On occasion, I'm privileged to read and review stories written by emerging authors. For the most part, I'm impressed. But now and then, I'm compelled to make . . . suggestions. These suggestions almost always include admonitions about 'too much', or 'too many'.
Too much usually refers to description. Sure, we all like to get poetic about weather, and light, and color. But at what cost? Often, we pay the price in pace. Our prosaic indulgences may please our sensibilities, but do they really add to the story we're trying to tell? Not always. In fact, too much description frequently adds disruptive 'drag' to a story.
Too many almost always refers to dialogue and action tags. To me, nothing reveals an amateur writer as much as unnecessary and clumsy speech tags. Dialogue should be an organic smooth glide. Incessant tags disrupt this glide, causing readers to . . . trip.
What follows is a story written entirely in dialogue. No extraneous descriptors, no speech tags.
I wonder if you'll find anything missing?
"Hey, Old Man, mind steppin' over here to the stove and tastin' this broth for me?"
"You ain't tryin' to poison me again, are you, Prudence?"
"If I'd ever tried to poison you, Henry, you'd be second-generation worm meal by now. I probably should have done it forty years ago. But at this late date . . . I'd probably be doin' you a favor. Now, raise your old bones and come taste my broth."
"What kinda broth is it?"
"What kind of fool question is that? You watched me pluckin' a pullet all mornin'. What kind of broth do you think a pullet makes?"
"Feather, I reckon. Though I ain't at all partial to feather broth. Tickles my throat."
"Feather broth? I've never heard such nonsense. I swear your brainpan is gettin' sparse as your pate. It's chicken broth, Henry. You happy now?"
"Don't know if I'm happy or not, seein's how I ain't tasted it yet. But I'm surely relieved it ain't poison broth, ner feather. Hmmm. Needs a mite more salt, you ask me."
"Oh, you always say that. Can't you ever once tell me I did something right, Old Man?"
"And leave you with nothin' more to shoot for? Don't seem Christian-like to me."
"What do you know about Christian? You ain't seen the inside of a church since our weddin'."
"And I won't, neither. 'Tis widely recommended, never return to the scene of a heinous crime."
"Crime, was it? I'll show you a crime. Try to keep breathin' while I get the rat poison. Then you can taste the broth again."
"But the broth don't need poison, Prudence. It needs salt."
"What do you know? Everyone agrees you don't salt the broth, you salt the soup. And this here broth ain't been made soup yet."
"Then why in the name of Hazel's halter did you make me get up to taste it?"
"The way you lump around like a mushroom all the time, I got to get you up once in a while. How else am I to know when it's time to call for the undertaker . . . and dance a jig? What do you want in your soup, Henry?"
"Don't you go pressin' me, you ol' mule."
"Chicken, then . . . but no feathers."
"Henry Derby, I hope you're havin' yourself a good time japin' me, because the Day of Judgment will soon be upon us."
"Sooner than the soup, rate you're goin' at it."
"That's it, Old Man! You're gettin' dumplin's in your soup--not because you like 'em, but because that's what I want. And you're gettin' plenty of turnips in it, too--not because I like 'em, which I do, but because you don't. How do you like them apples?"
"Anything you say, Prudey."
"Anything I say? Since when? And the last time you called me 'Prudey', you still had hair on your head and a spring in your . . . bib overalls. What 're you tryin' to run on me, Henry Derby?"
"Run? Prudey, you know I barely got the starch to stand. I ain't runnin' nothin'. I'm just tryin' to make up for funnin' you about your broth."
"Make up? You? Good Lord, at least I know what a stroke looks like now. Really, Henry, are you okay? You seein' a bright light and hearin' your gran'mammy callin' to you?"
"I'm right as rain, Cinnamon."
"Cinnamon? What in the blazes are you talkin' abo . . . Oh, you spied the bag of apples I drug up from the cellar, didn't you? That's it, ain't it? And you thought you'd wheedle a pie out of me with all your sweet Prudey-talk. I swear, you ain't got the principles God give to a red-reared baboon. Ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"Don't you 'Yes'm' me. But if I was of a mind to do some bakin', you want I should add raisins to the apples? Apple-raisin makes a mighty fine pie."
