The Sounds That You Hear

All right, I have a question for you guys.  
I admit, I am not a big fan of "classic" literature.  It's not that I hate classic literature for the sake of hating classic literature; truth is, I'm not a big fan of any one genre, I'm a fan of numerous particular books.  I never take things wholesale, I take them on their individual merits.  So when I pose this query I don't want you to think we should all hie back to dense, massive books that go on for forty pages about a priest who has very little to do with the actual plot of the novel.  Because that's silly. 

However, I think my biggest beef with the contemporary fiction I've come across is that it is too much like a skeleton.  There isn't enough meat on it.  Writers today have a phobia of using "unnecessary" words (said, then, very, just, they, to name a few).  So they cut them, almost to the point of creating crime upon the body of literature.  I am not sure why writers feel the need to do this.  Perhaps the argument is that readers don't want to read a bunch of words.  Well, sure, readers are lazy.  I'm lazy.  But the solution to that problem is not in cutting words.  It's in making the words make magic so that the reader no longer realizes he is participating in the exercise of reading.

A great example of a piece of contemporary fiction which pulls this off and still remains a chewable size is Rachel Heffington's recent debut Fly Away Home.  Its diction is light on its feet, giving you the illusion of ease, and yet she uses words.  There are words in that book.  Let's face it: if you're reading this blog, you're probably a writer, and your only material with which to work is words.  You are literally performing alchemy here.  You are taking one heap of common materials (words), breaking it down in the crucible of your imagination, and coming out on the other side with something wholly other than what you started with (living persons, a story, a world).  Don't cut yourself off from the one substance you have to work with.  You need those words!  You can't use them and be afraid of them at the same time.

On the other side of the spectrum from Heffington (because Fly Away Home is a "light" book, although by no means shallow), I am particularly prone to laying back my ears when people tell me to cut "unnecessary" words because my style relies on the cadence created by the words, and tends to have more text in a manuscript.  I need those saids and verys and thens.  I am trying to conjure in you the same visceral reaction you would have to poetry without scaring you with a length of poetry.  I need that cadence.  I need that beat.  I need that sound that you hear in your head to be tangible.  You may not realize it is happening (that is the large part of magic), but it is happening to you.  And you know what?  I use words to do that. 

When you ask someone to pick a card out of a playing deck, you don't get rid of the other fifty-one cards thinking they are now superfluous.  While that one card is the only card the person picked, it fails in its game if not supported by those other cards that no one sees during the sleight.  In the same way, the reader's eye may "skim" words like said and very and then, and not consciously focus on them - but the impact is still there.  You are making magic, and you are making it with words.  There is nothing wrong with English, despite what you may have been told about adverbs and prepositions: the merit is in your deftness with its use.
So tell me: would you cut?

23 ripostes:

  1. I actually prefer books with very descriptive passages- sometimes cutting out words makes the end product cut and dry.

  2. I often have that very reaction to books which have been over-cut: there is not enough juice left. A good observation, Ajax!

    (Nice name, by the way!)

  3. I think it depends on the scene itself. When I'm writing more boring dialogue (like exposition parts I can't jazz up with any subplot) I tend to use more interesting words, like in dialogue using "stated, queried, posed" etc. When the scene is intense, and the reader is flying down the page I use shorter words and sentences. I've heard the phrase 'said is dead' but when you are in an already busy and emotionally-charged scene a misplaced 'acknowledged" or "replied" can throw a reader off focus. If you take a snippet from my first chapter and compare it with one at the climax the writing is very different. But the reader doesn't need good magic of words to support him by the climax. All he needs is the plot, and the character's hearts.

  4. My general rule of thumb (which, like every rule, is broken more often than followed) is to say what needs to be said. I keep the Saids and the Verys because to me those are staples, and description, though sometimes skimmed is entirely necessary. Without it, the plot has little sustenance.

    I draw the line at long chunks of description - if it gets beyond a natural sized paragraph (and this varies with the topic of course) than I cut it. This also depends on how necessary the description is: do I have others like it in the novel already? is it important to the plot and character/setting development?

    I suppose what I'm trying to say is it's rather subjective, and different books/authors will require different standards of themselves. For me, that means keeping description - in the books I write and the books I read.

