On-the-Nose Prose

Just letting you know: The snow date for my talk in Brewster, NY, is this coming Sunday, February 3rd, and it looks like the weather is planning to cooperate. Details are here on the website.

On December 7, 2018, Bethany wrote, I suffer with being too on-the-nose. I feel like I just say they ‘walked’ or whatever without using any nicer words to make good prose.

Which reminds me, any tips for good prose?

I wrote back, Can you say more about what you’re looking for in terms of tips and good prose?

Bethany explained: I guess I just feel like my prose isn’t as pretty or nice as some other people’s prose. E.g., their prose is: “The truck leaped down the dirt road, leaving a cock’s tail of dust blooming behind it,” or something like that and mine is more like: “The truck drove down the road, and smoke came up behind it.” A minor exaggeration, but I hope you see what I mean. Is this a matter of editing, and if so, what’s the best thing to do to fix it?

Melissa Mead wrote, I wish I knew where to find a movie that I watched in school. Basically, it showed a student writing about a field trip to the airport. They’d written “The engines made a loud sound. The jet went down the runway very fast, and took off.”

It highlighted “made a loud sound” Then it superimposed various images over the moving jet: a lion roaring, people screaming, etc. Then it did the same for “went very fast”: a gunshot, a sprinter, etc.

Then they chose the words that seemed to fit the best, and ended up with “Engines shrieking, the jet raced down the runway and took off.”

I think it helps. I still remember it after 35-40 years, anyway.

Melissa Mead, I wish I’d gone to your school! What a great way to present lively writing!

Bethany, just saying, a “cock’s tail of dust” is a terrific image! So I wouldn’t knock your prose.

Mark Twain wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” I love this quote!

I’ve said this before on the blog: that nouns and verbs pack more power than any other part of speech. In Melissa Mead’s example, the verbs get most of the revision. Made a loud sound becomes shrieking, and went very fast becomes raced. I’d argue that lifted or soared would have been better than took.

The revision is also shorter, eleven words to seventeen, a big drop. So, often, concision is a part of fine prose. In the original, we see made a loud sound replaced by one word, likewise went very fast.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a jewel of concision, and I recommend it, as I have before. Yes, it’s old-fashioned, but the sentences are oh-so elegant. I’ve read them over and over again, just to savor them. And the book offers guidance in how to achieve such beauty.

Then there’s sentence variety. The two sentences in the Melissa Mead’s original each start with TheThe engines and The jet–which creates a static feel. The revision is one complex sentence that starts Engines shrieking.

But, of course, if there were a second sentence that began, Air-conditioning humming... the revision would feel static, too. We want to mix it up: different beginnings; short sentences next to long, single-clause sentences following many-clause ones.

Not that there’s anything wrong with simplicity. Think of Hemingway! Think of Elmore Leonard! (Both high school and up–and each unlike the other.)

Straightforward is good. We don’t want to get so fancy that the reader can’t understand us. In prose that isn’t experimental, clarity trumps everything else. Also, I don’t want to read writing that calls attention to its high-flown verbiage. I want prose to get out of the way of the story. Maybe on the third reading, when I’m a little less enthralled, I can admire the beautiful sentences that underlie the urgent storytelling.

When I finish a manuscript, I always have to trim. In the process, I pay particular attention to my adverbs and adjectives, especially the ones that weaken, like a little, somewhat, half, almost. Even very, which seems to be strengthening, often isn’t. Sometimes we need these modifiers, but most of the time what we need more is to be bold. I’ve mentioned here before the frequent unnecessariness of the modifier could, as in she could see. If she could and did see, then she saw.

Similes and metaphors can liven up prose. My MC’s brother in the expulsion book is a tad unpleasant. He has mean names for his siblings, like he calls a sister Nut-cheeked Squirrel, and he calls my MC Unblinking Lizard. In revenge–but not out loud–she calls him Ugly Camel Head. This is metaphorical language, but it isn’t lofty, and it does double-duty by suggesting what these characters look like. We can think of metaphorical comparisons when we write description, but I don’t think we should strain for them. If they come, they come. We can help them flow in by reading writers whose prose is chock full of them, and then we can imitate, as I recommended recently in my post on style.

