Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Soundbites and Language

"...a noir taste like we haven't seen in years."
"The impressionistic language dazzles."
"Raw and edgy, this doesn't disappoint."

This is the sort of language you see in reviews and on back cover blurbs. It's a quotable line, and something that hopefully attracts attention, if they're phrased correctly. The theory is that the sound bite is a perfect miniature of the whole, that in one quote, you represent all the flavors and elements of the whole.

The problem is that some of the flavors and elements of the whole aren't really great representations of the style, theme or even the author, but they make for dazzling copy, so they get used in quotes and the PR machine and somehow it's okay.

But it's not okay. Just because a review or a quote puts a word-label on something does not mean the item IS that thing. Anything can be mislabeled, mishandled or misunderstood. Now while so far in this post I've talked about the publishing side of the coin, it is also possible that from the authorial side things are misunderstood as well.

What follows are a few items I want to make clear, from both a reader and editorial perspective.

1. Profanity is not proof of hardboiled/noir anything. Yay for swearing. I enjoy a good string of expletives as much as the next guy, and anyone who can curse like a truck-driving sailor on shore leave will always be welcomed into conversation, but it's not a style. It's a string of words that, like adjectives, should be used for maximum impact and effect.

When I was away from home after high school, when I realized I was free of "the man" and had no sense of discipline or boundaries, the first things I wanted to do were all things I couldn't before. Smoking, cursing, drinking, eating whatever I could whenever I wanted, carousing...all the typical adolescent rebellion tripe. And I remember conversations I had when I came back from being away where it seemed as though everything third word rhymed with "trucking" or had something to do with defecation. (See what I did there?)

Was I expressing myself? Sure. Was it effective? It was not compelling more people to listen to me, no. It was not intriguing people to see the college student rattle off eleven curses while ordering an omelet. It didn't do anything to make me more bad-ass or more attractive. Too much cursing is not style. There is an art to language, and while provocative language is one technique, it shouldn't be the only technique, whether we're telling the story of a leg-breaking tough who discovers a dead dame, or whether we're reading about a police station in the grip of a crazed serial killer.

Profanity without purpose are words ripe for deletion when you need to trim fat.

2. The purpose of a book is to tell a story, not drown us in levels of craft-work. This is something I'm very guilty of. And for this, I blame my education. A host of teachers showed me all the different kinds of writing and English-major-y bits (I mean allegory, metonymy, catachresis, foreshadowing, parallelism, semiotics, etc) and I was so eager and happy to dust any and everything I wrote with all these big flashy concepts. This is great IN school, where a professor may actually tell you to use these things because you're getting a grade on how well you specifically use it, but out in the real world of writers and audiences, the great majority of your readers aren't going to care that within Chapter 6 you've created a deeply moving hendiadys (google it) buried within a turn of phrase that is a reference to the plight of the American Indian prior to 1890. No, instead they're just going to see the weird line of dialogue from a character.

2 sobering facts that I still find myself dealing with from time to time:

1. The vast majority of readers isn't aware of all the terms and usages and fiddly bits of language.
2. The vast majority of readers doesn't care about the terms, usages and fiddly bits of language - they want a story.

So for all the great exercising of years of English classes, it's not wasted on the readers, as I'm sure some of them will find, appreciate and digest the nuances, and the studies did make me more capable and diverse as a writer, but I'm not telling stories to practice what I learned in the spring semester of my junior year twice weekly before lunch. I'm telling stories because the characters have something to say and ideas to express as they gnaw their way out of my imagination onto the page.

In short - people are not going to know the hard work that went into the outlines, drafts, and revisions - they're going to see the end result. They may also miss the finer points of your writing prowess because they're engaged elsewhere by story, character or development. Don't hate them for it.

3. If the act of writing has a point, then it's to write to completion not perfection. Some days it feels like I'm forever writing and rewriting the same paragraph, page or chapter. I'm doing all this rewriting because I want, I feel like I need to have each sentence be 'perfect', because that's the only way someone will like it.

But then when I've handed out the first 60 or so pages of what I'm writing, the feedback I'm getting isn't "this is imperfect, you suck, go sit in the corner" it's more like "This is awesome, I want more please" and that's a hard thing to wrap your head around when you grew up feeling like everything you did wasn't good enough and as an adult you question your abilities pretty intensely.

Over time, and with the help of great people, I'm getting better at seeing my work in more appreciative and healthy ways. Sure, it chews a hole through me when it needs to be done, and I should make it more of a priority when I have great swathes of downtime, but I'm not chasing perfection here - I'm telling my story my way, the best way I can.

And that's where the perfection is - in telling my story my way. Not in the constant obsession of perfect grammar, immaculate syntax and brilliant use of obnoxious literary terms.

I will admit that I sort of rambled through this and lost a little steam while writing, but this is definitely a set of topics I'd like to revisit later. 

Happy writing.