Monday, 24 October 2011

Three Bad Habits

Stephen King, eh? Sometimes he’s dispensing words so heavy with wisdom and insight that he has you reappraising everything you’ve written – and other times he’s as useful as that bloke down the pub with his theory of everything.
Case in point:
Kingy tells me to put my draft in a draw and leave it for sixth months. Time, he says, gives perspective and clarity. Six months, I think. Jeez. That’s like – virtually a year, right? But dammit, he was bang on the money. I unwrap the draft. I crank up the laptop. I read. Perspective! Clarity!
Then I start my re-draft. Kingy’s steer on this is clear. “Second draft” he says – I’m paraphrasing, you understand; On Writing’s upstairs and I’m down here on the sofa with a premier cru cider – “equals first draft minus 10%.” Minus 10%, I think. So I’m aiming to lose 7k. I’m just chopping out words. Adverbs, mostly. So off I go, and what do I find?
The man’s advice is bobbins, people. Bobbins.
Re-drafting for King might be like pruning an already handsome-looking shrub, but for me it’s like arriving in the garden with a pair of secateurs, only to find you need a chainsaw, safety goggles and an extensive pergola just to keep the damn bush upright. My book looks like the bongleweed.
But I confess I’ve had a jolly time poking fun at my six-month-younger-self. Boy, there were some clangers in there. Here’s my top three bad writing habits. I’m hoping against hope here that a few of you guys might provide me with some comfort by confessing to similar failings.
1.  Doubling-up verbs
It seems when I can’t choose between two verbs – to hell with it, I pick them both. This is particularly the case when they’re onomatopoeiac - so horses pulling carts “clatter and rattle” down the cobbled streets – but is also a fave of mine when someone’s in the grip of some strong emotion. Hearts “swell and bob” in anticipation. Stomachs “flip and shudder”. Deary, deary me.
2.  The eyes have it
When I need a character to materialise quickly in the mind of the reader, I have an irritating tendency to fiddle with their eyes. Forget voices, quirks, personalities – just give ‘em some crowsfeet and be done, that’s me. The fortune teller? “her creased eyes painted...” The masseur at the steamhalls? “wide wet eyes” (wet?!) Fat Oscar? “eyes glassy like marbles” and “there’s something in his eyes as they flicker upwards”. Boredom at being so tediously described, I should imagine.
3.  Me and my two adjectives
Madness when your two adjectives are zingy, vibrant and interesting words. Total bloody lunacy when the two in question are “thin” and “tight”. Every street, passageway, alley, corridor, walkway and tunnel are one or both of these things at some point. Such is my desperation to create a sense of claustrophobia, I’m slapping the reader in the face with it every other sentence.
And I’ve deliberately not mentioned the horrific continuity errors – there’s a whole post’s worth of fun in those. As for the kissing scene – Lord above, I write like I’m seventeen.
Faced with these problems, I reckon even Kingy would agree to adjust his simple re-drafting equation. “Second draft”, he’d be forced to concede, “equals first draft minus plot holes, purple prose, personality quirks, bad habits – and 10%”  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Dancer and the Dance

Wandering the City Art Gallery last week, I was struck by this thought. Just imagine the ghosts of all the artists were stationed next to their work in an educational capacity, ready to eagerly explain to each visitor the themes, ideas and implied meanings of their work. You’d be approaching the Pre-Raphelite room, and Rossetti himself would catch your eye. He’d wait politely while you scanned his picture before asking, maybe a little nervously; “Do you like it? Oh thanks. That’s nice. It took me ages. How kind of you to comment. See the apple she’s holding? Yes, that one. It’s a metaphor. Any guesses what it stands for? No? Well, I’ll tell you...” The visitor, stifled by the proximity of the painter, over-awed even; intimidated, would soon retreat. On reflection I concluded, I’ll have my art without the presence of the artist thanks very much.
There’s that famous Yeats poem about schoolchildren which he finishes “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Dance, some types of theatre, performance art – these are media in which the artist is the art. Painting thankfully doesn’t belong in that category. And neither does writing.
Recently I’ve finished reading an impressive, ambitious, epically-plotted and at times expertly-written novel. But one chapter ended with these lines: “I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.” The presence of the writer was so profound here, they may as well have been standing at my shoulder. (“Do you like it? Yes? Oh good! It took me ages. It’s a metaphor, you see...”) I suppose there’s an argument that says as soon as we move from the literal to the artfully figurative, we reveal ourselves. “Here I am,” we say. “Look at my syndetic list of juxtaposed nouns. Cool, huh?” And – I have to ask it, even if I risk exposing my ignorance – what does ozone smell like, exactly? Or,for that matter, gunpowder? Thunderstorms I can do. I can see why seawater might taste a bit like freedom, I suppose. But bonfires? Oranges? It’s risky is all I’m saying. I remember having a short story handed back by my tutor some years ago with the cringe-inducing adolescent simile “like a mermaid trapped in a bell-jar” underlined. Twice. I bridled at the time, but we all know what that tutor meant; no further comment was necessary.
Here’s another thing. Scatter your prose with elevated metaphor, and you run the risk of it bleeding into your dialogue. Later on the same novel, one character, describing another, says “...she was like an ice-skater balanced effortlessly on the edge of her own speed, throwing in joyous, elaborate twirls and leaps just for the hell of it.” What - someone really said that? They didn’t. The author wrote it – and they’re there at my shoulder again, running a finger underneath it as I read.
In his short story Cat in the Rain, Ernest Hemingway describes the sea on a rainy day with these lines: “The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.”
Sometimes you can’t see the art for the artist. But in these lines? Well – you can’t see the artist for the art.
Mermaid in a bell-jar indeed.