We can pay attention to the sounds of the words we write, something that’s become easier for me since attending poetry school. We can add alliteration and assonance (dig the four a’s in a row just now!) if we feel they’ll shine up our prose–or we can eliminate them if they annoy us.

We can think about rhythm, too. To get a rhythm going, we can deliberately repeat sentence structure and particular words. This is a technique to use sparingly.

When I’m not happy with a paragraph or even a sentence, I copy it into my notes and copy it again to work on. I may rearrange clauses to make them more natural. If I notice a stream of short sentences, I’ll work on making a few of them compound–or vice versa. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll start over. All the while, if this is a first draft, I’ll be thinking, Why am I doing this now? I may cut the whole thing. And then I keep at it!

When a word doesn’t nail what I’m going for, I open a thesaurus in my browser. I like Power Thesaurus, but Thesaurus.com is good, too, and I’m sure there are others. In the thesaurus, I may go through page after page, and I may click on a synonym to see what its synonyms are.

Sparkling prose uses the active voice. There were twelve angry men in the jurors’ room. is passive. Twelve angry men congregated in the jurors’ room. is active. I hope you agree that it’s stronger. I pay attention to my use of there when I’m revising.

I was once, long ago, reading somewhere about grade level in writing. This learned paper said that prepositions push up grade level. Okay. That may be true, because a reader has to be a better reader to hack her way through prepositional gunk. I copied this sentence: I want to de-layer the organization–creating a closer day-to-day relationship and clearer line of sight for myself into the business. from this website: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186. Three prepositions. I think the sentence means: I need to see what’s going on. We should avoid language that obfuscates–or, to say it as it should be said, We should write so that the reader knows what we mean.

Two howevers on these last two points: Writing rules are meant to be broken when breaking them improves our writing. And it is great fun to write a character who speaks in endless, convoluted sentences–but we can’t let him talk too much!

Finally, my writing is sensory, and I like that in other writers, too. I want to be in any scene I’m reading, hearing the engine shriek, seeing it lift off, feeling the hot wind it creates, smelling the gasoline. As we write, we can keep asking ourselves if we’re bringing in the senses. Will our reader be able to see, hear, smell, taste, touch what’s going? We don’t want to overburden every moment with all of these, but we should keep them in mind.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write dialogue between the queen’s Third Minister for Royal Orange Squeezing and a farmer. The farmer has a complaint, and the minister doesn’t want anyone to be blamed. The farmer’s words are knives, but the minister’s mouth produces only fog.

∙ Pick a paragraph from a magazine or newspaper, basically from anywhere, but not written by you. Rewrite it at least three times. Make it better. Make it worse. Write it in bureaucratese. Put it in the voice of your cat if he could speak.

∙ In your WIP, find a place where you’ve just introduced a character and are describing him physically. Think of a metaphor or simile to bring your description to life–an animal, mineral, vegetable, bit of architecture that he resembles.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but the bit about dropping from 17 words to 11 reminded me of something one of my best college professors did. Instead of assigning a minimum length for papers, he assigned a maximum. It really forced us to learn how to get our points across effectively. So does writing flash.

    • Applause for your professor!
      I helped my husband edit his papers for a class. I figured good writing is good writing, so I helped him be more concise. Then paper was late and he had to turn it in without editing. The professor praised it at length, saying it was good enough to be published. Apparently most of academia prefers wordier language.

  2. This is very helpful. Thank you for answering my question.

    A disclaimer though: the bit about the ‘cock’s plume’ of dust was stolen from something I had read recently and I thought the auothor’s prose was very good, which was why the question came up. I wish I had come up with something that good. 🙂

  3. I just found this blog, but I’ve read your books(Writing Magic and Writer to Writer) at least a million times, and I LOVE them! I was wondering about story ideas(most asked question ever) and how you develop them into books.

