I have been thinking about an excellent post by Jeanne Cavelos of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop on a common beginner trap in writing:
Many authors overuse words involving looking and eyes. They describe their characters looking, glancing, gazing, staring, studying, seeing, surveying, scanning, peeking, leering, ogling, noticing, watching, blinking, glaring, and just generally eyeballing everything. Characters’ eyes flash, burn, linger, darken or brighten, and even change color. Characters’ eyes drop to the floor (ouch!); they roam around the room (eeek!). Or characters may raise the ever-popular eyebrow.
The original link is gone, but the above is its heart, and over time I’ve started referring to the eyeball phenomenon as “Eye Bookisms.” This is, of course, a reference to “said bookisms”, a term I first encountered in the Turkey City Lexicon when I was preparing to go to Clarion West in 1995.
Look words were popping out at me this December as I worked through a number of student manuscripts. As a result, it occurred to me that with the said bookisms, writers are essentially trying to squeeze in variety while adding a tone to their characters’ utterances: “He snarled, she wept, they ejaculated.”
But we use eye bookisms to imperfectly do a number of different things… so when you go to write them out of your drafts, it’s useful to identify your intentions:
There’s the Description Ahead! sign:
She looked down the road. Wrecked cars were crushed into each other on the ice. The continuous stream of mashed metal ran all the way down the hill and onto the frozen lake.
Sometimes, it is undeniably handy to grab the reader’s head and align it with your POV character’s, and that’s what this is, a way of shouting “Look downhill with me!” Handy or not, I see this kind of cushioning being overused a lot, especially by writers who aren’t confident in their point of view (POV) or their ability to keep things clear for the reader. In many cases, you can cut it entirely:
The view downhill revealed… OR: Wrecked cars were crushed into each other…
A second variation of the eye bookism is Mindreading. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least in draft:
She looked lonely / She had a look of loneliness / Her look was lonely.
Here, we’re filtering our POV character’s impressions of a second person. Unless they’re a telepath, they can’t know she’s lonely… but the point is the writer wants you to know, and so the POV gets that flash of insight. Again, there’s no great crime in this. We have empathy, after all; we can sometimes look at someone and have a mighty clear idea of what they’re feeling. And sometimes that perception of an emotion leads to some interesting reactions, or good imagery, and it all flows beautifully.
Other times, though, the mindreading verges on just telling, rather than showing. This may be a perfectly good phrase to stick in a draft:
She looked like she was going to fall apart.
But there are about a billion types of falling apart, aren’t there? So on the next go-round, give us the details:
Mary jittered as she walked, laughing loudly though nobody had spoken, and nothing about this situation was funny. From time to time she lunged at the edge of the boulevard, as if she meant to throw herself into the busy traffic on First Avenue.
Next, there’s the Empty Utterance:
Look comes up in an entirely other context in this one, and if I hadn’t been reading a big and varied pile of writers’ work this fall, I might not have gotten sensitized to it. But newer writers’ dialog can tend to be festooned by words and phrases we use all the time when we’re talking:
“Look, I don’t care about pro hockey.”
“Well, basically, hockey isn’t important to me.”
“Listen, I want to tell you something. Here it comes. Seriously, like, hockey sucks.”
The reason these utterances sound stale in dialog, even though they can accurately capture a certain aspect of the way we speak, is that in conversation their meaning is largely non-textual. They’re sounds that draw the other party’s attention and signal the speaker’s mood, attitude, and intentions. If I say “Listen,” in a soft, calming voice, it may be that I’m trying to soothe; if I bite the word off, my meaning may be more on the lines of “Snap to it here!”
One could as easily say “Oi!” And sometimes, of course, we do.
Try cutting ’em, folks. If the speeches then seem too abrupt–too directly to the point–it may be that you do need a preamble. But before you put the filler back in, look for words that create the breathing space you’re looking for, the sound of someone gearing up to something important, while saying something specific and appropriate to the character.