    You can't please everyone, after all...;)

  5. As a /very/ audio-learner/lover, the cadence of your work (I first read The Shadow Things before I ever found your blog) really struck a chord with me. Rhythm gives a story such motion (such wow. much impressive. most magic... sorry, couldn't help my inner Doge meme). And after reading 'musical' books such as yours and Lewis' and Croggon's and Wodehouse and many other of my favorites', it is almost unbearable to go back to the ones that are just words and straight information. Like going back to instant hot chocolate when you've been introduced to $7 coffee boutique mochas.
    So, in other words, keep it up! The world needs more beautiful words.

  6. The people who skip over words like "said" will skip over the replacement words as well.

  7. You've put a finger on something I've noticed too. I'm mentally saying "Hear, hear" to that entire second paragraph. Every now and then I see a contemporary book that looks interesting, download a sample to my Kindle, and end up...disappointed. The writing is often so simplistic it sounds as though it were written for young children. (Note that I don't confuse 'simplistic' with 'concise'; I have read certain authors who use few words but manage to choose and arrange them in a way that packs tremendous punch.) I read a lot of older books just because I like them—both acknowledged classics and older popular fiction—and there is a magic in their use of language that you don't see much anymore. As you said, that was one of the things I liked best about Fly Away Home.

    When I'm editing a sentence or paragraph of my own writing, I don't consciously think about whether it has too many or too few words as much as I try to achieve that cadence or rhythm—both in the way it sounds and in the way it looks on the page. Of course I sometimes do cut extraneous words that serve no purpose at all; those have a way of getting in there in first drafts. But unless I'm trying to keep the wordcount down for a specific reason, I think I'm more likely to add words when I edit. I think this post dovetails nicely with Rachel's post the other day about first drafts being skeletons: you need words to flesh them out.

  8. One caveat: write what you can. (I use the second person generically here, as I have a very hard time finding any fault with Jenny on this score!) Don't force it. Don't use a plethora of words that doesn't really make sense to you; that is the surest way to waste them. Yes, there is a time and a place to grow and train your fingers in their verbal musculature. But God gave you your pen, not another's. At the end of the day, if narrative description is not your thing, bulking up your writing with the same will turn out chalky and dry. So maybe your fingers could stand to limber up in one area; maybe take a class in drawing (something I've always felt I should like to do someday, since I struggle with making sense of description) and learn to have an eye for details. If you're really convinced something about your writer's eye needs to change, realise that it will come through putting work - not words - into it.

    In other words: a writer ought to love their pen first, and train and grow for the sake of the craft - not simply to juice up a specific product. I thought the juxtaposition of yours and Rachel's styles very apt, because you are both very different writers with a shared delight in the use of words. There are similarities, but the difference is more notable because - hello! - you each do very well using the separate pens God gave you. And you are both comfortable and at ease with yourselves and your identities as little image-bearing creators after the heart of the Maker. At some point, either our love of the craft transcends our awareness of our own skill - or we find ourselves cramped and self-conscious, and no rhetorical style or flair will convince a sensible reader that we are worth reading.

  9. I've never been to the cutting stage {I'm still in the adding stage of rewriting} so i don't know. I'm inclined to say I wouldn't want to but might in order to have a cleaner finished product. I don't know.

  10. Ellie - You're absolutely right when it comes to the use of pacing to create a certain feeling in the reader. I do the same thing: sharp, sudden, fractalled lines to hit the reader with that sharp, sudden, fractalled sense of being punched again and again by the scene. It's actually a trick used in cinematography to great effect (write like a movie!). I wouldn't call slower dialogue "boring" - it's simply that: slower. And it can actually be just as crucial to the plot as a hammer-and-tongs discussion: slower dialogue can unfold the characters' personalities, thereby lending depth to the story. Please reference Mirriam Neal's lovely post Both Sides of the Door.

