Writing Alchemy Provides an Antidote When We Try Too Hard to Write

by Kendra Bonnett on May 11, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #47 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

I’m still serving as Guest Editor on She Writes. And today I wrote about the five senses. Today’s post is called, “Use the Five Senses in Your Quest to Write One True Sentence.” Preparing this post got me to thinking…

I suppose it’s human nature to feel just the teensiest bit superior when we can point out the flaws in others. Teens call it “dissing.” The ladies of the hit-TV show GCB might say “catty.” (Only they’d pronounce the word with much more lilt in their voice.)

meetingAs writers, we don’t mince words. We call criticism a critique and make it part of our business. If only Writer’s Digest gave merit badges for making another writer cry, I could have soared with the Eagle Scouts.

Confessions of a Shameful Critique

Actually I did once. Make an aspiring writer cry. My only excuse is that I was young and didn’t even know I had the power to make another woman–a nice, older woman who worked at the same company I did and who was making a lot more money that I was–cry. But I’ve never forgotten how that felt. One minute I was wielding my critical Excalibur and the next waiting for retribution only a Dionysius could think to deliver.

I learned my lesson that day. Destroying an aspiring writer is no way to help her unlock the secrets of good writing and improve her skills. And it’s certainly no way to advance our craft.

At the same time, that’s not to say we give a pass to everyone who dares to put pen to paper. You know exactly what I mean. Whether it’s a classmate, a writing friend, a student or someone in our writing group, we’ve all been there.

It’s your turn to critique, and the intended victim of your venomous red pencil is sitting across the room. Expectant, she tries to disarm you with her best “deer in the headlight” gaze. “Trite,” you say, and you’d be correct. But then she connects…her eyes lock with yours. It’s over in a moment; her effect is powerful, and already you’re a better woman than I was.

Quickly, you scour your notes looking for a few nice things you can say…anything. “Ah, I like that you spelled everything correctly.” It ?sounds like you, but could you really be saying something so…so non-commital? Especially since you’re not the best speller yourself. But before you have time to consider the words coming out of your mouth, you add, “I really like that you kept your story to the length assigned.”? Geesh, you’re thinking, is this the best I can do? I don’t want to offend, but…

You look down at the printout in your hand. There’s so much red ink on the pages, they could be declared a crime scene. Finally, you find it: “Your description of your best friend is good. I can really see her.”

Of course, I’ve made this scenario up, but it’s not that far from the truth. We don’t like to offend our friends and fellow writing students. But the fact is, there’s a lot of bad writing out there, and some of it finds its way into print.

The Internet Doesn’t Spare Feelings

Spend an hour or two on Google searching for “bad fiction,” “lists of worst novels” or “examples of bad literature” and you’ll probably discover the same thing I did. The? Twilight books have a reputation for some really bad writing. Now I’m not taking away anything from Stephenie Meyer’s amazing success. She has a wildly popular series of books and she sold the movie rights. I’d take her career in a heartbeat.

Because I haven’t caught? Twilight fever, I have to read through the first few pages using Amazon “Look Inside” to figure out what the Internet has been buzzing about. Here are a few of the examples I found:

“Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn’t know what there was to say regardless.” Huh?

Also, “The sloshing of my new waterproof boots was unnerving.” I’ve had a lot of boots, but none of them have ever unnerved me. Pinched my toes, maybe.

And this, “Everything was green: the trees, their trunks covered with moss, their branches hanging with a canopy of it, the ground covered with ferns. Even the air filtered down greenly through the leaves. It was too green–an alien planet.” That’s a mighty greenly green image.

Okay, I don’t want to pile on, and I do think Meyer spins a very engaging tale. Even in the first few pages, as I searched for examples, I was caught up in her story. In truth, I read more than I had planned to read. She has a gift for storytelling.

But what I read got me thinking. What happens when we try too hard? Too hard to include details? Too hard to avoid simple words? Too hard to turn our descriptions into metaphor. Too hard to sound literate?

The Most Oft-Quoted Example of Purple Prose

Back to Google I go. Without much effort I come to the quintessential example of purple prose. It’s the first sentence in ?Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel? Paul Clifford:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

This sentence is considered so over-the-top in writing circles, it inspired San Jose State University’s English Department to create the annual ?Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the best (worst?) one-sentence example of purple prose.

If you want to know how I answered my own question, please join me on She Writes. Just click on the link at the top of this post. I really got into this one. And I’ve included a Writing Alchemy Prompt for you to use.

There’s Still Time to Save on Writing Alchemy

Writing Alchemy memoir book, memoir writing book, how to write a memoir, memoir edition of writing book, how to tell a storyBecause we won’t have more books until June, Matilda and I have extended the time you can order at our pre-order price. Right now you can get Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep at almost half off the regular price.

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