    • Observation is key! Carry around a small notebook and write things you notice that interest you. They don’t have to be full-blown ideas yet–that comes later. Here are some examples from my own notebook:

      4/13/13 I wrote: “Impression: ‘stately mountains adorned with powdered wigs & rich white furs'”
      5/26/13 I wrote: “Yesterday while I was waiting to pick [husband] up from work, I noticed that the power lines overhead had an audible buzz, almost like big bees or something similar.”
      6/4/13 I wrote: “Character Trait: [Great Aunt] is convinced that planes are dropping pollutants/chemicals on us, & you can tell by the line of smoke a plane makes in the sky.”
      12/28/13 I wrote: “Lies spew out of their mouths like vomit.”
      7/4/14 I wrote: “Observation: You can sometimes see footprints in the grass when someone has been there recently”
      9/21/14 I wrote: “Image: Clouds wrapped around mountains like luxurious furs.”

      Later you can take an observation or two and try to combine them into an idea for a story. My current WIP, “Goldwater,” came from combining three observations together. One came from when I took a plane to Chicago and noticed that the light of the sunset reflecting off the rivers looked like someone had drizzled liquid gold over the land. One came from the song “I set fire to the rain,” and the last one came from a character in an anime with the nickname “Thunder Beast”. I combined the three together to come up with the concept for my story. The concept was that a mythical Lightning Beast, thought to keep the world’s magic in balance, dies and contaminates all the rivers with its golden blood, causing magical phenomena and natural disasters, though no one knows yet what is causing it. But my story still needed the main character, so I came up with the idea of a young mother who is devasted when her toddler son dies in a magical natural disaster and travels to find the Lightning Beast to demand that it bring her son back. The story then began to take on a life of its own.

      Of course, not all stories start this way. It’s different not only for each writer but also for each individual story a writer is working on. But learning to pay attention to your surroundings is the best way to start. Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them.” Learn to pay attention, write down observations, and ask questions, and you’re on the right track.

  4. Great advice!
    If it helps, here are some things that came together to become “Malak’s Book.” (And that show how long this book was stewing in my head!)

    The first place to publish my stories was a magazine called The First Line, where all the stories in an issue start with the same line. Once the line was “Mamma has always had a love for other people’s possessions.”

    TFL likes creative interpretations of the line, so I wrote a story where the “possessions” were the demonic kind, and the narrator was “Mamma’s” half-demon son. It was a fun idea, but the story got rejected. It needed something more.

    A while later, I was watching The Crocodile Hunter. Steve Irwin was holding up a big black snake with a bulge in its middle and saying “This is a happy snake. He’s warm, he’s got a full belly…”

    Right after that was Iron Chef America. Somebody had made lamb sashimi. I looked at that pink blob of raw meat quivering on a hunk of rock salt and thought “Who’d want to eat that?”
    “I’ll bet that snake would like it.”
    Things started clicking together, and that generic half-demon became Malak, half serpent-demon, who just wants to gorge himself with raw meat, then find someplace cozy to sleep it off, only the demon-hunters are out there…

    (Bonus TV moment: If anybody’s a Doctor Who fan and saw the episode The Girl in the Fireplace, at the moment when little Reinette asks “What do monsters have nightmares about?” and David Tennant’s Doctor turns from fighting them off and says “Me!”, I literally shouted “That’s Malak!” That fierce chivalry and absolute determination to keep anyone from harming that little girl- That’s my Demonboy. Plus DT looks PERFECT for the character, if he were to wear an alligator costume on the bottom. 🙂 )

    Hope that’s helpful!

  5. I love this advice! I am so glad I read it when you posted it because it really helped my writing for the day! I could tell that my words became much more vibrant as I focused on avoiding the “static” writing.

  6. IIRC, awhile back we were talking about multiple POV characters. I just finished Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver (HS and up-there’s some disturbing violence and wedding-night talk), and I’m so impressed. She’s got at least 5 POV characters, and she handles it brilliantly. I don’t remember if she follows a pattern, but if she did it’s not noticeable as something the author’s imposed from outside, and I was never confused as to whose POV we were in. Plus it was just a really good fairy-tale type story.

