Writers on Writing . . . I’m Flat!

When Jane Yolen bought my first book over twenty years ago, she told me that she loved my story-telling, but my prose was  . . . flat.

Flat! Wail! Flail!  But . . . but . . . didn’t she like my imagination? Didn’t she love my characters?  When I finally stopped tripping over my lower lip, it was time to take a hard look at what I was doing. Granted, everyone’s idea of vivid, effective prose varies, but for what it’s worth, here are some of the things I learned.

The most frequent mistake I made was using standard phrases—clichés.

They are so easy, and so small, and so harmless. When one is reading, they slide right past, because we know instantly what they mean. Music that always piercingly sweet or hauntingly beautiful; characters, usually female, often the heroine, whose fragile beauty is also sometimes haunting; people who, at sentimental moments, feel achingly vulnerable; living rock under the moldering castle. Pandemonium that always reigns, tables that always groan under lots of food, and screams that pierce the air, or storms that always rage.

These are easy, but how effective are they? Take shatter. Shattering glass is pretty shocking, and shattering buildings even more so, but shattering gazes, souls, and sounds don’t have that (wait for it!) cutting edge they once did.

Personal storms don’t have the power of a good gulley washer any more, as in She stormed into the room. Even less effective is stormed as a dialogue attribute, as in “I hate you,” she stormed, after which her bosom usually heaved passionately. Rage and anger battled across her face. Emotions that are constantly crossing, or creeping in faces–A shadow crept across his face. Anger crept into her eyes. A smile crept across his lips.

Eyes have become the semaphore system for showing emotions just about as long as novels have been written. We all know that His eyes blazed means the guy is mad, and Her eyes glowed generally means some more tender emotion. But are we going to remember characters whose eyes always twinkle, gleam, glow, scorch, smolder, glimmer, glint, and blaze? How about the violent eyes—the ones that stab, pierce, rake, bounce, and flame—are we really impressed any more?

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Writers on Writing . . . I’m Flat! — 18 Comments

  1. You know, since I read loads of romances from all kinds of publishers and writers… you’re so right. I never realized while reading why I sometimes couldn’t feel with the characters when these words were used.

    Reminds me of Barbara Cartland too much, I guess.

  2. Hi, Steven! 🙂

    ESTARA: add in the constant over use of elipses, and that characterizes Cartland, yep.

  3. I think it’s the accumulation of cliched phrases that’s no good–one or two of them can–for me–sometimes feel just right. Too many of them, and you feel like the words are just being put on the page unconsciously, without any thought, but one, now or then, can be (again, for me, and obviously mileage varies with this sort of thing) almost fresh.

  4. Ah, great post and great point. But alas, what can I use so my prose does not fall flat? Any suggestions for how to avoid these cliches and still use strong verbs/words?

  5. I am guilty of ellipses. Unfortunately, I speak that way, so pruning them back is always a battle. You’re going to have to offer suggestions, Sherwood. (Writers can always improve their style. A writer’s reach must exceed her grasp, and all that.) Did Jane suggest another approach?

  6. Hmm. How to fix. Well, you could always swap a synonym in. Instead of a piercing glance, it is needle-like, or sharp, or some such. But avoid Roget’s Disease!
    The broader problem is, how do you learn to see the trite phrase, because then a fix is at least possible.

  7. I looked at the length of these blogs, and figured that the “how to fix it?” portion ought to go in next week. So stand by, and thanks for commenting!

    ASAKIYUME: yes–cliches became cliches for a reason. Part is the convenience, but that very convenience meant that they worked well. Like the heat and light metaphors in eyes. Nobody has actually ever seen anyone’s eyeballs give off smoke and flames, but “Her eyes blazed with rage” is sometimes far more effective than a more labored description, however original.

  8. This post characterizes so much of what I find wrong in books (and my own writing.) A reliance on the tried and true, hackneyed to death with overusage and suddenly the words lose all the strength and vitality they once conjured. Thanks and looking forward to your next post.

  9. Great post, Sherwood! I don’t mind clichés much if they’re used like a very strong seasoning: lightly and seldom. I love falling into a world’s words where the author uses new expressions that I’ve never seen before. For me, it adds to the deliciousness of the story. 😀

  10. Hi Sherwood:
    Great post! Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to the next half and I’m off tonight to meet your LB writer’s group which I tracked down (yes, I’m in the LBC) because I bought both Crown Duel and Stranger to Command last week. I devoured them! They are two of my new favorites! Now am off to share my own little YA fantasy w/the group.

  11. She had the fragile beauty of a steel span suspension bridge. When events accorded to her whim, the discourse was guided between the two camps over the chasm of differences, with the assumption of permanent solidity that a bridge often has.

    It was my job to cut her cables, separate her from her support structure, and let the stresses of the passage tear her apart.

    (Sometimes, you can take those cliches and turn them inside out…what does this opening tell you about the story to unfold?)

  12. KEN: there are some awesome writers who turn cliches inside out, and make them not only funny but fresh again. And like DANYELLE said, sometimes, a cliche really is the right expression . . . after all, they got overused because they were so effective for so long.

    What I am arguing for is becoming aware of one’s word choices.

    MAITRIQUEST: Thank you! I haven’t been to the group for a while, as they moved, and I have been without a car. But I plan to return. It’s an awesome group of people–hope you enjoy it!

  13. Hi Sherwood:
    I did enjoy myself, thank you! I too am w/out a car and am very happy I can easily take the Passport. I hope you will be around when I am so I can have you sign my copies of “Court Duel” and “A Stranger to Command!” And hey, if you are in the LBC you should be profiled in LB Magazine. I’d be happy to send the pitch.

  14. Maitriquest: alas, I don’t actually live in LB–just over the county line. I will try to get there…