Finally, we get to Stage Directions:
Here is where we really get into an overlap between Said Bookisms and Eye Bookisms. The process goes like this. First we’re taught, as learning writers, not to remark, bellow, hiss, mutter, and sob all over our dialog. But then we find a “he said” and a “she said” at the end of every line, and of course that’s clunky. It’s easy to move from there to directing traffic with your characters’ eyeballs. If she looks at him, obviously she’s the one speaking. If he rolls his eyes in response, the sarcastic utterance that follows is obviously his.
The answer? Mix it up! Spice lightly using all the available options, including a bit of he said, she said. Here are just a few of the possibilities:
–Give readers two clear “Chris said,” “Pat said” utterances and then follow them with a couple unattributed lines. If it’s clear that Chris is in favor of eating Mexican, while Pat wants to go for sushi, we can follow the thread for a little while without too much trouble.
–Think about the rest of the body, and the world it’s in. If they’re in a car, there are seat belts and glove boxes and maps and GPS gadgets to fiddle with. People rarely talk in an actionless vacuum, and writing in some of that action also helps readers imagine your scene…
–There’s probably some conflict going on here, right? Is it clear? Do we understand it? If so, and using the food example above, sushi advocacy can become a perfectly good stand-in for “Pat said.”
–Got POV? A little interior monologue goes a long way. I’m going to die if I don’t get some salsa, Chris thought. “I have been dreaming about this dinner all day.”
–Fictional characters address each other by name more often than they do in real life: “Chris, there’s an awesome sushi place across from Burrito Heaven. Can’t we split the difference?”
Now of course I am hoping the salsa vs. wasabi battle has some subtext going on in it, but that’s a whole other blog entry, isn’t it? The point of the above list is that it is mechanical, but if you take an overly eyeballed passage and cycle through the above possibilities, you’ll cover a lot of conversational ground without a lot of awkward repetition of either ‘said’ or ‘look’. Once that’s done, you can focus on adding depth and making it sound pretty.
Whether a piece of fiction ‘works,’ as we sometimes put it, depends both on the storytelling and on the line by line writing. In some ways, it’s problematic to view them as separate issues: if I decide a writer’s dialog lacks sophistication, for example, I might as easily talk to them about characterization as about their writing style. It all overlaps: I might find myself talking about why a story’s protagonist is so passive, for example, and then think, “Well, their behavior is caused by the rules of their setting… maybe I should address that.” And on we go.
Even so, it is often easier to try to talk about one story element at a time, and at least once in each of my Novel Writing workshops at UCLA, I shine the spotlight on prose. With that in mind, I had been trying, earlier this week, to come up with a sort of hierarchy to impose on the question. You know the kind of thing I mean: “Beginner,” at the bottom. “Professional Quality” in the middle. “Incandescent” at the top. With stages in between.
That proved beyond me, and I’m not sure it’s possible, but what I have done is think through a number of positive qualities that I look for in prose, things I think I might usefully employ to explain where a writer might focus their attention:
First, I kept Professional Quality: What this would mean, strictly in teaching terms, was that the line by line writing is smooth enough that were I an editor and if the piece in question worked as a story, I’d buy it. I think it’s important for a writer to know if they’re at or above this line.
(The rest are in no particular order).
Graceful: What I mean by graceful is that each event or action flows into the next, without there being a lot of clunky stage directions. Things like a whole pile of “S/he looked at him and said ___.” Glaring back at her, he replied, “____.” In a similar vein, grace would also mean characters move physically about the setting in an easy fashion. We don’t need to see them get up, get coffee, go to job if the story starts at job. The boring bits are gently shuffled offstage and we find ourselves comfortably entering each scene at an interesting moment.
Smooth: The general phrasing is good and the word choices have specificity. Strong verbs are chosen in place of adverbs, passive verb constructions, and said bookisms.
Clear: Simply put, I know what’s happening.
Sensual: Evokes the senses. I can imagine the scene; ideally, I feel like I’m there.
Sophisticated: For me, this means there’s starting to be some play with language, turns of phrase that at once capture ideas and images clearly and yet do it in surprising ways. The language illuminates things I’ve never considered before.
Maturity: This one feels as though it’s still a little dicey. It refers, essentially, to the emotional content of the story. I’m trying to get at the sense we get that the author understands that life is complicated, even when a particular character in his or her spotlight is maybe a bit simple-minded. I’m thinking about how it’s obvious Jane Austen doesn’t have the same good opinion of Mister Collins as she does of Elizabeth Bennett.
