Look, I know not everyone is as goofy about words as I am. I can become struck by a sentence, and have it repeat in my head for days as I become half-drunk on it. Most of those sentences are poetry, but sometimes it’s just a bit of prose where each word strikes a deeper cord, or evokes various meanings from a seemingly simple construction.
And no, don’t ask me for examples, because right now I don’t have one running through my head.
I will also straight up admit that I must be very odd in my relationship with text, because I never understand why anyone highlights or clips certain excerpts from books. When I got my latest kindle, I had the “show other people’s markings” setting on and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. This made me glare a lot, as I couldn’t figure out why people were highlighting completely mundane sentences. Of course, it’s entirely possible that all these highlights and clipping of sentences happen the way they happen to me: Kindle starts falling, grab it with my off hand, and suddenly I’ve saved a clipping of “Hi, I am looking for my cat” as though it were some kind of life altering message. (As is, I had to turn the dictionary off, otherwise, by the same process, I was continuously having the meaning of “hand” or “parasol” explained to me.)
However, I find that my love of words gets me in deep trouble. Mostly when I’m tired/busy and therefore reading Austen fanfic, I’ll admit, although I’ve started catching the same problems in non fanfic books ranging from romance to mystery and even the occasional fantasy and science fiction. (It’s not that science fiction authors are better, understand. It’s just that we’re geeks, and therefore more likely to try to get the details right.)
These problems are best described as “taking a silly turn at the vocabulary tree.” My younger son writes very competently, but in speaking tends to grab the nearest word and shove it in place of the right one. I think because his brain works too fast, and he doesn’t want to lose track of the sentence, so he shoves the first word to cross his mind in the place of “something like.” (This is how he one day told us when he died he wanted to be crucified. Our reaction was “what, in the front yard? The neighbors will talk.” Turned out he – of course — meant cremated. It’s just was well it was that substitution. It could easily have been crimped, honestly.)
Today’s ARGH was someone who insists on using “donned” instead of “dressed.” I have no clue why. Maybe she thinks it’s more period language. But we get things like “People were donned in last year fashions.” While last year fashions in dresses can be donned, and people can don dresses, people cannot be donned. I keep imagining all these people as Edgar Suits, from Men in Black.
I do realize that I come from pre-history and therefore these things bother me, but a modicum of respect for the language will spare you my arghs. (Maybe — having read Amanda’s post from yesterday — it was in fact written by robots. It occurs to me AI might do okay for fanfic? Maybe?)
Since I was reading at dinner (what? Don’t you?) my husband who was also reading (We DO talk to each other, often. We were both just tired from the con) interrupted my ARGH by reading to me the list of things minimalists say we’re not allowed to do in writing.
I don’t remember all the rules, but it was the usual, and as usual advertised itself as “rules for good writing.” It is, in fact, rules for absolutely blah and lifeless writing, because what it does is eliminate personality, individuality and subtlety.
So you get stuff like “Don’t use superfluous words” which is all fine and dandy, except that what is superfluous. As a reader and writer, yeah, I do get lost in big long paragraphs to no purpose, but what if there is a purpose. What if the long involved sentence relates to how the character thinks? Or the involved description is designed to hide or reveal something important?
“Don’t qualify how something is said” or of course “Only use said.” While I will confess that some of the old contortions to avoid using “said” are a little odd (I was listening to an old audio book, with my kids in the room, and then someone ejaculated something or other) let’s be honest, it can be carried to extremes. And “he said” “She said” starts looking like a ping pong match. I avoid the whole thing, by having action tags in the middle of the dialogue, so that I also remind the reader the characters have bodies and a physical presence. But sometimes, sometimes, you need “asked” or “shouted.” I once had someone in a workshop yell at me that you could tell if a character whispered by the words. You know what? Maybe there is a way to do this. Maybe you lower the number of consonants, or whatever. But it seems to me by playing with that kind of nonsense, you immediately lower your readability. Just like people who think it essential to write only in words or Anglo-saxon origin and not mix in Latin derivatives, in the same paragraph, after a while you’re hobbling yourself and concentrating so much on that stuff that you are hampering your prose. You end up taking long detours around meaning, instead of writing clearly. Which is of course the opposite of what the idiots who made the rule think they’re doing.
The same goes double with a pinch of “yes indeedy” when it comes to avoiding adjectives and adverbs. Sure, okay, you can use adjectives and adverbs to distance the prose, and make it seem over-elaborate, instead of just saying what is there. But all adverbs and adjectives, including the dreaded “Very” have a place in writing artistically. There is a difference of tone and rhythm in saying. “He was cold.” And “He was very cold.” Or even “He was very, very cold.” And yes, sometimes the third is very, very needed to express your meaning feelingly and with narrative vigor.
Oh, and don’t get me started on not describing people at length — there goes all of romance, or for that matter anything else that wants to imprint a character’s physical presence in your mind in a unique and unforgettable way — or not describing landscapes and places at length — there goes all of Tolkien.
The truth is that words are tools. All words are tools. They can be used clumsily and to destroy the art, or they can be used…. artistically.
A description of a landscape (or the weather) can give you the mood of a piece, the history of a place (which you’d otherwise have to put into stilted dialogue or boring dry exposition.) A description of a person can hide hints to his personality, or reveal the narrator’s otherwise hidden lust or revulsion.
Adjectives? Adverbs? Well, badly used they will make your work read like those interminable and bizarrely popular company mission statements of the nineties. “We aim to activate the diverse cultural synergy by emphasizing the deliberately opaque box out of which we will feelingly extract the emotively charged kumquat.”
However properly used, they can add something, even if it’s just a feeling of hesitation, of drawing out the statement which in turn will reflect the mood of character or scene more than a simple statement of fact.
Reading the rules, I thought it was a lot like what Pratchett said about the Marquis of Fantailer rules of fist-fights (Yes, an obvious joke on the Marquis de Queensbury boxing rules) “He was very bad at fighting, and therefore he made up the rules for fighting by listing all the ways in which people weren’t allowed to hit him.”
The rules of minimalist writing (No, not good writing. the minimalists are a movement like any other. They come and go every so often) after a while start to sound like people who aren’t very good at writing and who therefore want to make rules on how everyone isn’t allowed to write in any way they can’t. They figure if everyone is writing bland, flavorless prose, they’ll finally be competitive, I guess.
And the worst part for them? They had it completely sewn up, and all the trad pub editors convinced to follow their rules, and then indie came on the scene, and now no one pays any attention to them and is running around describing weather and scenes, and using all the adjectives and adverbs they very well please.
Now if I could just get them to stop reaching for a vaguely appropriate word that starts with the same letter and is approximately the same length as the right one, it would be a very good world indeed.
Maybe if I shake my cane at them!