WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

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WRITING: Clear, Uncluttered Prose

Item one: if you’re calling it prose, my bet is on it being neither clear nor uncluttered.

Anyway.

We’re going to do this one by example, because I think it’s the best way to get the point across. So here goes.

Somewhere in the sky over Dallas, a blue red-breasted bird chirped from time to time.

1) In the sky. This is a bird. When we picture birds, they’re in the sky. No need to specify that here.

2) A blue red-breasted bird. There are a few ways of dealing with this. One would be to scrap adjectives altogether and just call a bird a bird. However–does the reader need to know that this bird is blue and red-breasted? If they do, do a little research. Google ‘blue-red breasted bird’. Oh, hey, look at those results–a bluebird is blue and red-breasted. Most people know that. You can just call it a bluebird, and provide absolutely as much description in a much smaller wordcount.

A note here–this is why it’s crucial for a writer to have a good working vocabulary. Why say ‘he walked to the store in a loose and blubbery fashion’ when you can say ‘he walked to the store, jiggling’? Or, even better– ‘he wobbled to the store’?

Now, mind you. There are times, especially in humor, where ‘a loose and blubbery fashion’ fits perfectly. But if you’re not going for special writerly effects, and you just need to provide information, the fewer words you do it in, the better it sinks in.

3) From time to time. Okay. I ask, again–is this need-to-know information? Basically–is it important that the reader understands, in this very sentence, that this bird not only chirps once, but repeatedly, at unspecified and probably not regular times?

If it is–take a deep breath here–I’d recommend an adverb.

What? You ask, monocle askew. But adverbs are the great Satan! They’re the devil standing in the way of a peaceful society! They murdered my mother!

Well, I’ll ask you how that happened later, for sure. That ly combination is pretty pointy, but rarely ends in death for those involved. However, let me take a moment to broadcast some unavoidable truth in your general vicinity, like a homeless guy passing gas on a city bus:

Adverbs exist for a reason.

Should you use a ton of them? No. Moderation in all things. But when you have a situation like this, where you have a piece of information that needs to be imparted and the alternative is a long and overused modifying phrase, reach for intermittently, or periodically.

Have some care, of course, in how you deploy them. Some of these little parachuters have been on one too many drops, and we’re so sick of them we’d be more than happy to blow them out of the sky. ‘Occasionally’, which it might occur to you to use here, is one of them.

So, when faced with the unavoidable adverb, go fancy. Intermittently or periodically say the same damn thing, with a little less common wear. I might even take a stab at using ‘infrequently’, but I don’t think I would here–infrequently, after all, puts the emphasis on the bird not chirping more often than otherwise, and therefore doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

Our fixed up sentence is, therefore,

Somewhere over Dallas, a bluebird chirped intermittently.

Which is a lot shorter, more direct, and better. And, yes, I itch to strike that ‘intermittently’ too, but you need to know what you need to know. So. You’re welcome.

But here’s the thing, kiddos. You’ve all heard this before. Practically every craft blog on the interwebs has a section on prose clarity, and many of them are much more comprehensive than mine.

What I want to do is, actually, call attention to a phrase I used throughout this little experiment: what does the reader need to know?

People are remarkably imaginative. They’re more than willing to fill informational gaps with information of their own choosing. For instance, if you asked ten different people to draw you a picture of Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, you’d get ten very different portraits, even though he’s well-described in the course of the novel. You’d probably get messy clothes and shining crazy eyes in every one–well, an attempt at them, at least–because these things are vital elements of the man’s character. But the little details, well. People are happy enough to imagine.
This is because they don’t really matter.

Whether your character is blonde or brunette, green eyed or brown, tall or short, lanky or plump–unless these things are also a part of this character’s personality, their page presence (like that one?), they aren’t important.

So if you’ve been indulging yourself in the little things, it’s time to diet. See how much you can convey through simple nouns and verbs, scene setting and character interaction. A call for minimalism should never be a call for lost detail, but a call for detail more carefully sown. After all:

Why waste time describing every map section of Hogwarts when you can describe the teachers and students, and the things they do and interact with? JK Rowling told you more about Hogwarts with her moving portraits and magical candies than she ever did actually talking about Hogwarts. Take a lesson from her.