    Bree - Please don't mistake me for saying you should never cut. I just got done saying that sometimes you have to hack out stuff you like from your manuscript to make the story work better. I'm referring specifically to that oddly frenetic fad among writers to actively avoid words with which we are comfortably familiar in the English language. Honestly, if you cut them too much, not only does the story hang limp and bony, it really sounds pretentious when you try to beef it back up with words too large and out of place. What you have to cut for good of a novel is subject to every individual novel. The "unnecessary word cutting" fad is just that: a fad. That's all I mean. :)

    Hazel Marie - I don't think I mentioned how cute your pseudonym is! It suits you perfectly. "Rhythm gives a story such motion." This is exactly how I feel. We are such a moving type of being: even when we are asleep our bodies are still beating a primitive rhythm from which we cannot escape: and, when we do, we want to have that rhythm back. Perhaps that is one reason why people occasionally tell me my writing seems alive: I do my very best to infuse it with living spirit to make it beat inside your bones.

    Bound & Freed - I'm a lazy reader, and a frenetic crazybody. I dislike sitting still for long, which makes reading for extended periods of time quite difficult. Eh, what can you do? Readers have foibles. The best you can do is meet them somewhere along the way with your magic and hope it carries them off. :)

  11. Elisabeth Grace Foley - I think that's the best attitude to have: to not freak out about what you might be doing wrong and to do your active best to get the story to ring true. That's what every journeyman does: you practice over and over until you not only know what it sounds like when you strike it right, you can strike it right nine times out of ten - if not even better.

    "Simplistic" shouldn't be confused with "concise," you're exactly on the mark. And that's exactly why Fly Away Home sprang to my mind: Heffington got the beat down pat like nobody's business, it was quick and light and it was perfect for the story, and I don't know that she worried much about cutting "saids" and "thens." She didn't rely on an overabundance of wording to make her story good (that would have only made it pretentious) nor did she slash the poor thing to pieces to cater to a lazy crowd. She got the rhythm down and the story flowed like molten gold. ^.^

    Anagram (!!) - I think maybe I inadvertently answered this comment when I replied to Elisabeth Grace Foley. Derps. Journeyman analogy still applies. :P You can't rely on wordiness or brevity to pull the story off: you have to be a good alchemist first and foremost. The language is there to be ruled, not to rule you.

    ...and I will be your slave.

    That is one thing I do want EVERYONE to remember here on The Penslayer. I never, ever want ANYONE to go away thinking I want them to write like me. That would be impossible, and it would also be annoying because that's my thunder. Please get your own. While we are often alike, God has made each of us unique, and we will all see things a little differently, writing things a little differently, spin words in just a unique way that will be all our own. All I ask is that we all do this as best we can. :)

    Anne-girl - Again, I'll refer you to my answer to Bree. Cutting in this instance refers to trying to avoid words because people have told you they are "unnecessary." There will be stuff in your manuscript that you will have to remove, but that's just a matter of course. Not every idea one comes up with (despite what I tell myself) is actually brilliant. But in a rhetorical way, I wondered if anyone would be willing to write the current fad of calling certain words evil and cumbersome.

  12. Jenny: I hope I didn't come across as thinking you don't like to cut! I know you're quite handy with the scissors when you need to be. ^.^ I just wanted to clarify, I suppose, my reasons for chopping.

    And in the future, I should probably think twice before commenting so soon after I've woken up in the morning - looking back on that comment, I see several things I could have stated much clearer.

    For what do we live but to give sport to our neighbors, and laugh in our turn? ;)

  13. Don't mention it! I also felt the need to clarify, and you gave me an excuse to do so. ;D

  14. Sometimes I cut words like that because it's one of the only "rules" left that I hadn't decided I don't like, or seen a knowledgeable argument against. Well, there goes that, then. ;) I try to write the way I want to write, not the way people say you're "supposed" to write--I try to stay true to myself. But it's nice to hear someone else say that I should do just that. :) Loved this post! (Which I found from Mirri's, but goodness, I need to be following you too!)

