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Let's talk about Prose.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Jan 16, 2018.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    This is a response to Devor's post on writing rules, not Chessie's post on Story is More than Prose.

    There have been many odd and confusing rules floating around the internet offering suggestion on prose.

    Some suggest that prose should disappear. It should be as sparse and concise as possible in order to be invisible so that the reader experiences full emersion. It asks writers to be ruthless with certain types of words, like 'ly words, or filler words. Don't worry about coming up with fancy descriptions or clever turns of phrase. This sort of prose style lends itself well to fast paced action/thrillers, where the focus is meant to be more on the plot development.

    On the flip side, there are a lot of well known agents and publishers who are dying for authentic writer voices. They are begging for more writers to be brave with their writer voices and bring the human back into storytelling. Maah's calls it "beautifully written." This sort of prose style lends itself well to more character based stories, or literary fiction, where the focus is on deep, internal growth and change. It is heavy in metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, and takes its time.

    But can you do both? I think so. I think, like anything, there is a spectrum. Hemingway believed in keeping it short and simple. He wanted to be able to distill his ideas to their very core because that was how he believed he would get the most emotional impact from his readers. He wanted to find the truth in his words and use only the truth. Cut everything else. That was his goal as a writer.

    What is your goal as a writer? What is your goal for your story?

    Are you wanting to provide the reader with a sweeping Milieu story? Transport them to another world full of magic and wonder and let them explore it as if they really lived there? You can do that.

    Are you wanting to provide a fast paced action thriller adventure, full of twists and turns and heart stopping moments? You can do that to.

    Are you wanting to write a sweeping internal drama, where the conflict is not external, but internal? Where the character's biggest enemy is himself?

    The suggestions out there are written for specific types of stories. They are not to be used for every type of story. Knowing what advice to take and what advice to shed comes from knowing what your goals are for who you want to be as a writer and what sort of story you want to tell.

    When you know that then you will be able to filter out the suggestions you don't need, and search for (and find) the advice you do.

    What are your thoughts on this Scribes? What amazing advice have you read in regards to prose and voice? What horrible advice have you read?
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018
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  2. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I never really thought about this until now, but yeah, I just realized that the primary conflict in a lot of my stories is very internal.

    I think this is one of the most important things a writer can learn. Not every person can be right, and when a writer gets conflicting critique information, they have to be able to sort it out.

    I don't know this counts as amazing advice, but it was definitely a moment of clarity, brought about by a simple comment by a classmate when I was taking a editing course. i had brought my first novel in to use as my editing material, as well as a few snippets of lore that I'd written maybe 10-15 years prior.

    When my classmate read the novel, they said they were having trouble connecting with it. But when they read the snippets of lore, that I though were poorly written, they said they connected with them way more easily.

    It made me realized that I had overdone it with the editing in the novel. That I had stripped all the truth and clarity out of the prose. Now, when ever I'm having trouble with the prose, I step back and tell myself to say it with truth and clarity. I think it serves me well.
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  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Two types of voice come to mind:

    1) Narrative voice:
    That's you the author, or potentially another character employed as a narrator. Leaving the 'character' for the next voice type, I'll focus on narrative voice. In my opinion, (and I'm still growing in this regard - unsure if that growth will ever stop) narrative voice quality is all about the bravery to be honest.
    When I read a good voice it's because it feels real and genuine, like I'm inside the head of another person. There are no walls because the level of honesty that writer is writing with makes me feels like I'm reading something no one was ever intended to read. I've come to the realization that when I feel like I'm on the verge of exposing or embarrassing myself with what I'm writing, I'm doing good work. Honesty in writing, baring the soul, feels risky. Reach for that.

