Getting the Words Right…or as Close to Right as Possible
Today, I picked up The House of Green Turf, by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), for a re-read. Peters is probably best known for her Brother Cadfaelmysteries, but I actually like her earlier Inspector Felse books better. I was tired and a bit cranky, and wanted something to just sink into. I admit it, I’m a sucker for British mysteries, especially the older ones like the Felse books, where the author seemed to take time, well-spent time, with the words.
Here’s a passage where Maggie Tressider has just found out that she is not–as she has thought for the past week–morally responsible for the death of a man and–for the past night and day–a woman as well. Look at this. Or better…listen:
A huge, clean, boisterous wind was blowing through her mind and spirit, blowing the sickness from her soul and the corruption from her will. She closed the door of her room, and sat down before the mirror to stare into her own face, and saw it marvellously changed. She felt cold and pure, scoured into her ultimate clarity, like a Himalayan peak honed diamond-clear and diamond-hard by the withering winds of the heights. She saw herself bright and positive and brave in the mirror, and wondered where this self of hers had been hiding for so long.
Yes, it’s an older style. More telling than we tend to accept today. It’s longer, less active. But it’s lovely. Because Peters knew how to take words and shape them into something beautiful.
I don’t think we’re less concerned with this part of the craft today. The best of the books being published do just what Peters has done, put words on the page so that they sound, feel, like poetry, even when they keep to the standard sentence and paragraph structure of prose. I think, though, that as writers, we worry so much about getting the plot tight and the characters extreme and the pacing at top-speed, that we sometimes let the words slip.
Words are hard. Yes, everything is, but we can learn much of our writing craft–through workshops and books and, yes, critique groups. Getting the art of the sentence down is a bit tougher, I think. And I very much believe that grammar and clarity of words is a very separate skill from story telling or world-building. If we didn’t learn this stuff when we were young, very young, it’s hard to pick it up now, as adults trying to turn our imaginations and our ideas into books.
What can we do? Well, I do think there are a few things that help.
- Don’t worry about the language and sentences in the early drafts. Every time you sweat an apostrophe (its or it’s gets me every time!), you block the creative flow that is letting you get your story on the page. Push through those questions, those worries, and write.
- Ask your critique group to lay off the grammar for a while, too. Receiving feedback is challenging enough; if someone’s red pen has bled punctuation all over your scene, you’re not going to be able to get past it to the bigger issues facing you and your project. If they see a writing problem or two happening time and time again, they can let you know about it, sure. Learning where your weaknesses are can only help your prose get stronger. But don’t let these be the focus of early feedback.
- Read, read, read. And when you find a book that captures you with its prose, read it again. These are the books that are so easy to get lost in, to not see how the author is doing what they do to us. Take the time to read for something other than story, other than character, to look at the playing the writer does with the words and the sentences. To get to the structure behind the beauty. Because, yes, every sentence is built on structure.
- Read your own work, too. Read your scenes aloud and let your ear actually hear the writing. Keep a pencil handy and scribble down alternate words, different phrasings, stronger verbs and nouns.
- If you really don’t feel comfortable with your sentence-level, grammar-type skills, consider taking a class. Yes, there are many books about “style,” including The Elements of Style, but to really understand what makes a clear, evocative sentence, you need to be writing them. And if you take a writing class that isn’t about fiction, you’ll feel less pressured and more able to learn the mechanics.
- Find someone to read your final drafts. If you’re not confident about your prose, ask for help. If someone in your critique group is great at this, yay–buy them chocolate! If not, hunt around. You may have a friend or a relative or a co-worker who just loves grammer, revels in it. Ask them for a favor (and, yes, buy more chocolate). They may even be able to work with a bit more distance than one of your critique partner, and focus solely on your prose.
This sounds, I’m afraid, like all I’m pushing for is that we get those sentences right, that we write clearly and effectively. No, I want more than that. I want, “a Himalayan peak honed diamond-clear and diamond-hard.” The thing is, just like story is built on structure, so beautiful prose is built on grammar rules and sentence clarity.
And we can produce those fast plots and edgy characters along with beautiful prose. 🙂