Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tech Tops -- Best of the Worst #4

And a few more Best of the Worst in writing ...

POV -- Self-reference in POV

You want to flip the reader right out of deep POV? Let the POV character notice his own eyes brightening or himself smirking in triumph or that oddly pensive look crossing his face.

Unless the POV character deliberately smiles -- to make a point, to reassure someone, to communicate -- he doesn't notice that he's using his face muscles to smile. Thus it doesn't show up in his consciousness.

The POV character doesn't have to wriggle his face to convey emotion. He can just think about what he feels.

Not -- He wrinkled his forehead
But -- He felt mellow and hollow, but crisp

In POV, you can describe your guy's emotion down to the fifth digit to the right of the point.
There is no mystery.
Save the facial expressions for folks you're not sitting inside.

Test a phrase in First Person before you put it in your POV character's line of thought.

I pursed my lips and blew out.
I wrinkled my forehead.
I raised the corner of my mouth.
I arched a satiric eyebrow.
I wrinkled my forehead inquisitively.

If it doesn't sound natural in First Person, it doesn't belong in the POV character's thoughts.

Description -- Bespoke Metaphors

Metaphors are not one-size-fits-all.

It doesn't matter how cool the metaphor is, it has to fit the character who uses it.

Each POV character will have, as part of his 'voice', his own particular style of metaphor and simile.
A character will also have a readiness or a reluctance to use figurative language.
Caliban speaks in poetry.
Go figure.

So let's say we have a choleric little colonel, strutting about, and I want my characters to describe him.

In the POV of a fanciful character, the red-faced colonel is 'angry as a bantam rooster'.
A vulgar, downright character sees him, 'about to bust a gut'.
A fastidious, intellectual character would think about a 'red-faced, ranting Punch'.
A stolid, unimaginative character would mentally note the colonel simply as 'furious' or 'about to go off in an apoplexy'.

Figurative language arises not just from the object described, but from the nature of the POV character observing the object.

Description -- Cliche

Go ahead. Just use the cliche, already.

Not every paragraph needs a novel figure of speech. Not every metaphor has to knock the readers' socks off. Sometimes you want the readers' socks to stay exactly where they are.

Some times ... maybe most times ... trite is OK.

What it is ...
Trite, familiar metaphors pass under the reader's radar. Like the hint of cinnamon in the chocolate, the paprika in the dumpling, the onion in the soup, they enriches the taste without making everybody stop and think, 'Hey! What the hell was that?"

Colorful metaphor -- that beautiful, fresh, unusual, original image -- can stick up like a sore thumb.
It can distract.
It can throw off the pacing, as the reader takes an extra beat to unravel it or simply to appreciate it.

If you don't want the reader stopping to look at the language, instead of what you're saying -- if you're trying to move things along in a lively way -- avoid those standout metaphors.

Save all that novelty for more contemplative, slower passages when you want the reader to pause and think about the guests star-scattered on the grass.

Cliché can also have the advantage of a succinct and emphatic clarity.
'Red flag to a bull' is a hackneyed phrase. But we know exactly what it means. In five words we get across a huge concept.
It is not always necessary to re-invent the wheel.
(Says I, using a cliché, because it is fast and exact and vivid.)

Do 'sore thumbs' actually stick out?

Description. Personalizing the object

Description, on its own, is not just of riveting interest, generally.

So attach your characters to objects and description.

Show, not merely the object, but how object and character are related. Continually put the character into the picture. Turn a general observation of some solid whatsit into an action, with the character doing something.

Not -- It was gray and gloomy up there, with an hour or two before night closed in.
But -- He shaded his eyes against the rain and inspected the gray and gloomy up there. He had an hour or two before night closed in.

Not -- The space under the oak tree gave some shelter from the rain and had a good, unobstructed view of their Frenchwoman.
But -- They made a silent agreement and crossed the courtyard in the rain, side by side, to stand under the oak tree. They had a good, unobstructed view of their Frenchwoman.

