If You Whisper, Convince.by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2003
In the last issue's IWJ article I argued that too many stories are delivered in a flat, airless, plain vanilla style which doesn't capture the reader's emotional attention and inspire him to relate. Sing to me, I said, because then you will involve me.
A contrary response might be that the kind of writing I appeared to be advocating was lyrical, over-rich, and, at worst, "purple prose". That's a fair challenge, so this month I hope to show that apparently simple, unadorned writing, such as that of Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekov and Hemingway isn't at all that plain. In fact, when the language is analyzed it is often as stripped down and specific as the best poetry.
Raymond Carver was a poet and hoped to be remembered as one. He tried to write his stories in a single sitting, almost never more than two, but that was merely to access the idea, to write in the way I call "drunk" without deep left-brained thought, merely allowing the unconscious to express itself.
Accessing the idea, is one thing, and many of us might be pleased to write stories as good as a Carver draft, but the original Carver commitment to paper was, in some cases, a very long way indeed from the finished story. Carver had to "work" the piece, work it hard, to make each sentence work in a very precise and powerful way.
This was the Carver quote from last month's article.
This has nothing to do with me. It's about a young couple with three children who moved into a house on my route the first of last summer. I got to thinking about them again when I picked up last Sunday's newspaper and found a picture of a young man who'd been arrested down in San Francisco for killing his wife and her boyfriend with a baseball bat. It wasn't the same man, of course, though there was a likeness because of the beard. But the situation was close enough to get me thinking.What strikes me about this passage is its ease. It simply falls into me. I'm hit with the strong, direct first sentence, which in its very isolation (like in a poem) makes me expect the opposite. A good start, but what really hit me was something in the second sentence "who moved into a house on my route the first of last summer". The extra three words the first of change the flow, the sound, the emphasis (as well as giving voice). The intermediate writer, if mentioning last summer will almost always write the sentence in the same way as any other intermediate or beginning writer. There will be nothing to wake up the commissioning editor, the judge, or the reader. What is on the page is just facts.
I picked up last Sunday's newspaper and found a picture of a young man who'd been arrested down in San Francisco for killing his wife and her boyfriend with a baseball bat. The picture showed a man with a beard and it reminded me of a guy who last summer moved into a house on my postal route with his wife and three kids.I'm trying hard here not to deliberately write badly. The first half of the non-Carver paragraph above is word-for-word identical to the original. Why does it now seem so ordinary, so flat, so uninviting? What has happened?
This isn't "bad writing". We wouldn't be taking out a blue pen and tearing into it, yet it has lost some "air", a certain magic. I think a lot was contained in those first seven words, this has nothing to do with me and I've already mentioned the first of. The point is, what is sometimes apparently ordinary isn't. Just as fancy and purple isn't automatically good, what at a glance is plain language, may in fact be as carefully constructed as a fine poem.
To a regular serious reader, to a writer, (and particularly to a jaded judge or editor), a piece of narrative prose which is confident and direct, yet manages to be distinctive is a thrill, (and a relief to the jaded).
This is the opening of Bernard Malamud's "Armistice" (1940)
When he was a boy, Morris Lieberman saw a burly Russian peasant seize a wagon wheel that was lying against the side of a blacksmith's shop, swing it round, and hurl it at a fleeing Jewish sexton. The wheel caught the Jew in the back, crushing his spine. In speechless terror, he lay on the ground before his burning house, waiting to die.There's a lot of power here, of course, but again it's the directness of the opening, the simplicity that catches my eye. I feel immediately that I'm before a real writer -- it's hard to believe this was Malamud's first story.
Here we have the confidence I talk about, the immediacy, but there are subtleties of pacing, too. For example, look at "swing it round". Could we do without it? Sure. Would it be as good? No. The inserted clause adds. It extends the imagery, slows the whole down, increasing the horror, and it makes us hold our breath, waiting for the destructive moment.
Timing, pacing, air, light, moments, all are part of the meaning of prose, but also all are part of the seduction, the way a writer calls attention, how she promises. Actors and comedians know the importance of not only hitting the right note but also hitting it precisely on cue. How many of us have said, when disappointed by a joke, "It's the way you tell it!"? Note that. It isn't just the words, but the way they are delivered. We seduce, we seduce, we persuade our victim to relax, this is going to be better, different, special.
Ray Bradbury's "The Dwarf" opens with a single line paragraph:
Aime watched the sky, quietly.Had that been a competition entry I would almost certainly set it aside in the second read pile. It's the confidence thing again, the call to pay attention.
But Bradbury continues: Tonight was one of those motionless hot summer nights. The concrete pier empty, the strung red, white, yellow bulbs burning like insects in the air above the wooden emptiness.
