Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS - 'Sophisticating' Your Writing

Another installment of PARANORMAL WIRE Tuesday Tips and Tidbits...

Andrew Arrosmith's REALMS OF BELIAR fantasy
Okay, yes, I admit that ‘sophisticating’ is not an acceptable and recognized word. However, in this case it was used to shorten the blog title and – hey – get you to take a look and say WHAT? The real purpose of this post is to discuss how and why writers think they need to add an air of sophistication to their writing.

Adding foreign phrases. The first and most obvious way a lot of novice authors attempt to add sophistication to their writing is by inserting famous French quotes or adding dialog in French to one or more of their characters. Because ... everyone knows the French are way more sophisticated than rude and uncultured Americans (wink-wink). Verstehen Sie? (Oops, sorry, that was German.)

While adding a line of foreign language here and there to establish character traits is fine, a little can go a long way. This is especially true when the typical reader will not have an immediate understanding of the meaning of those phrases. The best practice is to put the foreign phrase in context so that the meaning, without proper translation, can be inferred from what is going on in the story. However, problems may crop up when the author isn’t fluent in the foreign language being used – but some readers out there are. Nothing is more embarrassing than having a reader point out improper usage or syntax when the author pulled the foreign phrase off some web site like freetranslation.com.

Create a unique style. Edward Estlin (E. E.) Cummings, famous poet who was also a painter and fiction author, wrote many of his poems in all lowercase letters. This became a trademark of his that made his work easily recognizable. And anyone who used that same ‘gimmick’ would immediately be branded as a shameless copycat. This type of stylistic artifice, however, can sometimes work against an author when the artistic style overwhelms the content and substance of the writing. For instance, writing an entire novel in a stream-of-consciousness style with run-on sentences that may go for paragraphs or even pages, can make reading the work a tedious chore for most readers, many of whom won’t put up with that for very long, and simply stop reading. That’s the last thing a writer wants his readers to do. So add an artistic style only if it can be done exceedingly well and seems essential to characterization, for instance if the novel is being told from a first-person point of view (I did this, I saw that), similar to William Faulkner’s style.

Everything plus the kitchen sink. Sometimes an author thinks it’s necessary to put everything conceivable into a novel in order to make it seem deep and worthy of highest regard. Foucault’s Pendulum by Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco seems to be just such a book. Mr. Eco may not have deliberately overwhelmed his convoluted story with arcane and obscure details (including lengthy explorations of the Kabbalah, alchemy, and conspiracy theories involving the Templars) because he thought it was the only way his book would gain critical attention. He may have in fact included these details as a result of his own philosophical explorations and studies. However, for the typical reader, keeping track of all that was going on in the book required a score sheet or index to refer to in frequent times of confusion. The total effect of reading it was like stepping into a very organized hoarder’s labyrinth – with no way out. While it was an oftentimes fascinating read with new twists and turns in every manner imaginable, it also required great effort to keep up with and simply read.

Purple Prose. There’s always the attempt to add sophistication to one’s writing when dealing with characters who are supposed to be upper-class or genteel. Historical novels often suffer from an overabundance of fancy, overinflated, ten-dollar words, ‘beautiful’ turns of a phrase, or polite euphemisms. While this can be an appropriate treatment to give a proper feel for the characters in a specific time period, oftentimes it has the opposite effect of adding sophistication, and actually makes the reader giggle or roll her eyes. While careful writing can add a sense of personality to a character through narrative style and artful dialog, it should be done with restraint so the tone is perfect – not overdone like a burnt cake buried under a ton of sticky-sweet icing.

Just get out of the way. Oftentimes the best way to write your story is the straightforward, no-nonsense approach. This is true of thrillers and much horror, and can work well for just about any other genre. The objective is for the author to remain invisible and get out of the way while showing the reader the story. The basic competency of the author’s writing will create a sturdy foundation over which the story can be built floor by floor to soar like a strong and glistening skyscraper. But if the author spends so much time trying to pretty up the writing (the foundation) with artful and sophisticated techniques, those added gewgaws may obscure a clear path to the elevator, so the reader never gets to visit the top floors of the soaring skyscraper story and see the wonderful vista the author had envisioned. Sometimes simplicity and directness and an economy of words can be a style all its own that readers will enjoy and appreciate – because it allows them to read the story instead of noticing the fancy way the author worded things.

So... Whatever writing approach you choose, make sure it’s a good fit for your story – then get out of the way and let the reader read it.

Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing


Walter Knight said...

It is more fun to spoof 'sophisticating.'

My favorite french quotes are Napoleon's clearing the streets of rabble with a "whif of grape," and "let them eat cake" by Marie Antoinette, to the peasants.

"Off with their heads" is a nice quote, too, although not as sophisticating.

Penumbra Publishing said...

That's Walt - clearing the streets with a whiff of spoof...


Natasha Larry said...

You know...I think many things about the French...just not "sophistication"

=) This is great advice. I got a lot of comments about it on face book.

Chaz Wood said...

Interesting you mention Umberto Eco and 'Foucault's Pendulum', Natasha. I'm in the middle of reading this myself. No stranger to the occult and mysticism (my first novel, Maranatha, is based heavily upon alchemy and ancient Gnostic philosophy), but there are times when even I find myself having to remember that I;m reading a novel, and not a philosophical treatise. (Incidentally, your comments also ring quite true - as a recent reviewer of Maranatha recorded very similar observations). I'm still expecting to be overwhelmed by Eco's actual story, however - I throughly believe it's one of those books which may be a lot of work, but which rewards it all in the end. Let's compare notes when we're finished!