Let’s Talk About Clean Prose!

Well, I really do suck at updating a blog regularly. Let’s ignore that and get right to the point, the pen’s point if you will.

Some of you may have heard that the Golden Crown Literary Society is meeting up this weekend for their annual conference. This conference hosts the Golden Crown Literary award ceremony, a pretty big deal in lesbian fiction.

I try to read most of the books that win a Goldie, though I have some catching up to do. Currently, I am slogging through The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer, which won a Goldie in the Speculative Fiction category for 2012. About halfway through the story I set it down to check out some of the reviews on GoodReads (which I’m glad I did!) to see how others thought about it.

A lot of people had the same thing to say: I wanted to like this book, really! I think that mantra is the only thing powering me through this novel. I want to like it. Badly. Who wouldn’t want to? It’s a lesbian retelling of the story of Persephone and Hades, except without the freaky kidnapping. It’s gold! Or it should have been.

Before I continue any further, I want to say that Sarah Diemer is a good writer. The prose just fell flat for me in The Dark Wife, which made it all the more disappointing in light of its Goldie. Many of the repeated problems in the prose were minor, slap-of-the-wrist fixes that are often shot down by a writer’s extremely talented editor. Since Ms. Diemer self-published this story, I’m guessing she did not have a horde of editors to sound off ideas with. As a result, the story had some repetitive problems that many writers suffer from.

And before you start thinking that editors just rinse out the originality of a story and writers need to be free and fuck the system man its overrated you be free as a bird and do whatevah you want!, just stop. Stop right there. Because (finally) we’ve hit the point of this update.

When we write, we owe it to our readers to deliver a polished story that fully accomplishes what we wrote it to accomplish. Things like purple prose, excessive dialogue tags, too many commas, and awkward syntax get in the way of meeting that goal (unless your goal is to highlight those problems in writing).

Why do they get in the way? I’ll tell you.

One or two prose-oddities in a story are good. But what if that obtuse prose keeps popping up? What if the main character keeps having heavy, weepy, rageful, ecstatic FEELINGS on every single page? It would be like eating cake for every single meal. Eventually, you’re going to get sick of the cake.

And I eventually get sick of overly thought-out prose. I think one of my favorite things to hate on is using two verbs to describe one action. This is a nice touch when it’s an important action to highlight. It’s different, so it tells the reader, “Hey! Something interesting is happening. Wake up!”
But if every single person needs two actions to highlight one (ie, he barked a laugh, she skipped a hop, he bellowed a shout) it’s going to get exhausting. The same thing goes for adverbs: Slowly, carefully, lowered down from the ledge, Sammy walked herself down the path.

Do you see what I mean? This sentence highlights actions first, the person second, and the destination last. People consistently, pathologically arrange sentences with the person first, the action second, and any objects or destinations last. This sentence tells me that the actions are more important than the person. Used sparingly, tricks like this are useful. Used consistently, you can get some very unhappy readers.

This kind of prose distracts people by nature. It forces the reader’s brain to decipher something, and not in a this-makes-me-think-about-deeper-issues-that-resonate-with-our-chaotic-and-dissonant-world sort of way. The reader gets pulled out of the story. If that is your goal, then congratulations, get to it.

But there are stories out there that use this prose. They use it without meaning to give their readers mental whiplash. This prose highlights the author and their pen strokes, not the characters and their world. But the story is about the characters and their world, okay?

Here’s the problem. The prose keeps the reader from getting what you (dear writer) want them to get out of the story. It’s something we all struggle with, myself included. It’s also something we can fix if we just paid attention to our own damn sentences.

I think that’s the advisory for today. Pay attention to your sentences. Never just write something and call it good. Re-read it, first! Hell, I even proof-read this blog before I posted it. And I found messy sentences. Good job, me. You get a gold star.

So readers, did you enjoy anything in this post? Let me know! I want to hear your thoughts on writing creatively and effectively. Leave a comment, please.

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One thought on “Let’s Talk About Clean Prose!

  1. I tip my hat to you and to this thoughtful commentary of the written word!

    As an editor, it’s so hard to go through someone’s work and ax so much of it because of the reasons you’ve gone over here. I hate when the page is dripping with red, but sometimes it’s necessary. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be overly flowery. Like you said, sometimes an extra kick is needed here and there, but not every page.

    As a writer, I try to go through my work at least once, before sending it out, too. Sometimes I even read the prose out loud. Often times, you’ll hear a clunky sentence and fix it before you’ll read it and fix it (because the mind tends to re-organize or input words that aren’t there to help you along).

    Let’s hope writers take your sound advice!

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