"Whatever you say, Prudey. But don't forget to add a pinch of salt to the crust dough this time."
"What do you mean, 'this time'?"
"Sometimes you forget."
"I ain't never forgot. And I ain't never made a turnip pie, neither, but there's a first time for ever'thing."
So? Did you miss the descriptors? Did you miss the dialogue tags? I doubt it.
The truth is, readers have imaginations--and they appreciate being given an opportunity to exercise them. Keep that in mind. Give your readers credit for being able, even eager, to read between the lines.
Methinks sometimes folks invent things to make other folks, who don’t understand the invention, feel stupid. Take Bitcoins. What the heck is a Bitcoin? A better question is: Why in the world would I pay money to own something I can’t hold, see, or understand?
At least with “Go Fund Me” I get it. That’s a cyber way to beg. I grasp Pyramid Schemes, too. But Bitcoin? I’m stumped.
As a small girl, I couldn’t figure out how things worked like telephones, galaxies, and taxes. I decided not to worry about it and resumed playing with my Barbies because I was young and not supposed to comprehend adult concepts.
Now, I’m an adult many times over and still don’t understand cell phones, the theory of relativity, or Buffettology. Only recently have I mastered the difference between an ETF and a UFO. Yesterday, on TV, I listened to attractive, 30ish, intelligent-seeming, male twins hawking “Bitcoins.” I gathered they are a cybercurrency that uses computer energy. Is that right? Who understands this besides Stephen Hawking? Does he even get it? More importantly who’s investing in this fairy dust?
Me, I like things I can understand. A week ago, I attended a writers’ reading where a writer has his moment at the podium with a mic and a captive audience seated before him. Each scribbler read her esoteric, profound, eclectic, poignant, sophisticated, obscure, urbane, highbrow, complex, cryptic, impenetrable, gloomy poems or the equivalent in prose. My fellow attendees seemed acquainted with each other’s product and they oohed, aahed or clapped after each rendition. The moderator appeared visibly moved by every performance After each piece, I physically pushed my chin up to shut my agape mouth. I sat dazed and confused. I couldn’t discern what my fellow wordsmiths were talking about but roughly I think it was: adultery, child abuse, incest, patricide, and maybe haunted trees with animal spirits? Pure obfuscation! My turn came. I was last on the roster. I read my simple, non-fiction story about last year’s New Year’s Eve. I relayed how we spent it not in revelry in Times Square, nor in the midst of overflowing champagne fountains, nor on an exotic vacation, but at a local Chinese restaurant with another couple whom we’d known a long time. My epiphany was that this is what is meant by Auld Lange Syne. “And there is a hand, my trusty friend, and give us a hand of yours…” Robert Burns wrote two and a half centuries ago that we should appreciate our beloved friends. His message was crystal clear. If this audience seated before me tried to excavate my tale for a deeper take-away, then they left as frustrated as I was when weed-whacking their mumbo-jumbo.
So, what does this reporting of a writers’ mic night have to do with Bitcoins?
Well, I say if you don’t understand something, if the concept is murky, and you must have it explained to you many, many times and even then, you’re not sure you’ve understood, perhaps it’s not real, but phony. Therefore, avoid making an illegitimate investment.
If the prose or poetry you’re reading or, worse, composing is muddled and confusing, ask yourself why. Could the complicated, convoluted, chaotic verses be akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes? Are your drawn-out metaphors, flowery hyperbole and ten-dollar words there to camouflage that nothing important was said? Are you as a writer trying to play the Wizard of Oz and disguising weak content behind an elaborate curtain of obscure and meaningless words?
Although not a fan of acronyms, I believe in one: KISS. And KISS should be applied to writing. Keep it Simple-- Scrivener!