    2) Character voice:
    One of the best books I've read on character voice is The Power of Voice by James Scott Bell. In it, one exercise stands out. At the end of a character sketch, Bell recommends a rant, a stream-of-consciousness style, as that character about whatever they love, and whatever they hate. The highly charged emotional stuff. Now, before I switch into that character (if I'm jumping POVs) I go back, read that rant, and add some more.
    I've come to realize that even tertiary characters can benefit from this detail. Without a unique voice, they can come of as flat cardboard props. The more time I spend on this detail, the more fully realize and layered they come off to the reader.
  4. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Word choice. Yeah. After I first read the advice about not using adverbs and adjectives, I started axing every adverb and adjective from my stories. I asked an editor friend to read one of my short stories, and she commented that the story had no color. She advised that I consider adding some adjectives and adverbs in places, especially adjectives. I told her about the advice I'd read, and she said, yes, but not all adverbs and adjectives are bad. You have to be selective. If they are redundant or representative of lazy writing, then they deserve to go. But some adverbs and adjectives can pull their weight. Those are the ones to keep.

    So now I will include adverbs and adjectives in my drafts, and leave it until later to decide whether to axe them. Often I do, but not always. If I can find a more illustrative way to say it, then I will. If nothing else works for me, and an adverb or adjective does, then I'm no longer afraid to use one.
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  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Lack of color is something I see a lot when people start to worry about prose. I have a crit partner who had this problem. Poor girl tried so hard to follow every prose rule, her writing was a sort of zombie... green and decaying.

    After a while she sort of said "screw it" and, like a rebellious teenager, started to go crazy with voice and style. Oh man! Can that girl write! Her heroin is seriously one of my favorite all time fantasy heroins. I feel honored just being allowed inside her head. So much jargon, and slang, and curse words, and lovely turns of phrase, and odd descriptions that feel so.... personal. I love it so much.
  6. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I say just let it come out natural.
    I've read literary fiction with prose that were easy to consume and weren't filled with analogies and fancy words. That's not to say that the author didn't have their own voice, but they went against what a lot of people assume literary fiction prose to be.

    At the end of the day, if you force it, it will read that day. Let come natural and just tell the story. Prose are a very subjective thing.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I take a different tact on the writing disappearing. To me and others I’ve worked with, the writing “disappearing” does not mean short, concise, and lacking in color, but that tends to be the default prescription to “fix” convoluted writing... in part because it’s easier than teaching people to write long sentences that don’t lose the reader and muddle the writer’s meaning.

    To me, wriitng which disppears means the writing doesn’t get in the way of itself, not that the reader shouldn’t notice how good/beautiful or other positive the prose achieves.

    I’ve yet to see filler words or -ly adverbs (or adverbs in general) improve a writer’s voice, which isn’t to say they should never be used.

    Adjectives are critical, too many adjectives applied to one thing water-down or muddle their meaning. Adjectives and adverbs are two different beasts.

    I’ll avoid my soapbox of how writing advice of this sort (including short sentences) seems to be dumbing down readers and writers alike.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  8. bdcharles

    bdcharles Minstrel

    I'm reading World Without End by Ken Follett right now. He is not the most inventive writer - his sentences aren't particularly challenging, but yet I can see everything he depicts very easily, and I've been trying to figure out how he does it. My tendency is to be flashy, to make every sentence a darling. But it is dawning on me that this is counterproductive. I have to remind myself that I can write; I have proved it to myself and others. I now need to construct a story, and what Follett teaches me is that darlings should be used few and far between, held up by sensible workhorse sentences with a reasonable degree of vocab skills and a fair whack of garden variety internal dialogue. I'm sure there's more to it, but that's where I'm up to at the minute.
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  9. JBryden88

    JBryden88 Troubadour

    I tend to ignore prose rules. Maybe that will get me in trouble down the line. I don't know, I just know that I write in the voice I'm comfortable writing in. I'll go back and edit unnecessary words in my edits/rewrites, but I also feel the need to tell my story naturally and not rethink the kind of language I use telling.
  10. Somélle

    Somélle Acolyte

    In my case, I have been told confusing opinions. As I am not a native English speaker, I try not to actively worry about the prose. At least, when I'm in the first drafts of a scene.
    A reader once told me that my style is a bit purply for their tastes.
    Another told me that my writing feels like someone else's dream, and I don't know what to do with this information
  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Ah, here is a good quote...

    An assumption exists that long sentences are bad, but it is usually the case that bad sentences are long. What is usually bad about a long sentence is not its length, but its logic — or lack thereof.

