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?