Keep It Simple


There’s a theory entertained by some aspiring authors that you can send an unpolished novel to a publisher, and if there’s the germ of a really great story in it, they’ll buff up the bad writing, fix the grammar and usage errors, and essentially teach you how to write—after offering you a six-figure contract on the weight of your innate brilliance, of course.

Wrong. Back in the time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, there were editors who spent a great deal of time and effort nurturing the nascent talents of promising young writers, but those days are long gone. Today, editors expect the manuscripts that land on their desks to be display a certain level of linguistic competence, and why not? When you submit your work to a publisher, you’re sending them a product in the hope that they’ll want to pay you for the right to manufacture and distribute it. It’s a business transaction between presumed professionals, so by offering them a manuscript, what you’re saying is that you’re a skilled writer whose work is worthy of serious consideration—in other words, that you know what you’re doing.

If someone claiming to be a professional cabinetmaker presented you with a table that was poorly sanded and finished, with legs of different heights, would you buy it? Not likely. In fact, you’d probably be a little ticked at the guy for wasting your time, and maybe even insulted by the implication that you lack the taste and discernment to recognize his amateur effort for what it is. Six months later, when he brings you another piece of furniture to consider, you’ll probably tell him to put it right back in his truck—just as the editor you burned once will likely stuff your subsequent submissions right back in those SASE’s.

The writers who get published, and published well, are those who take the trouble to make their work as flawless as possible before submitting it for consideration. They hone their craft by taking workshops and reading books on writing—and articles like this one. They read a lot, and pay attention to what works for them and what doesn’t. When they’re in doubt about whether their character lies down or lays down, they look it up. They revise and re-revise their manuscripts to refine the language for readability and impact. They seek out critiques by qualified fellow writers, and they welcome honest, frank evaluations. They’re not thin-skinned. They don’t sulk when the flaws in their work are pointed out to them. On the contrary, they embrace the opportunity to correct those flaws and bring their writing up to a professional level.

They do all this because their goal isn’t to be patted on the head and told they don’t need to change a thing. Their goal is a publishing contract.

When asked what they’re looking for, most editors will say, “A great story.” Of course; they want to be swept away just like any reader. But a story is only as great as the words that are used to tell it. Words are the bricks and mortar of our trade, the raw material with which we construct a world for our reader to lose herself in. We can start out with the greatest story that was ever thought up, but it will fail to grip our reader if we keep distracting her attention with confusing sentences, lifeless language, and punctuation errors.

Less is More. In fiction, the most effective and artistically pleasing approach is usually the simplest. When you take a writing workshop or course, simplicity of language is drummed into you, but it’s one of the most difficult concepts for any writer, new or experienced, to incorporate into his or her use of the language. We all love those beautiful bits of language we sometimes encounter in our reading, so for many of us, there’s a inclination to want to word everything we write—every sentence—as eloquently as possible. But there are some problems with making a conscious effort to write this way.

For one thing, it makes your reader’s brain work too hard if she has to ponder over the wording of virtually every sentence. This isn’t mentally challenging; it’s mentally grueling. These are the books readers put down in the middle of Chapter One and forget to pick up again.

Overly elaborate and self-conscious language makes your reader stop. Never make your reader stop, for any reason. She may stop to ruminate over the language, or she may stop because your clever wording obscured the meaning of the sentence and she has to try to figure it out. When this happens, your reader is wrenched out of the story, losing her train of thought, her commitment, and her interest. This is the last thing you want.

This kind of dense and mannered writing is hard to write, making the process tedious for you. It’s easier to remain engaged in the story if you aren’t constantly tormenting yourself over figuring out cunning new ways of saying things.

Not only will you enjoy the writing process more if you close the thesaurus and relax a little, you’ll likely produce more beautifully crafted fiction. If you labor over every turn of phrase, you run the risk of producing work that comes off as overworked and stilted. This kind of prose is extremely off-putting to most readers, who tend to prefer clean, elegant writing. Some years ago, I read a review of a historical romance afflicted with the “more is more” approach: “[The author’s] writing style was troublesome for me, as well. There’s a rather stiff, over-polished feel to the narrative, and some of the sentences were so convoluted that I had to go back and re-read them to make sure I caught their meaning. All of this, of course, speaks to careful word choice and painstaking rewriting, but instead of coming off as natural and flowing, it feels forced and strained.”