Transparent: By transparent, I mean nothing about the writing snags my attention, for good or ill: even if it might be low on beauty or style, it immerses me in the story; it doesn’t get in my way. I’m not noticing errors or clunky transitions. I’m just reading.
Grammatical: Either the piece is written in accordance with the rules of English grammar–not in a complete, perfect, uptight way, but in a way that doesn’t impact its transparency–or the author’s language is ungrammatical in a way that’s deliberate, appropriate and has some kind of consistency.
Balanced: There is a pleasantly readable mix of narrative, dialog, description, action. The prose isn’t all one thing.
Variable: The writer has slow and fast-paced passages. Their sentences are sometimes short and simple, sometimes long and complex. The characters don’t all speak identically. The writer can do a number of different things with relative ease.
Aesthetically pleasing : The writing in and of itself has some aesthetic impact. Obviously what one person considers beautiful may not resonate with another reader, but the sentences are put together in a powerful way–they sound good read aloud, they have strong rhythms. This is prose with the capacity to surprise, to bring a laugh, to provoke.
Confident: This one, again, seems hard to quantify. The writer can convey the setting or other information in a way that makes us believe it. They can tell us what their POV character is experiencing without always prefacing it with something like: “He saw.” If they leave a question dangling, it is done in a way that reassures readers this is intentional, and answers are coming, rather than a mistake. There’s no sense of hesitation or apology.
Streamlined: Here, I’m looking for a way to say “Not Wordy.” The need for explanation or repetition is minimized because there’s clarity–you know what’s happening the first time something’s said–and it makes sense. The flow carries the reader along, without wearing them out.
Individual: The writer is developing or has developed a voice that’s unique to them and their work. There are many who say you can’t teach voice. I don’t know if this is always true, but for the most part I prefer to stick to urging my students to get their prose up to that professional level and then build up more and more confidence. My hope is that someone who’s steadily improving on the above will in time start to take chances… and their voice will develop as they do so.
So here’s my question: assuming the above definitions were nice and clear, and maybe came with examples, how useful would it be to get a crit that said something like:
You are getting close to pro quality here, and there’s good balance between narrative, dialog, etc., but the areas where your writing isn’t transparent fall in the areas of grace and confidence. You have your characters eyeballing each other a lot, for example: you use “he scowled at X” to ensure we know who’s speaking to whom, and when you describe the Whoozification process, I can’t tell if that’s really how it works or if the character just thinks so.
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The workshop practice of having all the readers speak their piece while the author of a story or book fragment is required to listen quietly is generally accepted. I’ve seen this rule in play at Clarion and Turkey City and literary workshops too, and have heard others refer to them as “Milford” rules. I’m not sure I’ve workshopped anywhere that didn’t have this as a guideline.
Most of us seem to agree that when it’s your writing in the spotlight, the best use of your time is to just pay attention to the crits. Any energy you might spend defending what you were trying to achieve, or explaining things that weren’t clear, or catching the group up on the real life events that inspired your story (“It’s not hard to believe–it’s how it happened!”) is energy that’s better spent on a rewrite.
Where I see more mud and less agreement is in the area of a reader suggesting fixes for a given piece’s problems. There are those who are dead against this: any suggestion from you, the argument goes, is an attempt to rewrite someone else’s story. The answer you’re offering won’t be the right one. If they take your advice, the writer will screw up their story.
How much you get into actively suggesting in a peer workshop may depend on its culture and rules, on how far along the participants are in their writing career, and how well they know each other. I know plenty of people for whom a statement like, “The characterization in this could use some beefing up” would be plenty of feedback. Speaking very generally, though, and as someone who teaches people who are newer to writing, I do believe there are ways to offer concrete suggested fixes without rewriting the author’s work.
In my UCLA courses, where I get to set the rules, I allow writers to suggest specific changes to each other, with the understanding that “Do this to Element X!” is just a different way of highlighting whatever issue you had with that story element. Sometimes it’s clearer, I think, to demonstrate what you think isn’t working when you take a hypothetical bang at fixing it yourself.