  7. Anybody have any tips for growing your blog? My blog following seems to have shrunk enormously since November (going from 30 to 40 people reading each post to between 6-18), and I haven’t been able to get my readership back up.

    Do I need to post more often, or just keep going and the numbers will eventually go back up? Or is there something else I’m missing?

  8. Writing Ballerina says:

    Hi, Mrs. Levine!!

    I love your books SO much — I’m so glad my library is well-stocked with your works!

    I’m 13 and LOVE writing and all of the like.

    I have an imitation concern: I’m currently working on a novella/novelette (we’ll see) about a girl who is sent by her king to find a cure for a mysterious disease that has plagued their kingdom for decades. On the way, she contracts the fatal and debilitating disease herself.

    My question is: do you think this is too close to “The Two Princesses of Bamarre” (One of my favourites)?

    Also, does anyone else have problems with having too many WIPs at once? Does anyone else get bored despite the plot you’ve cooked up? How do you overcome the boredom because you really like the story?

    Another question: Sometimes I’m writing and then I feel like the things I’m making my characters go through are too “extreme,” ie unrealistic and just plain mean. How to get around this?

    Thanks for having this blog and being a great writer!!

    (To summarize:
    1. Am I imitating too closely?
    2. How avoid/get around being bored with your stories? (I guess this is sorta writer’s block in a way)
    3. How to make things you write less mean and unrealistic but still keep the action. )

    Also sorry if this post is too long!

    • Questions answered as I would answer them:

      Question #1: ‘Bamarre’ is one of my favorites as well, I know it cover to cover, and I wouldn’t say your idea is too similar at all. One of my favorite quotes of all time is ‘No one sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories you have to tell’. There is no way for a person to write exactly the same story as another person, even if given the exact same outline (trust me, I’ve tried this), and I especially think that your MC contracting the disease herself is an interesting touch and will add some extra tension.

      Question #2: I do have a problem with too many WIP’s at once, not so much because I get bored but because I get excited about any and every new idea and want to start immediately. I would suggest keeping your limit to 2 or 3 at a time, though, so you don’t burn yourself out. And if you find yourself getting bored with something you wrote, I would suggest upping the ante. Add another layer of conflict or tension, or, as the great author of the One Year Adventure Novel course suggests, have the unexpected happen. Drop a dead body from the ceiling. Turn someone into a dragon. Anything you like, just so long as nobody saw it coming. This technique has never failed me.

      Question #3: Try to figure out what things you could do to them that would make sense in their world. In one of my stories, one of the biggest things driving my MC to win the horse race was that his brother was deathly ill and winning the race was the only way to get the money needed to buy him medicine. If you’re writing a fantasy, torture is a good way to do things to them or tyranny from an unjust ruler. Bullying is realistic in a modern setting, and the bullies could even start taking it out on the MC’s siblings. You could even make a list of things you could realistically do to them within your setting. One thing that applies to every setting and always makes things worse for the characters: Emotional or moral turmoil within the soul. Mwa-ha-ha-ha!

      Hope I was able to help!

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Thanks so much, this was really helpful!
        I’ll try out some of those things — especially the unexpected. I like that suggestion.
        Thanks for your help!

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          Thank you for your pleasure in my work!

          I’m with Bethany on all counts. In particular, it doesn’t sound like you’re infringing on my TWO PRINCESSES rights. I’m proud to be one of your influences!

    • Question 3: Think how you can link the bad things together into a cause and effect sort of relationship. Then you’ve only done one “mean” thing, and the rest just came as a result. If some of the problems are caused or made worse by the main character, it can also help. She brought it on herself; it wasn’t exactly the author’s fault, was it?

      When I first started one of my stories, I wanted my under-aged characters to be covertly living alone, in modern America, and I faced the inevitable problems. So I had the parents die in a car crash right at the same time that their children were kidnapped. The girls escaped, but to prevent them from going to the police, I had to give the MC an unreasonable fear of police. Eventually I realized that it was too many unrelated bad things happening just to get them where I wanted them, so I reworked the premise. I still let the parents die, but I finally let the MC be flawed enough to actually run away intentionally, (to get her siblings back together after their aunt let them be split up. She tells herself she’s merely trying to make her aunt see reason).