(Oh. This last example also happens to be a case of "showing with action instead of stating a reason, cause or emotion". I talk about that elsewhere. We drop the phrase, 'gave some shelter' because the actions now show the reader that the oak gives shelter. It would be repetitive to say it outright.)

Description of the tree holds us to a static and descriptive sorta feeling.
We 'personalize' the objects and the description. Now it's not an oak tree with a neutral description. It's an oak tree with our characters under it, sheltering. The oak tree has become part of the story. It's no longer just scenery.

Not -- There had to be some way to deal with the meerkats
But -- He'd find some way to deal with the meerkats.

Not -- The ruined side of his face was towards her.
But -- He held the ruined side of his face towards her.

Not -- The whole expedition was at risk because of that sharp-tongued scarecrow in there.
But -- He risked all of them if he got squeamish about that sharp-tongued scarecrow in there.

Personalizing objects this way is another of those twofers. We more fully describe the object and we define our character.

Travelling further into Obviousland, here.
I talk elsewhere about the verb 'to be'.
Some of the examples above are just prime examples of how the verb 'to be' can be weak.
Up there ... the verbs 'to find,' 'to risk,' and 'to hold' -- while not anything wildly special as verbs go -- are still infinitely stronger than 'to be'.

Varying sentence length

Short sentence after short sentence ... or phrases that are all the same length for half a page ... do the fingernail-on-a-blackboard bit on the poor reader.
Long sentences wind their convoluted, complicated, endless way to ... well ... the next long sentence. A slow slog for the poor reader.

Want to know if you're making one mistake or the other? Read it aloud.

Or you can spot the numbers.
Flip to a random, non-dialog, not-furious-action page of the WIP and use the wordcount feature. Consecutive sentences of 27, 26, 23, 30, 29, 21, 27, 19 will likely feel heavy as bad fruitcake. A run of 7, 10, 14, 3, 19, 5, 10, 8 will feel like bumper cars. Y'know. Abrupt.
More desirable is a lively balance of 19, 27, 3, 26, 15, 9, 12, 30.

You get a reward for varying your sentence length. When tucked in among their longer comrades, short sentences just leap out of ambush.


  1. I have quite the problem with "to be." In fact, I'd say my second round of edits on my ms was 85% weeding out to be.

  2. Hi LL --

    I talk about 'to be' twice in the Technical Topics. Once in 'Best of the Worst #1' under the subheading 'To Be and Action' and again in 'BotW #3' under the subheading 'Flabby Verbs'.

    Here I am, coming back to pound on the topic again. This argues a certain lack of originality on my part, doesn't it?

    Like you, I find cleaning out 'to be' cache is a big-bang-for-the-buck item.
    All those 'to be' verbs -- especially the notorious 'There was' and 'It was' ... are like styrofoam peanuts around the speakers. They're just a murfle murfle buzz buzz on the sound.

  3. Jo,
    I would argue that covering the topic of verbs and showing action points not to a lack of originality on your part but more to a recognition of some truly horrible verb offenses we tend to commit.

    You make good points, and I enjoy reading your thoughts.

  4. Hi Madeleine Hardcastle --

    Thanks so much for the kind words.

    If the folks out there teaching writing went looking for snappy one-liners --
    not such a good idea, really, since how much advice can you pack into one line? --

    "Write from the verbs"

    would be a good one.

    You know how basic writing classes ... say, in Middle School ... tend to set the students to totting up lists of 'saidisms' or lists of 'colorful adjectives' to describe a character?

    What the students should be looking at is fifty ways to say ... He walked down the street. ... without any of them sounding noticeably silly.

    Because the predicate is where you stretch out your editing muscles. Mess with the verb and you see the action in a whole new way.

    It's not just -- 'He strolled/rambled/plodded/moseyed/swaggered down the street.'

    It's -- 'He kicked a can, clank by clank, all the way down the street.

    It's -- 'The shop windows passed his reflection along from one to the other.'