So that’s how I go about it–“If you do X,” I’ll say, “then this and that might happen, and maybe we’ll understand why he killed the music teacher.” Sometimes X will be a broad, obviously unworkable suggestion, because the ‘maybe we’ll understand’ is the key to the message.
I suppose I could bend myself into rhetorical pretzels trying to explain how and why I don’t understand or agree with a given writing choice, but often a quick example of how to go about tackling the problem seems to me to be both appropriate and as elegant a way as any to get the idea across.
How about all of you? I’m open to other opinions on this, as always.
In the meantime, here’s a shot from Maplewood Flats that I think is both pretty and soothing:
Author Louise Marley, she of Mozart’s Blood (among other books), has interviewed me about writing, teaching, Indigo Springs and that build-a-car metaphor, here at The Red Room. Enjoy!
Last Saturday Kelly and I climbed out of bed at the appalling-to-most hour of five in the morning and vroomed via rental car to Seattle for the Locus Awards. It was a leisurely drive; we stopped at the Rustic Cafe in Fairhaven because I remembered they had tasty, small biscotti. Wireless, too! Alas, the coffee was only so-so. We hit a Fred Meyer for Luna Bars and still reached the hotel, a Marriott of some order or another, in time for the first panel at ten.
This was my first Locus Awards, and I gather they used to be quite small affairs, but what they have evolved into lately is a delightfully intimate little one-day con. The vibe was World Fantasy-esque, very pleasant and low key, with lots of shop talk. The first panel was about research and had Connie Willis, Walter John Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nancy Kress on it; the second was called “Ten Mistakes a Writer Should Not Make” and featured editors Gardner Dozois, Eileen Gunn, Beth Meacham and Jeremy Lassen. Both were moderated by Gary K. Wolfe, who reviews for the mag (as I myself did at one time, actually. It seems like a long time ago, now.)
Ursula K. Le Guin, pondering research:
There was an autograph session and then the awards banquet itself. I always enjoy it when Connie Willis hosts, and she was hilarious as usual… except, of course, when talking about Charles Brown being gone. This was the first awards ceremony since he’s died; it hadn’t sunk in, really. Ouch.
I saw so many people. Some I’ve known for years, some I know slightly (and now know better) and, of course, people I consider friends whom I’ve only ever met online. I tried to tell calendula-witch I was sure we’d hung out, only to realize I had seen her pic, many times, on Jay’s blog. I got to have a nice long convo with Michael Bishop, who reprinted my “Cooking Creole” last year in Passing for Human; we’d met before, but only glancingly. I hereby nominate him for the Best Smile in the History of Ever Award:
There was some precious stolen time with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge, and a few minutes with Eileen Gunn. I got to tell Nancy Kress, who I’ve long admired, what it’s like to teach “To Cuddle Amy” in my UCLA class “Creating Universes, Building Worlds.”
Two big highlights were meeting some of the folks from this year’s Clarion West class, who were in attendance after a week with Michael. They’re keen, bright-eyed, engaged, visibly bonded and entirely adorable! Second, Kelly and I lured Maureen McHugh out to a slow, pleasant and thoroughly delicious meal at Serafina.
Maureen is close to Snuffy. I’ve read her blog, off and on, for years. I reviewed Mission Child for SciFi, back when it first came out in hardcover, and we’ve Tweeted at each other once or twice. When we invited her out my thoughts, essentially, were: Look! Fellow writer! Who knows Snuffy and seems really nice! And then we were sitting by Lake Union, taking in the sun and the boats while waiting for the restaurant to open, and it sank in: by the holy Bleeding Elvis, I am out for dinner with the author of China Mountain Zhang! I’m so a fan of hers! Even though I was too tired and hungry to make sense of the Serafina menu, or to count to four on my fingers, I knew bits of trivia about her life and family, and babbled worshipfully about the dirt on the Mission Child planet. (No, seriously. Extremely cool dirt.) And she didn’t even run screaming into the day yelling, “Eeek, stalker!”
We get to hang with our gods in this subculture; it’s so gratifying.