Lest I be accused of an anti-romance bias, here’s an example of some very clean and effective writing from Patricia Gaffney’s Forever and Ever:

She lay on top of the bed, not dressed yet, the half-eaten remains of her breakfast going cold on a tray at the bedside. Her occupations, an unread book, an untouched sewing basket, were strewn about on the unmade bed. She barely glanced at him when he came to stand at the foot, wrapping his arm around the tall bedpost.

The heroine, Sophie, has become depressed. Gaffney indicated this by describing, in a very simple, straightforward way, where she was and what things lay around her on the bed. She could have written something like:

Sophie lay sprawled in an abyss of melancholy on the rumpled counterpane of her bed, her eyes pools of desolation, steeped in an endless morass of melancholy. For weeks, she’d spiraled deeper and deeper into misery, unable to finish a book or a sewing project, her appetite as dead and withered as the cold little lump in her chest that she used to call her heart. Day after day, she languished in her dismal room, surrounded by the detritus of her empty life, consumed by sadness, overwhelmed by the deadening weight of hopelessness and despair…

Oh yeah, that works.

The first version is more effective because the words don’t get in the way. The image of this woman on the bed goes right into our brain. We figure out for ourselves that she’s depressed, and we feel that sense of hopelessness more intensely because it wasn’t fed to us with a lot of unnecessary verbiage. This is a point I tend to harp on it in my writing classes because it’s so critical to good fiction: The most economical writing is the most powerful because it allows your reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions based on the evidence at hand, rather than being spoon-fed those conclusions. Ideas that the human mind creates for it­self, in this case the idea that Sophie is depressed, are much more powerful and affecting than ideas that are spoon-fed to a person.

When Patricia Gaffney wrote that book, she knew that her novels would have a much greater impact if she utilized simple, straightforward language rather than flowery turns of phrase, clichéd expressions, and goofy euphemisms. The dreaded Purple Prose is a subject about which there is actually some disagreement among my colleagues. I see this type of writing as a common failing in all genres, especially fantasy and romance. Although I think it’s safe to say that most modern romance writers agree with me on this, some very respected authors do not. The argument has been made that these familiar, romancey words and phrases are like a secret handshake among women, a code that makes the reader feel she is one of a group. It’s also been said that originality and individual voice are not necessary in romance—that what we think of as high literary standards are patriarchal in nature and needn’t necessarily apply to a genre that is written mostly by women for women.

I respectfully disagree. What is generally acknowledged in the literary world as good writing is regarded that way because it’s the most effective way to tell a story, and I feel strongly that romance writers should apply the highest standards of excellence to their work. Love stories that are written in clean, original language evoke a much stronger reaction in readers than do stories that utilize the hoary old words and phrases that readers—and critics—of romance have become all too familiar with. By the way, this applies to love scenes, too. The writing in love scenes can and often should be more lyrical than in other scenes, but lyrical doesn’t have to mean purple.

Am I saying you shouldn’t take care over your language and refine it? Not at all. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” We should always try to find the perfect word for the job—not necessarily the longest and most highfalutin, but the one that will most effectively convey what you’re trying to convey. And we should endeavor to put those words together in a way that is both lucid and beautiful.

Nor am I saying that you should never try to word something in a poetic or lyrical way. Those bits can be magical—if they’re peppered into your prose every once in a while, for maximum impact. If every sentence is comprised of lush language and convoluted syntax, it will all have the same texture, and your reader won’t even notice the best phrases. So my advice is to save your really evocative language and use it discreetly, for spice. It will be much more effective that way.

Next month, I’ll tackle one of the greatest obstacles to good fiction, and one that is all too rarely addressed in writing courses and books: Obscurity.

Louisa Burton
September 2009

“FictionCraft” © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

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