ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 24th October

ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

Nazi sympathiser and ferocious anti-semite, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) author of the remarkable Death on the Instalment Plan and Voyage to The End of the Night, was so scrupulous about his fiction writing that he used to hang every individual page on a washing line with pegs, so that he could scrutinise them better. Another French genius and far more sympathetic was the Provence writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) who declared that when it came to his novels he held up every single word to the light, as if he were examining a jewel and then gauging whether it were fit for purpose. If you think he was guilty of hyperbole I advise you to go away and read his autobiographical childhood novel Blue Boy (English translation 1948, reissued US North Point Press 1980) which in my view is the most beautiful not to say tender book ever written by anyone anywhere, and where the vividness and precision and stereoscopic richness of the prose are quite simply off the scale and unbelievable.

Giono believed in weighing every word, while I as a fiction writing teacher of 32 years, can assure you there are many would be writers who don’t even examine entire sentences minutely, nor even entire paragraphs, nor even entire chapters, and in the dizziest cases their entire novel or short story. They just plonk it all down as if it were papier mache or pizza dough, and they hope for the best. The commonest habit is to use ready-made phrasing, a sure indicator that they are not looking at their characters and seeing them with full clarity, because if they were their prose likewise would demonstrate clarity and precision. These things all hang together in a structural manner, because clarity or vividness of characterisation results in vividness of plot, vividness of descriptive writing, vividness of dialogue etc. Hence anyone who does formula characterisation, also does formula dialogue and formula plot, and there is no such thing as a writer who writes brilliant dialogue but has 2-dimensional characterisation.

Sometimes derivative phrasing goes hand in hand with ignorance of what a word actually means. In 1984 I founded and edited a fiction magazine called Panurge for 6 years (David Almond of Skellig fame edited it another 6 years). That meant I had to read literally thousands of unsolicited short stories (being highly ethical, as all my friends know, I refuse to solicit anything and especially possible genius in manuscript). You would not believe, dear reader, how many ambitious fiction writers out there love the word ‘disinterested’ and how few of them have a clue what it means. It does not mean ‘uninterested’ which is what they think, but it means behaving in an impartial manner and exercising no partisan interest nor seeking any personal reward. So if someone says ‘I want someone who will behave in a disinterested manner in this project’ they don’t mean they want them to be bored by it, they mean they want them to behave in a neutral manner without personal or partial motive. If you think this demonstrates finicky pedantry on my part, and that there’s a sporting chance the rest of the short story might demonstrate ability and even excellence, you would almost certainly be wrong. The same author when trying to evoke character might very likely a paragraph later say, e.g. that ‘William strode purposefully towards the door’. This is a good example of the delightful strategy of Rent an Adverb where the adverb , the ‘-ly’ word, drops on the page and deathlike coagulates and clots just like UHU glue (Yoohoo! Here I am and I’m a good old adverb!). ‘Purposefully’, when used by a skilful writer and with possibly other adjectival phrase elaboration can work on the page, but 9 times out of 10 with would be writers it is just slapped down on the page with a wishful thinking alacrity. Their character strides with a purpose, yes, but what sort of purpose, what kind of nuance are we talking about? And is it the case that William (Willy or Willum to his wife in bed in moments of high passion?) is always purposeful in what he does or just in this particular moment of time in Ted Warbelow’s 5000 word story Limbo in Leicester and note that Ted also lives in downtown Leicester.

Another regular unblushing hero in among the thousands of manuscripts I read between 1984 and 1996, was the 2-adjective phrase ‘a harsh metallic sound’. At least 3 times a week when I could be getting up to 60 stories in the same period, as sure as shot there would be a story where some plodding character usually in a stagnant present tense narrative (‘Joe walks purposefully down to the town centre’) would hear ‘a harsh, metallic sound’. Because the whole world of would be fiction writers was using it, the phrase by definition must be derivative cliché, but it is worth examining it in more detail to understand the depressing realities of authorial myopia. For a start I’m not sure I know what a metallic sound is but let’s suppose it is something like an iron bar being struck by another bit of metal. Would you say such a sound is truly harsh? Is it not possible that with all the different types of metal, both that which strikes and that which is struck, there are umpteen subtle yet describable possibilities of what the sound is like. Try as hard as I can I cannot see nor hear anything like harshness, which in any case is usually applied to humans as in a punitive parent or a judge, and not to inanimate objects.

Again, this is not me being finicky nor fastidious nor nit picking (all of which three adjectives have slightly different nuances but Ted from Leicester doesn’t know as much and unless undergoing a salutary existential transformation one day, never will). Those who write harsh metallic sound, might also describe one of their characters as a ‘typical suave middle-aged businessman’. A quick analysis soon reveals that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ businessman (compare and contrast Sir Richard Branson and Sir Horace Parse-Suffix who is very big in equities if not equalities. Not that Rich is big on democracy either). Suave? OK, suave, but in what way? Suave could be anything from wearing a natty bow tie costing £4.99, to a pair of designer jeans with deliberate holes in them acquired from Harvey Nix in Leeds for £500…

And then best of all, middle-aged. These days in 2018 you are not even remotely middle-aged till you are 55 and you cease to be so somewhere around 70 and even then, you are not ‘old’ given the myriad number of 70 plus folk on internet dating sites and who without demur queue for up to 20 hours to purchase the latest Apple phone. Precision, vividness is what is needed when describing either a businessman or a tramp or a raving lunatic, and the reason for that is that ‘vivid’ is from the Latin ‘vivo’, meaning ‘I live’…

If you write vividly you put life into your pages, your characters, your plot, your art. And if you don’t, and you can’t, and your prose is generally more like candy floss or polyfilla or something set-in-aspic, then apropos all that wasted effort, and for your own sake as much as the rest of the world, you might ask yourself why it is you are bothering?

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