      So to put my character where I wanted her, I made one bad thing happen (parents’ death) which triggered another one (siblings separated) which triggered my character to choose a third (running away).

      So, is there some way you can connect some of the problems logically, maybe even though your character’s choices? They could deliberately choose something harmful to get what they want, like mine, or they could do something that has consequences they didn’t see coming.

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Mrs. Levine — You’re welcome! ^_^ Recently I went to the library and got a whole bunch of your books, hoping that some of your style would rub off on me ‘cuz I like how you write. Then I found Writing Magic and Writer to Writer and I’m like, “Jackpot!” So thanks! The chapter on writing romance in Writer to Writer really helped me overcome an obstacle in one of my stories!

        Song4myKing — Wow, that was really helpful. I’ll definitely try that. That’s a really good idea. Thanks!

  9. Ainsley Zirkle says:

    If you had to pick a favorite of your books which one would it be? Why? Mine is definetly Ever. Kezi is one of the best protagonists I have ever read and I love the love story between her and Olus

  10. I’d like to share some big news! And to say Thank You to Gail and everybody here who’s given me a boost when I got discouraged. This is the first public post I’m making about this, because you’re all wonderful.

    Y’know how awhile back I said that I’d queried an agent and they asked for the full manuscript, and Gail said “Keep us posted?”

    They liked it.
    Enough to offer representation.
    I’ve just signed a contract with Vaughne Hansen of the Virginia Kidd Agency. AKA “My agent.” Excuse me while I go pass out. 🙂

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I think many writers on the blog would like to know–if you’re up for telling–how you found your agent, what the steps were, how you decided to send to this particular person.

          • Sure! Let’s see if I can write a concise version:

            I wrote the original stories that became the book ages ago. (I actually posted above about that!) I turned them into a book over a decade ago.

            27 agents rejected it, most with form letters or no response. A couple said “This is well written, but I couldn’t relate to the main character.”

            Fast forward to 2017. I was at a small local writer’s convention called Albacon. I’d been going there for years, and after I’d had a few short stories published, I got to be on panels. (It’s hard to get on panels at big cons like Worldcon and World Fantasy, but little local ones welcome local authors.) In 2017, agents from the Virginia Kidd agency, Vaughne Hansen and Christine Cohen, were there. I was on a panel with Vaughne. It was fun, bit I didn’t ‘pitch” to her. I did rewrite the beginning, hoping to give Malak a more sympathetic first impression.
            The Program Director is another of Vaughne”s clients. Last year I asked him if she and Christine were coming back to Albacon, because I wanted to ask if they were open to queries. He said they weren’t, but he thought I should query anyway.
            It took me until November to work up the nerve. 🙂 (That was when I asked about “style” here. I sent a query letter.) They both remembered me from Albacon, and invited me to send the full manuscript. Chris wrote back saying she thought Vaughne was the best fit for it, and gave it to her. And she said Yes!

  11. You could simply write a ballad concerning your writing of said ballad (with all of the procrastination, distractions and other hurdles it could easily become a humorously epic poem).

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      Actually, I don’t think that’s going to work. I think it needs to be more story-ish and have a clearer plot. Thanks for the suggestion, though!

      These are the rules for my ballad:
      1. Must have a rhyming pattern- abcb or abab, or aabb.
      2. Must be written in 4- line stanzas and needs to contain enough stanzas to tell a story (suggestion somewhere between 8-10 stanzas).
      3. Must use simple language
      4. Needs to include some dialogue
      5. Plot line must be evident and have a clear ending.
      6. Must include some figurative language.
      7. Have a rhythm (read it aloud to check)
      8. Must be written in 3rd person

      • Writing Ballerina says:

        Actually, I have an idea that I think is going to work!

        I sort of came up with it in grade 3, and it’s been pending for 5 years. I never thought I’d write it, really; it’s sort of a childish idea, but for a ballad, I think it’ll be perfect.

        Basically, I’ve personified all the numbers and made a little story out of it.

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