We seem to be living in the age of over-writing, and I’m growing fatigued by it. The advice given to new writers is just the absolute worst it can get, and it is even leading publishers to seek out novels which follow this bad advice. We need to stop this nonsense once and for all because it means that great books actually do not get published anymore- works by those I would call truly misunderstood geniuses. Misunderstood at least by the industry. Aside from the general lack of depth, and the contrivances of most plot building, etc, the biggest problem is with prose. The use modifiers these days has reached a point where, in books such as City on Fire, there are approximately three layers of modification in a typical sentence. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph of the prologue-

In New York, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West Sixteenth Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a Mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in forty minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man- younger, I should say- you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.

-City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

This is nowhere near as bad as it gets, and yet this book was sold for $2 million! Now, some of you may be wondering what exactly is wrong with the prose, you may be so used to writing like this that it doesn’t faze you. Okay,  observe how Hallberg adds details that are ultimately superfluous- even though this information can be conveyed in a more graceful manner besides. There are better ways than this. There are also run on sentences with multiple clauses: which are, not only confusing, wordy and awkward to boot. But then you see some of the reviews this word-vomit got, oh boy-

A symphonic epic… A big, stunning first novel and an amazing virtual reality machine… Captures the city’s dangerous, magnetic allure… A novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power- a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.

-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

I would have to quote Kakutani, wouldn’t I? Her BS is always the most entertaining.

Now, if you still don’t get why I think COF, and writing like this in general, is plain bad, I’ll ask you a question: where is the voice of the book’s first-person narrator? Does it sound like a person, or does it sound like a pretentious ‘writer’ trying too hard to come across as sophisticated? ‘Mesozoic half-stick of butter,’ are you kidding? The guy wrote over 900 pages of this shit during his 30s and he’s lauded as both prodigy and genius!

I apologize for getting riled up about this and believe me, I’m not doing it for views. My best-received content is low on negative criticism. People just don’t want to hear it. The problem is not Hallberg, but the entire establishment of lit and lit criticism. If you search ‘how to write descriptively’ into Google, the first video that comes up is a titular piece [of crap] by Nalo Hopkinson, which was produced by TED. Now, I ask, anyone who dares lose brain cells watching it: do you really consider what they gave as exemplary of great prose to be so? Is it not just a bunch of clichés, and over-modified clichés? Such metaphors as are so out of touch with reality that, had they not provided the simple, to the point sentences at the beginning, would you even have a clue, say, that Billy was Nauseous? The first is so ridiculous a ‘description’ that it actually gives one nausea just to hear it read aloud.

Now, the other thing wrong with descriptive writing today- this I’ve mentioned before- is the over-use of sensory data. It’s following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, or so people think. Actually, this rule has nothing to do with trying to draw a picture of every little thing and make you viscerally feel what the characters feel. This took me a long time to figure out. It was when I was a kid and first learning to write, something of a mystery to me what use books were when movies existed. What use are the Hunger Games books if the movies exist, aside from having a slightly different plot, or containing more stuff within the plot? It turns out, the novel as a form is a highly versatile thing because it uses language, something that taps into every part of our minds. But that’s just the thing novels are without equal in their ability to access the mind. Okay, they might not be as efficient as poetry, but novels have many elements that poems simply do not, which can make it hard to find the balance between poetic and other- such as filmic- techniques.

There is an obsession with characters running, jumping, struggling. fighting. The reason for this, I believe, is that people think the more visceral the better. Well, this is simply not true. It’s an offshoot of over-saturating fiction with visual details. Unless details are important, you are better off building character and moving things forward. Minimal visual data is best, as no matter how well you describe someone’s features or attire, no two readers are going to have the same mental image. It is not essential anyway. More important than the characters appearance is their mind, outward expression, and actions. It is often just a way to show off the writers ability to string words together, and also perhaps a case of writer’s block in disguise, which makes authors think they have license to tap away at the keyboard and say nothing. You should oscillate between showing and telling, but you need to learn how to do both of these very well, and this is not an easy task given resources. Read Moby Dick, which is the best primarily told novel in print. One of the greatest primarily shown novels in print is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Work hard, do something creative with the form. Over-writing- modification, and saturation- only serves to make all fiction read the same. Get to the core of what matter, and beautiful, unique prose, will follow of their own accord.

