Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Stiff writing

I know a lot of us are getting ready for conferences or submissions or both. In light of that, I'd like to discuss a few things I often do wrong. If, at some point, I happen to mention something that you struggle with, we can have a good discussion about ways to fix the problem.

Here's something I spotted in the manuscript I'm preparing for submission - stiff writing. This is one of those things that does not necessarily equate to poor writing. Stiff doesn't mean poor grammar, poorly constructed sentences, or even lazy word choices (which I am also guilty of). However, it is just as detrimental to our bid for publication. Stiff writing results when our sentences are too similar, when we don't vary the length and structure of the sentences, and when we tell the story from our heads rather than from the character's perspective.

Here's an example (not from my manuscript, just from my head)of stiff writing -
Jane pushed the door open and stepped into the living room of her house. She had left the lights off, so she crossed the room and turned on the lamp that sat on the table. The house felt empty and she almost wished she hadn't sent her renter packing the week before. She went into the kitchen and got a soda from the fridge. As she sipped from the can, a sound drifted in from somewhere down the hall. It sounded like a quiet sigh, or maybe the brush of a foot against carpet. She froze and strained to hear more. She didn't hear anything, but the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she was sure she wasn't alone. She needed to get out of the house and call the police. She stepped out of the kitchen and hurried across the living room. Something slammed into her back and she fell.

This is not stiff -
Jane shoved the door open and stepped into the living room of her house. Darkness and silence greeted her, a stark contrast to the noise and chaos of the emergency room where she worked. She'd thought that was what she wanted when she'd refused to renew her renter's lease. Now, she wondered what she'd been thinking. As much as Kelly's constant chatter and late night visitors had annoyed, having her renting the basement apartment had made the house seem less lonely. In the wake of Matt's death a year ago, less lonely was something Jane needed to feel. She sighed, pushing away the thought and the sadness that accompanied it. She'd grab a soda, turn on the television, create her own noise to fill the silence.

She had the soda in hand, was taking the first cold sip when she heard it - a whisper of sound that clawed its way up her spine and lodged in the base of her neck. Was someone in the house with her? She didn't wait to find out, just set the can down on the counter, and hurried back toward the front door. The police would think her paranoid, but Jane didn't care. She was getting out and she was calling for help. Let the experts deal with whatever lurked, or didn't, in the dark bowels of her house. She reached for the doorknob, her hand brushing against cool metal, and felt a subtle shift in the air behind her. Before she could turn, something slammed into her back, knocking her forward with enough force to steal her breath. Her head cracked against wood in an explosion of stars and pain. And then she was falling, sliding toward the floor and darkness.

So, it's the same scene. However, while the first example is technically correct (minus any grammatical and spelling errors) it isn't compelling. The style is stiff. Each sentence seems to mimic the one before in tone and structure. We've got no insight into our heroine, no true idea of what is going on in her head. Sure, we've got surface stuff, but the paragraph lacks deep point of view. We sit at the surface of the character's thoughts. It's like meeting someone and saying, "How are you?" and getting the response, "I'm fine." Fine is generic. So is the first paragraph.

Oops, it's late. I've got to start on summer school stuff.

Any comments or questions on stiff writing?


MommyCheryl said...

Shirlee, thanks for posting that. I don't know what kind of a learner this makes me, but it is so much easier to see the concept with good examples.
Now, I have to sit down with my current chapter and a red pen. Maybe lots of red pens. :)

Shirlee McCoy said...

I think we're all like that, Cheryl.

Speaking of red pens....I suddenly realized how many I'm going to need to use on VALLEY OF SHADOWS. I think I'd better buy stock in a pen company!