Monthly Archives: January 2016

Beware of Pretty Prose

In 1920, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft published his guidelines for writing good fiction. The list recommended reading good fiction, judicious description, good grammar – and an impressive vocabulary.

Here is his exact recommendation:

The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. . . . With a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

H.P. LovecraftThough the list is quite good in general, it’s that last rule that we must strike. For about eighty years or so before Lovecraft, and during his career as well (he wrote in the 1920s and ‘30s), writers tended to turn out ornate, pretty prose – think Poe, Henry James, Faulkner, and Lovecraft himself. Unfortunately for poetic souls, this has fallen out of favor.

Let’s take a passage from Lovecraft himself. Here is the concluding paragraph of his short story “The Nameless City,” published in 1921.

And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-pooled darkness of earth’s bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it from the banks of the Nile.

Certainly this is a beautiful passage – if you read Lovecraft in the context of his time, this writing is wonderful. Unfortunately, these days potential publishers wouldn’t touch such writing. I doubt they’d even read beyond the first page.

Many beginning writers fall into the “pretty prose” trap. The feeling seems to be that the bigger and more impressive the words and the more ornate the sentences, the better the prose must be. I certainly did this, and I still haven’t completely shaken the habit of writing overly long sentences. What this sort of writing amounts to today is just wordiness.

What to do? Simplify, simplify, simplify. After you’ve written a piece, print it off and go through it with that dreaded red pen. Did you write, “Presently, the voices, while still chaotic before me, seemed to my beating brain to take articulate form behind me,” when “Soon, the jumbled voices became clear to me” would work just as well? Did you write a string of adjectives such as “a nightmare horde of rushing devils, hate-distorted, grotesquely panoplied, half-transparent”? Clean it up – use just “grotesque devils.”

I know – it hurts you. But as I’ve said before, if it’s bad, kill it. The power of words lies not in their complexity, but in their precision. It’s not impressive to use three adjectives for one; it’s merely blather.

Here is the complete list of Lovecraft’s rules for aspiring writers.

Transform Your Fiction With Le Mot Juste

Today, we’re going to talk about the concept of le mot juste. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase; coined by the French writer Gustave Flaubert, the term translates to “the right word.” Flaubert described it thus:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, and that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations . . . to escape the difficulty.

Gustave FlaubertCareful writers will obey this advice in order to avoid clichés. Here, for example, is a passage I wrote in an old story of mine, “Russia after the Fall of Communism.” The story follows a recently widowed woman, Jonny, who does not now know what to do with her new freedom. Working as a waitress in a diner, she meets a man who understands immediately what sort of woman she is and what she needs.

I described their understanding in this way:

She did not have to obey. Other, misunderstanding women would have turned him out. But he knew this native tongue, knew how to navigate the knots of her heart, and like a lost dog she submitted.

You may or may not like this style of writing, but when I wrote the above passage, I labored over my word choices for some time. I could have written simply, “He understood Jonny and what to say to compel her to obey.” But in my mind, such a passage would have been a cop-out. Writing only that he understood her gives the reader no insight into Jonny’s state of mind, which is key in the story’s denouement. Thus, I searched for several hours for just the right words.

However, the search for le mot juste doesn’t have to end in an overly complicated sentence. As often as not, the right word may be a good old Anglo-Saxon word – cram, briny, gore. Your search for the right word is not the search for the most impressive word; it is a search for the most precise word.

As always, this should never trip you up while you are drafting. Save it for your second draft, once you’ve worked the kinks out of the plot. But when you do go back to smooth out your draft, be vigilant, asking yourself if you’ve resorted to any tricks, any shorthand, any faded images. Often, an otherwise banal story can be transformed by the right word choices.