A while ago I had seen an interview between Cliff Sargent and Damon McMahon, in which they discussed music and books, of course. Now, it is a very interesting thing to learn what kind of content someone is drawn to, and it is telling, especially when they themselves are artists or artistes as it were. Damon’s music, that is, the music of Amen Dunes, is filled with some of the most inane lyrics out there. And what’s more, he knows this to be the case. He actually thinks his music is more raw, or pure, or something, because of this. It’s like he thinks that it wouldn’t cut to the soul enough if he were to actually think through what he was saying, and Cliff remarks that this kind of music is actually another form of literature.

This brings us around to the question, what ‘literature’ influenced such ridiculous nonsense, I mean, lyrical genius? It turns out that it was primarily the duo of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Now, I have not read a lot of either, but considering what I have read, I can see now why Amen Dunes is given to such pretentiousness. His claim that these two are the most mature writers, and stand head and shoulders above everyone, that no one even comes close, well this was just too much. Both of these writers are terrible, and not nearly as well loved as many people suppose. They are the kinds of writers who are forced upon the young, while they go through the rigamarole that is formal education, and the result of this is two-fold: 1) most kids can’t stand their likes, and 2) the reason for this is apparently because kids aren’t smart enough.

And why am I so confident that the reason I don’t appreciate them is not that I lack the brains to comprehend their supposed brilliance? Well, it is very simple, when an author is actually brilliant, they are clearly so. The thing about real genius is that any idiot can recognize it. A good writer communicates depth through their work- lays bare its intellectual content to be explored. Great writing elevates the mind, it does not require you to be smart, it will inevitably be smarter than the typical reader, but insofar as it is comprehensible on the surface, working in the back of the reader’s mind is the rearranging of neurons so that by the end, life takes on new meaning. Perspective shifts.

What happens with Woolf and Faulkner? Well, not much. As far as their work is stimulating- how entertaining, moving and intellectual is it- there is absolutely nothing there. Modernist writing prioritizes experimentation with language more than almost anything else, yet paradoxically these particular modernists write nigh exclusively in clichés. Here is some of the writing-

About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she muttered, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her.

The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.

She loved him not only in spite of but because he himself was incapable of love.

Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

I would love to know who the hell could tell them apart? To give some contrast here is some prose I would consider to be good:

Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.

Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant, I act under orders.

-Moby Dick by Herman Melville

He lifted the picture for a closer look and saw himself among a group of men, tossing a baseball from bare right hand to gloved left hand. The flight of the ball had always made this photo mysterious to Francis, for the camera had caught the ball clutched in one hand and also in flight, arcing in a blur toward the glove. What the camera had caught was two instants in one: time separated and unified, the ball in two places at once, an eventuation as inexplicable as the Trinity itself. Francis now took the picture to be a Trinitarian talisman (a hand, a glove, a ball) for achieving the impossible: for he had always believed it impossible for him, ravaged man, failed human, to reenter history under this roof. Yet here he was in this acne of reconstitutable time, touching untouchable artifacts of a self that did not yet know it was ruined, just as the ball, in its inanimate ignorance, did not know yet that it was going nowhere, was caught.
But the ball is really not yet caught, except by the camera, which has frozen only its situation in space.
And Francis is not yet ruined, except as an apparency in process.
The ball still flies.
Francis still lives to play another day.
Doesn’t he?

-Ironweed by William Kennedy

Not only can you tell them apart, they are completely unique, because there is nothing trite or inane to reduce the writing to mere playing with words as is the case with the above passages. With Melville and Kennedy, there is actually something there. There is some real insight to be gleaned, rather than the poetic sounding, but intellectually banal gimmickry of Woolf and Faulkner.