  15. Deborah O'Carroll, welcome! welcome! I know structure and English courses and writing classes do help some people, but nine times out of ten I have watched it crush very young writers' ideas and scare them into paralysis so that their writing never takes on a colour of its own. So yes, I will say that: by all means write the way you want to write. The beauty of the English language lies in its cobbled-together-ness. In whatever way you must make the story shine, use that method. :D

  16. Thank you! And, yes, I agree absolutely. :) I'm trying... ;)

    By the way, IS there a way to subscribe to the blog? The subscribe-by-email thing says it's not enabled or something. D:

  17. Hrm. It appears to be working for Gmail. I wonder if being on WordPress would deny you access. That seems unusual, but I confess I don't know how those kinds of things words. Other than following The Penslayer the "old-fashioned" way, I don't know what to tell you. If you follow me on Goodreads, you should get blog notifications; you can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter if you are linked up with those sites. Hrm. :/

  18. P.S. Bree -You must have very misshapen thumbs by now. O_o

  19. Never mind, the email subscription's working now! Yay! (And I'm following you on Goodreads too, so I'll get it double. ^_^)

  20. I am TERRIBLY backward in regards the timing of replying to this post, but two things: I am glad I managed to use words in FAH - my style is not over-heavy on description, but I do like knowing I've commanded the lesser-known bits of the English language fairly well. As for cutting, I say it all depends on your style/talent/occasion. YOUR books require description, and taking every second of movement at a five second slo-mo pace. That's the beauty of your style. You get time to sink your fangs into a thing. MY style would not fit that. My style relies on dialog and small tags and little bits of description to work you into the feel of a thing. So for me to use long trains of description would be nonsense. For you, it is important. Also, some people can't write description without making you yawn. Those people should change their habits. I don't want to be yawning in a book. As for certain words, I use "rather" a lot, as well as "quite" and "said". These words are to me, commonplace stuff. Like pennies. Some people scorn paying for coffee with change, but hey; it's still money.

  21. Deborah - Oh good! I'm glad it's working now. :)

    Rachel - True dat! It is the little, commonplace words with which we are so familiar that make the text so equally familiar to us. Who has despised a day of small things, and who has scorned the little words?

    You're right, my style relies necessarily on heavy use of diction for its impact, yours takes a lighter approach, but both deliver the punches we want. No one needs to be like anyone else when it comes to writing. There are basic principles one should pay homage to, but one will often fail if one tries to make oneself a carbon-copy of another writer. That is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment and full yawns.

  22. Coming at the tail end of things (I have been convalescing from a week long cold, if you please!), I find that much of the thoughts I had mulling in my mind to have been discussed at length already - but being a post with a question that has very close relation to my very own question and struggle I could not hold from commenting ... do I write 'their way' and keep it cohesive, concise - "skeleton", or write with intuitive (goodness knows if I am learning it right) poeticness and style of the ancient, Joy-thrilling, thick manner we love deep in us, the richness of something beautiful and Other and be an official 'failure'. I was discussing this with Sarah the other day, and we were thinking.... (It was mostly her encouragement really!), what if we risk bravely giving and introducing to an audience what they are not used to reading/watching being entertained by but perhaps are actually instinctively looking for? Sometimes, being a writer is like being a pioneer, wetting the appetite of a culture and generation used to nothing but the 'fad' of skeleton stories, poor poetic beauty in language, and references to the Primary world that does not fit in the mold of what is in a modern sense traditionally a 'successful' novel. It is a risky business and more likely to fail if your main aim is material success. One may, within conscience, write a respectable story within the constrictions of the 'fads' and televisionize the poetry, chop description, and remove the cadence for the sake of popular taste of readers . Or one can gamble the risks in the pursuit of... something, maybe a leaf of a masterpiece, and a joy to earnest readers.

    I confess the question puzzels me, especially since the 'old is better' and more beautiful (I think), but also in a modern sense there are things we have learnt and developed in the art of storytelling and description, etc. that should not be tossed aside. I suppose a blend of both, a middle ground is best ;). The thing is... in the process of developing the craft early on - should we learn the trade, the 'method' of successful novel-writing, or attempt to delve into one's own style and creativity with the chances of getting it... horribly wrong??

    For you, Jenny, your work in Shadow Hand captured something rare and raw and beautiful in your language, the poetry of your book - it captured me and stirred my soul with a heart-throbbing ache of longing, made me tremble and shiver at the exctasy, the terror of it. Don't give that up!! Your talent with words, and weaving scenes - harness it, develop it, but do not quench it!

    1. Mybad! I meant Shadow THINGS of course... :D