    In celebration of this, here’s a long sentence, Extra Credit for naming the author:

    Once I remember Gertrude Stein talking of bullfights spoke of her admiration for Joselito and showed me some pictures of him in the ring and of herself and Alice Toklas sitting in the first row of the wooden barreras at the bull ring at Valencia with Joselito and his brother Gallo below, and I had just come from the Near East, where the Greeks broke the legs of their baggage and transport animals and drove and shoved them off the quay into the shallow water when they abandoned the city of Smyrna, and I remember saying that I did not like the bullfights because of the poor horses.
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  12. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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  13. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    I had to stop and restart this a few times before I go it right in my head. Maybe if I was reading an entire piece and this was a part of it, I would have been acclimated and that would not have happened, but as it is, I think this could use a few comma's. I think Hemmingway as well.

    I am not sure what my thoughts on this are, and I am not sure how I would separate this from a discussion on voice, but I will try.

    I do think there is a type of standard narrator voice that many writers utilize, and to me, that would be the type of prose writing that would attempt to disappear and not be noticed by the reader. Or, if it is, it comes across as simply competent or even educated. I find, I do not try to go in that direction. I work hard on the voice in my story, I recognize some things that seem to be part of my unique style, I like it, and I intend to cultivate it more as I continue writing. There are many things that have changed for me over quite a few years, and I feel many areas I could afford to grow in, but I don’t think I will find myself moving towards the disappearing voice.

    However, I do question, cause sometimes the story lends itself to a type a voice more than others, and perhaps it is just the type of story I am writing the leads me in the direction of a certain type of tone. If I was writing a Noir, for example, vs a romance, I suspect my voice would change, and the writing would necessarily follow.

    I've gotten, or read much, advice, over years as well. I think most of the advice, while good in its time, would be something I could more skillfully navigate than I may ought to have in the past. Advice like, don't use so many adverbs (adverbs have never actually been on of my problems), is good advice for one at a place in time in their writing, but a writer who has experienced a bit of growth will move past the 'Never use' concept and drift back to the 'lets wade out there and see how it works'. I don’t think anyone would say never for any type of word, but I also think too many adverbs does to begin to show, and most often it says, 'beginner'.

    Prose itself though, There is so much to it. Tense, pacing, long words vs short words, are the pages full of one after another of relentless blocks of thick and dense prose, or is it all dialog? Has this said what I want it to say? And where the hell do all these comma's go? Sometimes the work does say what I want it to say, but in the context of the prose around it, I still feel it needs to change. Sometimes, its just been too thick for too long and something needs to break it up, and sometimes something else has to happen than two characters speaking together. Does one use contractions? or spell it all out? Does the prose directly say, or does it imply, and when is chartreuse a better word than green?

    I want in my stories the prose to match the gravity that the characters feel. I want it to reflect their emotions and thoughts and concerns. When things are moving from dire to hopeless, its not a time for chartreuse, and when things are happening and swords are flashing and things are dying, the prose needs to be fast to match it. Sometimes turned and crushed is a better word choice than pirouetted and slashed, cause words set a tone, and like hidden, ambient, subliminal flashes of sound and intonation, they immerse and bring the scene into a type of vivid experience. And so, sometimes, maybe most times, just any prose will not do.

    I suppose to me, I look at this as those pieces that go beyond the paint by numbers, and start to add the writers own real artistry in the work. We all have gifts, of course, and they are all different. I will never write like Hemmingway, and my strengths may not fall towards all elements of writing, I may not plot the best, or let it all spill out of me in some type of seamless way, and maybe it won’t even win many fans, but I do know, one of the things I intend to do well, is chose the right prose for the task. And so yes, I am one of those who writes a sentence, and says...no, that does not flow right. And then I am will pick at it, and change a word or two, scrub it and try again. Look up a dozen synonyms, and finally come back to its first rendition and think well...maybe that does work best.

    I sometimes think it is a curse, cause its slow. And even here, I have read some who get me thinking that maybe I could afford to try a different way, and get more accomplished, but I think it is unlikely that I will. I just seems that is how I do it.

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