So, here it is the New Year. January, 2018. A special time of determination and resolution for over-eaters, over-drinkers, and, even, over-writers. Yeah, you, Bub. You know who you are.
I'm guessing you are one of three-million-seven-thousand-and-twenty-two authors planning to make 2018 The Year of My Best Novel Ever. Good for you. I'll tell you right now, I'm utterly enthralled by your exuberance. Titillated by your tenacity. Awed by your artistic audacity. Go for it, man. Let it fly! Work without a net. You have nothing to fear but . . . second thoughts. Yeah, those second thoughts.
So, before you serial-crack your knuckles, dust off Roget's, and refill your printer's ink reservoirs, perhaps you'll allow me to offer a rousing ration of encouragement, a delicate potion of 'fear not', and a tonic for those second thoughts.
Don't be afraid to write small. I'm not speaking about length here, but about the issues, themes, motifs you plan to build you story on, or around. Not all stories need to shake the world. I'm speaking especially to you writers who may not be all that experienced. Life includes death, but, unless you're a mortician, it's not the center of the Universe. Don't be afraid to lighten up on the doom and gloom.
Anyone can write a bombastic story 'torn from the front pages'. But it requires special skills and dexterity to write a compelling tale based on a snippet of back-fence gossip, or conjured from a snapshot culled from an old family album. Despite what the word 'blockbuster' implies, everyday human interest stories still interest everyday humans. Don't be afraid to write small.
Don't be afraid to infuse your characters with . . . character. If your characters can't sing, my friends, all they can do is drone. If that's okay with you, well, welcome to the ranks of the International Association of Disappointed Self-Published Authors.
Intricate plots are fine. But readers relate better to intricate characters. Readers fall in love with characters, not clever plot devices. Invest your time in giving your characters tics, and quirks, mannerisms, and attitude. Give them flaws. Give them doubts and back-story. Above all, give them more depth than a cardboard cutout. Don't be afraid to infuse your characters with . . . character.
Don't be afraid to take your time. Listen, I know you're breathless. I know you're sashaying to those ants in your pants. I know you're deliriously desperate to punch the 'Send' key. Well, cool your jets, Bucko. You're not done yet.
What? You don't believe in drafts? Editing? Polishing? Refining? Who do you think you are? Me?
Forget it! Even I'm not arrogant enough to be me. I edit. I polish. I even (Lord, help me) expunge. Okay. I've said it. Yes, I expunge. You want to make something of it?
Listen, my friends, every writer needs to come to terms with his or her own verbal flatulence. You know what I'm talking about. That moment when we become so enthralled with our own artistic brilliance, we just naturally get . . . gassy. Yeah, flagrantly flatulent. Are you prepared for that kind of embarrassment? I should think not.
Do yourselves a favor, writers, take the time to purge the gas--as well as the SPAG. And, while you're at it, why not punch up the dialogue? Tweak your transitions. Mend your metaphors. Spit-shine your similes. Expunge the evil extraneous. Yes, expunge until your ribs ache. Most of all, don't be afraid to take your time about it.
Don't be afraid to read while you write. The saddest excuse for a writer is the one who claims he's too busy writing to read. Reminds me of the bus driver too busy watching the road to consult a map. No telling where he'll end up.
Spare me your excuses, writers. They're all variations on the same theme: 'I don't read while I write because I'm afraid I'll inadvertently steal a word, a line, a passage, an idea.' Sounds reasonable, right? Well, it stills smells like crap to me.
There's a giant gorge between 'reading' and 'plagiarizing'. That being said, reading is a boundless source of inspiration. But being inspired by a book is a far cry from plagiarizing it. You'd be hard pressed to produce a single author who hasn't been inspired, and doesn't hope to inspire others. Reading isn't stealing. Stealing is stealing.
Writing without reading is like clapping with one hand. Don't be afraid to read while you write.
Well, I've got plenty more to say, but who doesn't? Besides, you've get better things to do than listen to me. Go forth into the new year, writers, and be fruitful. I need inspiration, too.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.