Friday, April 17, 2009

Knowing When to Stop

I've been listening to a lot of Pseudopod and Escape Pod lately (Podcastle is next), much to the Abigail's dismay, as she's not much of a horror or science fiction fan. I think she's come to dread the words "Abby, Abby, listen, I heard the greatest story on Pseudopod earlier." It'll get better when I reach the Podcastle. Although I've been loving the hell out of these podcasts and recommend them to you (yes, you) utterly without reservation, I have noticed that many of the stories seem to share the same foible. Since these are all reasonably good stories, I can only assume that this is a difficulty experienced by many reasonably competent writers, and therefore worthy of attention.

A lot of writers don't seem to know when to stop a line of description. They're doing well, making an evocative metaphor or simile, and they take it just one or two words too far, transforming it from evocative to overwrought. Some (liberally paraphrased) examples from a story I just finished listening to:

Stanley felt as though he had been dumped into a giant vat of ice water.

It's hard to escape the instincts of your tribal hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Both descriptions take it just a little too far. What does it add that Stanley feels like he's been dumped into a vat of ice water? Why not just say his body went cold with shock? For that matter how does a vat of ice water feel different from an swimming pool of ice water or an ocean of ice water or having a bucket of ice water poured over your head? Similarly, what's relevant in the second line isn't the hunter-gathererness of Stanley's ancestors, but their tribality (why yes, I do like inventing words for comedic effect, why do you ask?), so why bother to mention it? How does it relate to their propensity to seek out powerful leaders to make their decisions for them that their ancestors had, at one point, not yet developed agriculture and supplemented their hunting with fruits, vegetables, and tubers found by foraging?

I'm picking on one story here, but only because it's the most recent. I've found this phenomenon in a number of stories.

My first instinct is to say that the author needs an editor, but I don't think that's actually very fair. I don't know much about the author in question's process and for all I know he already has an editor. Perhaps its merely a matter of taste - I trust you'll all tell me so in comments if it is - or perhaps this is something writers really do struggle with.

What I find puzzling is that I don't think I struggle with this. When I look at my own writing, my descriptions generally seem delightfully concise (or, at least, they do after a second or third readthrough!) and without excess verbage.* Which brings me to my conclusion: tighten up your prose! If you can lose a word, lose it!

That being said, if any of you think I'm being picky, my stylistic demands are subjective (or wrong), or you've read my writing (you can find some samples of it here, here, here, and here) and think I do do this, after all, let me know in comments!

*That sentence was originally going to read "...without excess verbage that doesn't pull its own weight," but I took off the last part. See! Style in action.

* * *

Remember how a ways back I posted that White Wolf had finally announced the release of the book I worked on, the one that was my first professional contract ever? Well, they just posted the cover, too, faithfully reproduced here for your viewing pleasure:

Image courtesy of Amazon

Isn't she lovely?

I cannot wait to see my work in print, with art and layout and sidebars and everything. Unfortunately, the listed release date is August 5th, and I'm not likely to recieve my author copies until somewhat after that. So it looks like I'll have to.



Becca said...

Are we okay with the semi-naked chick? Personally I think it's more artistic than not and I'm okay with it, but I was wondering what you thought.

Regardless, how exciting to see your first cover art!!!!!!

I still need to get back to you about your e-mail, but mental health days are important :)

Anonymous said...

the reason for excess verbage is word count. didn't you ever have to write papers for college? how do you think people get through 50,000 words (or whatever it is) in a month for a novel?

also, i see nothing wrong w/vats of ice water.


I tend to be a habitual over-describer at times myself but not always... my style seems trapped somewhere between Hemmingway and Lovecraft.

And congrats on the book... it made me all nostalgic for AFMBE.