Finding that sweet balance between telling a story cleanly and clearly and evoking powerful emotional responses in readers challenges every writer. I used to think I wrote cleanly and clearly. I considered it one of my strengths. Boy, was I deluded! Having birthed my fifth novel, I can now see I was neither clean nor clear in my earlier writing. ‘Turgid prose’ is an ugly phrase, but one that I can, sadly, claim.
I’ve been known to admit (okay, boast a little) that my writing has improved in each successive novel. How do I know that? How can I empirically prove that? This blog tries to answer that question.
‘Turgid’ is defined as swollen and distended or congested. In short, wordy! “Cut the adverbs. Cut the adjectives. Shorten your chapters. Shorten your paragraphs. Shorten your sentences.” I’ve said these words to my students at all levels, from elementary through to writing a Ph.D. dissertation. In fact, my advice bordered on the abusive when I used to say, “Make every word both a tool and a gem. Make each word both functional and beautiful.”
Eliminating -- or at least reducing – turgidity was one of my goals for my second novel, Chapel on the Moor.
My second goal was closely related to reducing turgidity. My son, an honest and straightforward critic, said it most clearly. “Every character in your novel sounds like an English professor. People don’t speak like that. They don’t think like that.” Am I suggesting that the speech of English professors is turgid? Possibly. In trying to clarify an idea, we English professors, retired or otherwise, are known for fulsome explanations that sometimes baffle our students and occasionally inspire them. Depends on the student; depends on the professor; and depends on the relationship between the two. But I interpreted my son’s observation as a critique of the world I was trying to create within my first novel, Fall of a Sparrow. A world populated with thoughtful, observant people. How could I keep that world but not fall into the trap of being too wordy? How could I make thoughtful and observant dialogue crisp and engaging?
Having my characters express their thoughts and observations realistically became my second major goal as I began Chapel on the Moor.
I wrote the first draft of my second novel with those two goals not only in mind but also in writing, on a sheet of paper beside my computer. But I did not allow these goals to impede creating the first draft of the novel. I dedicated the second draft to applying these goals to every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and dialogic utterance. My method was similar to writing a précis: At the sentence level, I made every clause a phrase, every phrase an adjective or adverb, and then eliminated the adverbs and adjectives by trying to find the precise noun or verb I needed. It took a long time. The result was sterile. Ugly in sound. Cold in emotion. It was clean, clear prose but it lacked magic.
What it did have was the essence of the thought. The nuts and bolts of the story. The clean foundation.
Draft three involved creating the magic. It’s the part I used to think came automatically to writers. And to some, I do believe it comes more easily and naturally than to others. But magic is a craft as well as a talent. It involves techniques that can be taught and learned. It involves creating the sweet balance between idea and word that hits a home run with readers. Most effectively, it generally eschews flowery prose. “They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time.” That’s a first sentence that hit my head and heart together when I read it, and still does every time I think of it. So much world-building, history, culture, pain, and storytelling genius dwells within those few words that begin Toni Morrison’s Paradise. And Toni Morrison is the author who inspired my phrase, ‘Make every word a tool and a gem.” Because she does.
Critical friends tell me what is not working. Life experiences, workshops, and seminars continue to teach me ways to fix my problems. Reading inspires me with examples. There is no formula other than that.
The first chapter of Fall of a Sparrow is 50 pages long; the first chapter of Chapel on the Moor is 9 pages long. The characters, fewer in number, speak more realistically, often in fragments. And speaking of numbers, not only are there shorter chapters and fewer characters, but the sentences are shorter, and the words average fewer syllables.
Is every word both a tool and a gem? No. But the effort put into using precise nouns and verbs and avoiding adverbs and adjectives is noticeable.
Do the changes make the second novel a better novel?
The changes are mostly technical in nature. I cared intensely about my characters and my story as I created both novels. From my author’s perspective, the first novel showed me I could create a novel. The second novel showed me I could learn from that effort and improve the readability of the next novel. But the ultimate transaction is between the novel and the reader. I’d love to hear from you any comments (yes, both positive and not-so-positive but constructive) that you would care to make – about any of my novels. You can post a comment on this website or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And no, it’s not just about the numbers, although I continue to monitor the length of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters as well as the number of characters.
My next blog will focus on changing goals and transitioning from Chapel on the Moor to The Doolally Gang.
Sharon J. Hamilton has taught English in every grade, from one through master’s level, during her forty-year career. She earned a PhD in language and literacy at the University of London and has participated in writing seminars at Corpus Cristi College, Oxford, and the Faber Academy, London.