Typing that in Microsoft Word, the computer program underlines in green to tell me that the construction, somewhere is incorrect English. Well, hey give me incorrect if the error gives me poetry, gives me imagery, gives me the beats, the hills and hollows which capture my reader soul. The managers of the various carnival pitches stood, like melting wax dummies, eyes staring blindly, not talking, all down the line.
Thinking ahead, I was reminding myself to remind the writer to avoid cliché. Here Bradbury has one (eyes staring blindly ) but gets away with it because the whole is in a gently poetic construction: stood (PAUSE) like melting wax dummies (PAUSE) eyes staring blindly (PAUSE) not talking (PAUSE) all down the line. From the sharp opening paragraph which gives us quietly, we get the motionless hot summer night, the fairground dead slow, the pier empty, but then, with apparent trivialness, Bradbury lays out in words what a director would do with a slow pan, the bored ride-owners, so bored they can't be bothered to talk. The panning camera idea is rubber-stamped by the ending, all down the line.
This is writing from a writer of horror and wonder, not a writer who would be touted by critics or English Lit professors as literary, wordy (and certainly never "purple". But write, Bradbury certainly does, for the most part simply, but elegantly, carefully, with lightness, subtle pressure, whispers, and a subversive, consummate skill.
When we first meet George Garvey he is nothing at all.Smack! Won't we continue? We know that George will be changed.
Later he'll wear a white poker chip monocle with a blue eye painted on it by Matisse itself. Later, a golden bird cage might trill within George Garvey's false leg, and his good left hand might possibly be fashioned of shimmering copper and jade.Here follows just a few openings or random paragraphs, without comment:
It was one of those things they keep in a jar in the tent of a sideshow on the outskirts of a little, drowsy town.If you are still in any doubt about how good writers distinguish themselves, whether lyrical or plain-speakers, pick up a good anthology or The October Country, then scan the first 100 words of each story landing on an editor's desk. Where good writers show spice, spark, resonance, color, the beginner shows gray, a shallow, fallow, dull, obvious word-stringing, and where the writer is purposeful, pointed, specific, poetic, with weight and perfect pace, like the actor, like the comic, the competition entrant is general, vague, non-specific, flat, without rhythm or emphasis.
They knew the creak-bumble of Charlie's wagon and did not shift their raw, drab-haired skulls as he rocked to a halt. Their cigars were glowworms, their voices frog-mutterings on summer nights.
Quite suddenly there was no more road, It ran down like any other road between slopes of barren, stony ground and live oak trees, and then past a broad field of wheat standing alone in the wilderness. It came up beside the small, white house that belonged to the wheat field and then just faded out, as though there were no more use for it.
The phone rang at five-thirty that evening. It was December, and long since dark as Thompson picked up the phone.
"Alive in New England, damn it."
"Died twenty years ago!"
"Pass the hat. I'll go there myself and bring back his head!"
(All excerpts from Ray Bradbury's The October Country).
Good writers use the quiet music of sentences. Weak writers think words get by solely on their dictionary meanings. But we know that great actors can add to a playwright's words; indeed we know that sometimes a word added or a word taken away can lift the moment, make the scene.
We know that comic timing can make what might otherwise be a passing, innocuous mark, suddenly hit an audience with the point. We know that each and every one of us has the ability in argument to suddenly retort, maybe with only a word, maybe a sentence, which cuts to the bone, pushes a dagger into the heart.
Politicians know it. They have speech-writers, spin-doctors, image-consultants, they know about sound-bytes. Nevertheless they carefully read their speeches, consider the meaning (and not just the raw, factual meaning but the emotional impact, the resonance, the legacy of the words) and think on when to stop for effect, when to raise their voice, when to soften, when to seek the sympathy of their audience.
Actors know it. They know about presence, projection, sub-text. They are taught how to move without taking another actor's space, they time their words and replies, they know when to make words more than they are on the page. And if you, reader, doubt that presentation and music matters, go see a great play by great players then see the same play done by a village amateur dramatic society!
Painters and photographers know it. They know that the way the light falls is part of the meaning. They know that while there might be many details, they must direct us to the crucial detail, the defining image.
And so it must be with good prose. We must search out the brown-paper bags, the utterly plain, the dismissible, and ensure that what we want to say is heard and not only is it heard but it gets inside the reader and stays there. One part of getting inside is first getting attention. Beginning writers are incorrectly told to open with a bang, but the truth is, a gentle confidence, the confidence to say, "I know what I'm doing," will give a stronger more subversive, more deep-lasting effect. Like here:
It was now lunch-time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
Unpretentious, simple, non-lyrical, gentle, but writing by a master, one of the masters, Ernest Hemingway. A perfect opening and in fact the perfect close to this article (note the white space -- I did realize!)
But I continue in order to offer one final example, which I hope will hammer the point home, namely that context, timing, presentation and very precise word-choices can take the banal, the simple, the innocuous and make it hum, with power, or with joy, or poetry, or in this case, resonate and linger with a deep, slow-acting, terrifying reality.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.