Comparing the former to that latter duo is the literary equivalent of comparing a Jackson Pollock to a René Magritte.

One piece of advice which is given so often as to be a cliché at this stage, is ‘show don’t tell.’ It’s a slogan to be found in permanent residence on the whiteboards of creative writing teachers. The idea is a variation of ‘save the cat’ in film. Don’t say ‘this is the good guy,’ establish their character by way of demonstration, have them save a cat, or kick a dog (if they’re the bad guy), for example, to give the audience an emotional reaction one way or another. In most cinema, fine, I think that’s not such a bad technique, but in literature, I must say it is missing the point of the form.

Words are amazing- they have the ability to connect to the intellect. Most people forget about the power of words. Why do you read? If the film version of a novel came out, would you read the novel? Why do you write? If you could make a film, would you still write a novel? See, here’s the thing, I am concerned we are getting far too caught up in what words can simulate, rather than what they can, uniquely, do. If we take away the imagery of scenes, and characters, what are we left with? In a film, not much. But in a novel? One way I evaluate the quality of literature is by looking at the author’s skill in telling, and how well they use the medium of the written word to allow us insight at depths we would never be able to penetrate in the film version, were one to exist. And if you are going to use cinematic techniques in your fiction, at least use more interesting ones than ‘save the cat.’ There are far more nuanced ways of establishing character.

Think about it this way, you read a Harry Potter book, then you see the film. What is missing from the film that was in the book? Almost precisely nothing is different, save the length of the book’s plot versus the movie’s. I think you see what I’m getting at. So why is this piece of advice, ‘show don’t tell’ offered so ubiquitously? Well, it’s probably due to a misunderstanding of what telling actually is, and its all too frequent misuse. Telling is not info-dumping, which is something I would definitely advise against. Telling is allowing the narrator’s mind to enter, and make an impact. This is how voice can seep in between the lines, and give the writing a new dimension, and life. If something reads stale, it is almost certainly because of a lack of this very quality. It takes an incredible skill to do this well and rarely is it something the author can pull off, but when done right, the results can be, will be, spectacular. I implore those of you who write to draw from the pen your inner teller.

Ahh, the dreaded criticism of fictive works- your fictive works- that will inevitably come when your manuscript finally leaves the word processor and enters the world. ‘Is my writing immune to the knife of opinion?’ you ask. No. Listen, you will never escape subjective reactions, it’s up to the mind of the reader to decide on them, and sometimes what you’re selling just isn’t what they’re buying. It depends what one is attracted to. It’s like personality. Not everyone is going to like you, but there are definitely some rule you should follow if you want to be a good person. Who likes Hitler am I right? Turns out, millions of Germans at one stage- and as with art, even the worst humanity has to offer can be popular. This is why I don’t concern myself with what’s popular, but what is actually good, and so should you if you want to bring something to the world through art that is more than just tasty junk food, but actual nourishment. When was the last time you read something that affected you in a real way? I don’t just mean it was thrilling or tugged at your heartstrings, but really altered your mind? Would you like to write something like that? In other words, would you like to write something that gets at least a 7, or an 8 out of 10 on my rating system? With my criticism, and any criticism worth listening to, I’m sure, it is beneficial to pay attention to why one novel fails and another succeeds. If you think my criticism is worth listening to, then here is my essential guide. And I guarantee you if you follow these rules your fiction will improve, and not only that, you’ll know it. You’ll be able to more clearly judge whether you’re potentially creating a masterpiece or a bored commuter’s read on the train- a forgettable burner of hours. I will talk first about prose- the lines– and then about what lies between the lines. Much of this concerns voice. Understand this, if you can learn to hone your voice as a writer and a speaker, you will elevate your art to potentially stellar levels.

