Monday, March 30, 2009

Words...Maybe I Do Care

Okay so a while back I talked about not getting hung up on the words. Today I got a writing question that made me think about how I use words and at what I do care about specifics. The question from a fan who is also a writer went roughly like this: You always seem to have the right word, adverb, adjective, to capture the scene. Is that natural? How did you develop it?

Now, I don't know that I would agree that I always have the right word, and I'm sure the Wyrdsmiths could point to any number of times where I absolutely don't have it in the drafts that they see. And that's in part because I really try not to get hung up on things at the sentence level when I'm going through a first draft. If it's taking much longer than a few seconds to find the perfect word, I'll just toss an approximation in there knowing that I'll get closer to what I want on the next pass. That said, I do strive to make my prose smooth, sharp, and appropriate. Here's my response to the question of how I worked to get my sentence level construction to the place it's at currently:

It's actually something that I worked hard to develop. My natural style is both more verbose and more academic. There were four conscious components involved.

The first was writing a bunch of short stories and having them critiqued by a friend who writes really bare bones prose. He made me much more aware of my multi-clausal and 25 cents word tendencies which got me to thinking about my prose on a more spare structural level.

Then I got in the habit of going back through stories after a year or more of ignoring them while I sent them out. By not even glancing at a story I was able to arrive at a place where I was no longer invested in it at the sentence by sentence level. At that point I would set a fairly arbitrary goal of cutting out ten percent of each story and trying do it entirely by editing out redundancies and excess words at the sentence level rather than wholesale scene cuts. Another friend calls the work at this level sentence origami because you're taking sentences apart and refolding them to say the same thing with fewer words.

The third was a years long process of integrating those practices into my first draft process. The four things I really focused on there were teaching myself never to use a 25 cent word where a nickel word would work (less than ten characters wherever possible), trying never to let a sentence go over three manuscript lines (keeping it to two or less if I could), keeping paragraphs to a quarter page or less where possible and trying never to let them go over a third of a page, and eliminating passive voice constructions wherever possible. That last is probably the hardest for me and the one that I most often have to fix in successive drafts. It's also the one that most forces me to find the right short word to express something.

The fourth is a practice of trying to find subject-appropriate metaphors, similes, and analogies. So, if I'm writing about Greek gods and computers I try to draw my comparatives from the classical myth structures and programming or electronics, whereas if I'm writing a theater book I strive to use theater language, or numismatics language for a coin-magic book. Something might be as black as the waters of the Styx in a WebMage book, or the velvet black of the front curtain in Winter of Discontent (my as yet unpublished Shakespearian magic book) book, or the tarnished black of a long buried silver penny in Numismancer (also unpublished).

9 comments:

jen@ywt said...

That's an impressive level of math you got in them there language rules, brother, what with the fractions and the making and remaking of 20 cents change. ;p

(I use wildly different methods, no surprise, but it looks like we're both chasing similar goals to change the voices of our personalities into something more like writing voices.)

Kelly McCullough said...

I hadn't even thought of it that way, Jen, but you're absolutely right. I suppose it's not surprising since I'm kind of an engineer-head in many ways. I really like to have goals that I can match up against measurable progress.

Kelly Swails said...

Something might be as black as the waters of the Styx in a WebMage book, or the velvet black of the front curtain in Winter of Discontent (my as yet unpublished Shakespearian magic book) book, or the tarnished black of a long buried silver penny in Numismancer (also unpublished).

Touches such as this are absolutely essential for making a world come alive.

Great post, Y.

Shawn Enderlin said...

good post. one thing i don't do enough of is analyze my writing process/technique. critiquing for my writing group has certainly made me more aware, but there is definitely room for improvement!

Greg Lyons said...

All of this effort sounds like you've made your writing merely easier to read, not necessarily better. You've been giving too much credence to Strunk and White.

Mari Adkins said...

Now, I don't know that I would agree that I always have the right word

I know I don't - and I know I don't during the original process. When I can't touch upon the right word, when I'm writing longhand, I'll circle it; if I'm at the laptop typing, I'll highlight it in light grey. Then I'll worry about it after the first draft is finished -- unless for some bizarre reason the "right word" comes to me at some point in time thereafter (and I remember where I needed it).

My natural style is both more verbose

My readers keep comparing me to Faulkner...:snort:

trying never to let a sentence go over three manuscript lines (keeping it to two or less if I could), keeping paragraphs to a quarter page or less where possible and trying never to let them go over a third of a page

This is difficult for me, as well. I ran into a paragraph the other day that spanned a page and a half. I thrashed myself, found an appropriate spot to break it in half, but it's still a monster. o.O

eliminating passive voice constructions wherever possible

This is the absolute worst for me. I think I'm getting there. I hope I'm not deluding myself. :grimace:

Mari Adkins said...

@ Greg Lyons - I disagree. Having read through all of the WebMage books, I've watched Kelly's writing progress and improve. Very obvious in CodeSpell. imho.

Shawn Enderlin said...

RE Greg's comment. In general, I think almost anyones writing can be improved by the techniques Kelly outlined. However, I think the issue at hand is really a matter of style. Tolkien would shudder at Kelly's post, but there is both a place and a market for the more spare form of prose Kelly is advocating. I believe there is room for both styles, as well as shades in between.

Kelly McCullough said...

Greg, I am about to admit heresy here. I can't give credence to Strunk and White because I've never read it. Books on grammar and style bore me and always have.

My natural style was overacademic and overcomplex to no effect and no sales. My current style is much more readable and I'm much more in control of it. Oh, and I sell books now, which suggests something. I'll leave the what as an open question.