Leaving you now with a list of modifiers I’m sick of seeing, and ways to say the same thing more prettily:

1) Often. I’m sick of often. Instead, try frequently or commonly, if you must at all.
2) Nearly. This is a hard one, along with its evil twin, almost. The best thing I can say here is just try not to use them. If you’re nearly blind, then what the hell are you? Nearsighted or farsighted, maybe. Purblind. Just like if you’re nearly asleep, you’re probably dozing or snoozing. Flex those vocabulary muscles, boys n’ girls.
3) Rarely. Again–if you rarely participate, what are you actually doing? Lurking, possibly? Skulking?

Remember–the more modifiers you use, the more modified your writing is. And nobody likes modified. We paid for the good stuff, don’t water it the fuck down.

Much love.

Writing: The Production End of Your Business Plan

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WRITING: Writing as a Business

So, obviously, I don’t have enough to do today. You’re getting two blogs, you KNOW I don’t have enough to do today.
As a result of my laziness, I’ve been online googling and Pintresting things related to writing as a business. My sales are down, I’ve got a mini-launch coming up. I need to be thinking more about the business side of things.

I’m not the best person at businessing (yes, I just turned that noun STRAIGHT UP into a verb), but I try. When I DON’T sell, I generally know why–I’m not putting enough effort into advertising my wares. I can say this, of course, until I’m purple, but the fact remains: I have a full time job, a long transit time. I have people in my life who want to see me periodically. And…

And.

I HAVE SHIT TO WRITE.

The reason this is in all caps is simple. Paging through suggested business plans for indie authors, I saw a lot of what you’d expect–use social media x number of times daily, make  number of public appearances, set advertising budgets and goals, take the business side of this seriously, save your goddamn receipts. All the stuff you’d expect. And, then, some stuff you wouldn’t: spend a few minutes each day clearing off your desk. Give thanks to the Lord for your successes every night. Once, memorably: don’t forget about your family.

All right, that’s all well and good. Very thoughtful. But there is one thing–ONE THING–almost every single one of the ‘plans’ I checked out neglected.

Can you guess what it is? I bet you can.

It’s the production plan. You know, your manufacturing end of the business spectrum. You know. WRITING.

Not a SINGLE ONE of these plans (and I looked at five or six before throwing up my hands) allotted time, or even SUGGESTED time, for WRITING A BOOK.

Once I realized, I was horrified. Have we gotten so involved in social media, patting ourselves on the back and looking like internet-educated professionals, that we’ve forgotten how important it is to ACTUALLY WRITE A BOOK?

Don’t get me wrong. If you want to sell copies, you absolutely DO need to treat your writing endeavor as a business. You need to have selling goals and ideas. You need to advertise. You need to tweet your little heart out.

But before all of that, you need to sit down and write something.

And if you want that thing to sell, you need to not be thinking about how many social media likes you’re going to get, what suit you need to wear to your book signing, whether or not you’ve given thanks for your successes today, whatever. You need to be thinking about your story, your characters. You need to be writing, at least a few words a day. And you need to enjoy it. Because otherwise, why are you doing it? For fame? Gosh, good luck getting famous with a self published novel on the internet. I know, I know, some people have done it, but they’re few and far between.

And their books were good. Because they took the time to make them good.

I promise you, before they started coming up with elite social media strategies, these people wrote. And they enjoyed it. Because they’re writers, and that’s what they do.

A lot of ‘writing as business’ blogs tend to shame writers a little for ‘not treating their writing venture as a business’, and this, frankly, is toxic and unwise, and IMO part of what kills indie quality. It isn’t a damned business. It’s a book. What happens AFTER is the business, and yes it’s part of your business plan, but so’s production. Can you imagine a toothbrush-making company’s business plan without x number of toothbrushes required for success? No? Of course you can’t. Because in order to sell, they need a PRODUCT. So do you.

I’m begging you guys. Don’t lose sight of your writing for the sake of ‘business’. Selling copies is important if you want to make a living, yes–but it’s a means to an end. It comes after the product. And, while it should be respected, your writing deserves the first respect.

Because, as a retail veteran and not as a writer at all, I will tell you–if the product’s no good, or just plain isn’t there, no one will come back for seconds.

So, when you’re coming up with your business plan, please take a few seconds and allot some time to creating the product you plan on selling. Because, if you’re really busy, that’s the thing that should come first. You might want to consider adding a ‘production plan’ section to your business plan, detailing roughly how much and when you need to write to stay on track. You might not stick to it, I know–but this way, at least you’ll know when you haven’t. And just having it in there will remind you, in all of this mess, about what’s really important.

Because you aren’t writing to get famous (and most of us aren’t doing it to pay the bills). You’re writing to write. Because you have to write. Because you’re a writer.

Thanks,
EFR