    It's -- 'Five minutes of walking and remembering brought him no closer to a solution.'

    It's -- 'Bartlett Street twisted to the end and turned into Whistler's Park.'

    When we go after the possibility of a better verb, we open up all the possibilities.

    Ah ... verbs ...

  5. Once again, Ms. Bourne, you have educatified me. Many thanks, says I. Unusual perspicacity. You seem to focus on my edumacational gaps as if you know me. Or perhaps I just have so many, I'm a target-rich environment. Many holes in my knowledge. I must study harder. Actually, I've never seen a single 'harder,' let alone a group of them. I've never heard of anyone who has seen one, come to think of it. So I wonder, with a perpetual sample of zero, why so many people seem to want to study them. And the statistical nightmares a sample of zero presents would terrify the most stalwart researcher, methinks. Yet I just said I would study them. What was I thinking? My apologies for being so contrary.

  6. Hi Snout --

    'Harder' is obviously a collective noun. As in,
    'a herd of harder grazing on the hill'
    'We rounded up the harder in April and tattooed their fuzzy butts.'

    I am, myself, well acquainted with harder, in both the singular and plural sense. They trample over my keyboard with gay abandon whenever I try to work.

  7. My fingers always twitch when I write a "to be" verb, desperate to find some other way to construct the sentence, looking for a more interesting, more specific way to express myself.

    It's those "vivid verbs" that teachers want students to strive for in their writing. May the Bard forgive me: "A verb! A verb! My classroom for a verb!"

  8. I agree, I think. Mainly.

    Though part of me wants to say the same thing about 'to be' that you said so well about clich&ecute; - it's often the verb you want precisely because it's so nothing, that the reader can skim over it without pausing.

    Also, not that I think you intend this, but I've certainly seen people struggling with this on Absolute Write, 'to be' is often used as a complementary verb to form different tenses (imperfect) and voices (passive) and in those instances it can't and shouldn't be avoided.

  9. Hi Ros --

    I do appreciate a straightforward 'to be'. I laud the simple 'to be' and dance with it often.
    We're tight, we two.

    Now, elsewhere, I natter on about the virtues of 'to be' and 'to have' ... how they are strong and invisible and among the great allies we call upon in the verb universe.

    But -- let's be frank -- 'to be' is a bit bland.

    This is not to say we snub the poor fellow -- only that we avoid going steady. We leave him in the dust and run off to tango with the dark and debonair whenever we can get away with it.

    So some 'to be's' should be replaced with more exciting verbs. MOST can be left in place.

    If we've done our verbing job well, by the time we're in the last pass-through of the final draft, we're going to click right past ten or fifty or a hundred 'to be's' ...
    yes ... yes ... yes ... yes ... yes ... yes ...
    before we hit one that makes us stop and ponder.

    (I will say that I just never seem to run across a manuscript with too many excting verbs in it.
    A sludge of adjectives or adverbs -- all the time.
    Overdone verbs -- not so much.)

    As to those poor souls who walk into a discussion of writing without a clear understanding of the verb tenses ...
    We're all students. For some of us it's auxilliary verbing. For some of us, it's relative pronoun distinctions. We're all in this grammar thing together.

    I hope I don't confuse anyone still unclear on the progressive tenses or the passive voice. But I kinda assume folks hardy enough to slog through the advice on this site will also be studying grammar in a determined manner.

  10. "This is not to say we snub the poor fellow -- only that we avoid going steady. We leave him in the dust and run off to tango with the dark and debonair whenever we can get away with it."

    I enjoy how you make grammar sound exciting and sexy.

  11. Hi Moth --

    (jo blinks)

    But ... but ... grammar IS sexy.

  12. Dear Jo,

    I shall read this post twice, maybe three times, and take notes.

  13. Hi Lori --

    Well I'm not sure it's as interesting as all that. But I hope you find something useful inside.

    I'm getting the second rough draft of Chapter Six into shape. Finally. I hope to be able to move on later today.

    It's like sorting caterpillars.