The Lines

  1. EXCESS VERBIAGE: Reduce your excess word count. If you can eliminate a word and retain the meaning, do so- ‘that’ is one word which is almost always present superfluously. Also, do not write unnecessary details: if someone is holding something, don’t add ‘in his hand.’ If someone is wearing shoes, don’t say ‘the shoes she is wearing on her feet,’ but ‘her shoes.’ Excess verbiage is itself an example, we don’t need the ‘excess’.
  2. AUTHENTIC VOICE: Writers with a distinctive voice can e recognized just from reading their writing. You may call it style, but this gives the wrong idea, voice isn’t just on the surface, it is not about creating an experimental prose style- often the clearest voices can be drawn from the most seemingly unremarkable prose. It’s a way of imbuing the text with the mind, either your own or that of the fictive narrator.
  3. OVERWRITING: While voice should be audible, prose should not be visible. Do not perform grammatical gymnastics just to stand out, and don’t oversaturate descriptions. Stay grounded, you don’t have to reinvent the English language.
  4. CLICHÉS: A the war on clichés (what a clichés phrase)- I wish more people would take up arms. The opposite of going out of your way to make your writing [appear] unique, is writing in a lazy, generic fashion. Overly idiomatic prose is dead prose. You are inheriting the voice of a collective, rather than finding your own. Also, clichésmean there is no insight into life which is anything more than general knowledge, and so there is really no point in reading anything. If you read enough, you’ll begin to pick up on where your writing lacks originality or depth. By the way, you can steal elements- all great artists steal from those who influenced them, but you should always do something new with those elements of another’s work you steal. Or you could steal clichés from the collective of writing, and twist that, and restate it in a nonpareil manner- that’s what satire is.

Between the Lines

  1. CHARACTER: Your characters should have their own voices, just like the narrator. I’ve read so much dull writing where the characters are empty husks manipulated by the author like puppets to drive along some contrived plot. Give your characters an outlook on life, an internal life at least as big as the external. Let the reader get behind their eyes. Ths will show up strongly in dialogue, where you’re not just writing shit that hasn’t got any real person behind the words. This is why bad writers use accents to create the impression of a unique way of speaking. I’m not saying don’t give your character an outlandish accent, do what you want, but there should be more to it than that.
  2. STIMULATE THE READER: Stop writing, start thinking. What are you bringing to someone’s life from reading your work? Hacks, mediocre writers, often claim that the purpose of a novel should be to entertain. That is certainly part of it, but here’s what I claim: the point of a novel is to be stimulating. Stimulating in as many ways as possible- entertainment is the lowest form of stimulation. I should at least be that, but a novel can be so much more. How about stimulating the emotions? How about the mind? Interest is the highest level of stimulation. What makes your work truly interesting? What I mean is, what about your work can give someone a new perspective on life?
  3. A LIGHT TOUCH: What was the last thing you read or wrote? Think about the plot. Is it contrived? Is it so rigidly plotted that the story can’t breathe? I have heard writers say there are two schools of thought on this- that of gardeners and architects, as Brandon Sanderson likes to call them- do you write from the seat of your pants or is your outline almost as long as the finished manuscript in other words? Sorry, but this is plain bullshit when it comes to anything beyond genre fiction. Excuse my french, but really. It irks me that so many writers don’t seem to be aware of what a plot even is. A plot is neither a) a tool to manipulate the characters within the story, or b) a tool to manipulate the reader. A good plot is first and foremost invisible. I’m going to repeat that: a good plot is invisible. It should serve as a medium, that’s all, through which to speak to the reader, and it should exist for your characters like air- allowing them to breathe. If you have created a world with sufficient lucidity and allow your characters to exist and interact organically- given the characters are well constructed, 3-dimensional and have an internal as well as external life- your novel will develop in the most harmonious way. You can even guide the story along, but don’t be ham-fisted about it; be gentle, there should know right angles in a plot, but smooth and steady curvature. And be ready to allow the story to go where it needs to. Sometimes it won’t even end up where you initially had planned, but you should do right by the work. The plot will not craft itself, but where your energy needs to be invested is in the more subtle details. Treat the plot as an emergent thing, much like the ‘plot’ of your own life- and if there is a guiding hand to it all, they certainly possess a very light touch.