time I do them–I suppose knowledge is half the battle. The other half of the battle is something else, something I’m too damn lazy to deal with. I’ll tell you what it is when I (eventually) get to it.
A note about these–there is no magical twinkly teehee fairy wand you can wave over your writing and just MAKE IT BETTER. There truly isn’t. With or without adverbs, said or no said, if your writing blows it’s going to blow, and only time (and attention) will cure that. So this isn’t the sort of doubtful panacea you find the snake-oil salesman offering you, if you ACT NOW!, for $5.99 plus fifty dollars shipping and handling. These are a few practical questions to help you help yourself when editing. They’re simple brain-fart style mistakes, akin to mental typos, that few people self-publishing bother to ferret out.
Because they don’t THINK to ferret them out. And this is sad. Stubbly clown in the rain type sad.
1) Does This Make Sense?
Seems simple, no? But boy, is this a helpful homing beacon on your purple proseometer. That sentence you just wrote, about sleeping werewolves curled like ketchup in the bottom of the fry box–what the fuck does it mean? How are werewolves like ketchup? Is this apparent to the reader? No? Don’t explain your puissant metaphor, sir. Hit delete.
Because if you have to explain your metaphors and similes, they have failed in their initial purpose. A metaphor or a simile should be deployed, with great caution, to the purpose of better explaining what something is or seems like through comparison. It is not a way to flex your Proustian deltoids. If it doesn’t perform its function, get it out of there. Which brings us, in a way, to:
2) Didn’t I Just Say That?
You don’t need to say it more than once, at least, not in the same sentence. There are some things–visual cues, clue reveals, key phrases–that should be repeated. I’m not a fan of the popular ‘don’t ever repeat yourself ever’ advice for writers: there are times when something needs to be driven home, and that is precisely what repetition is for throughout an entire chapter or novel. However:
When you’re going through your draft, check and make sure you haven’t used ‘patience’ three times in that paragraph, or bookended it with descriptions of your character’s sigh. These are simple mechanical mistakes that can clot the hell out of good prose, and leave even a non lip-moving reader scowling at the awkwardness of something you wrote. This is one of the things I’m bad at–I type pretty quickly, and sometimes ‘quickly’ winds up in a sentence like three times, and it’s quickly a shitty sentence, you know? Which brings me to:
3) How Many Modifiers Do I Really Need?
If everything is happening very soon, or nearly right now, or almost presently, you might want to take another look at your verb or noun and consider a change. Modifiers such as very, always, nearly, almost, or (in a different linguistic category, but the same deal) seems to be are wishy-washy and weak, and they destroy, I repeat, destroy most writing when used too often. I mean, think about it–if her hair is almost brown, why can’t you just tell me what it is? (Five bucks and a lot of indie romances tells me it’s auburn). If it’s nearly midnight, why can’t it just be 11:55? If it seems to be popular, then what the hell is it really?
Don’t get me wrong: modifiers (especially in humor) have their place. And that’s usually when a stronger word is required, but ‘almost ______’ is understatement and therefore funny. But if you reread and find your page cluttered with them, it’s a problem. This is another one I have issues with, especially that old bastard ‘seems to be’, and trust me, modifiers are like cockroaches, if you notice one it means there are ten more just lurking somewhere, waiting for you to turn out the light. Which, hey, reminds me:
4) Are My Metaphors a Mixed Bag?
Did you just party like a rock star until the cows came home? What are you, some sort of hybridized celebrity farmer?
I don’t have the hatred of cliches a lot of folks do. Like adverbs, colliquialisms are useful in the right time and place, and I don’t find them terribly irritating (though I imagine they wouldn’t translate too well). After all, if you spent all your time trying to find new ways to say things, your novel would be rather difficult to understand, and by God, you’d never get around to advancing your plot.
However, when you combine them, the results are unintentionally hilarious. And, unless your main character really IS a black sheep who just had a close shave, you might want to deploy them with care and tact. Again, just read back over your work with your brain working and you can avoid this. (See how this last sentence was a great example of rule two? I’m leaving it in just for that).
5) Has Her Dress Always Been Green?
Continuity, while often unimportant to the writer when hammering out a first draft, is everything. Is it spring in the first chapter? Good. But is it also spring in the second? If it isn’t, have you mention that time actually passed?
In my first draft of Aurian and Jin, Aurian’s eye color went from brown in the first chapter to grey in the fifth to brown again in the final chapters. Jin’s lost eye was both her right and her left, alternatively. This is the sort of stuff that, should your reader be paying particular attention, can ruin the realism of your story. If you want folks to suspend disbelief, you have to at least give them consistency. Think of the movies you’ve watched where, if you pay attention in that big Roman battle scene, you can see the gaffer’s shadow in a rain puddle while he eats a sandwich and scratches his crotch. Ruins things, doesn’t it? Don’t scratch your literary crotch in a rain puddle. Make sure your details are tidy.
My advice: keep a notebook near you when you write. When you mention a specific detail: her eyes are grey, the river Darking flows to the right of the city–write it down. That way, even in your first draft, this shit won’t be wrong. And one less error made is one less error you have to find.
There y’go, kids. Five simple things that’ll help you edit. Because I love you. And I don’t have too much else to do.