Last week, Roz Morris and I had the second of our four scheduled weekly editorial chats: Talking Character. The week before that we were Talking Plot. We’re running these chats here once a week throughout the month of April.
We had great fun and talked about the very essence of character, how to discover it, how to design it, how to illuminate it on the page. Roz admitted she hates loud plaid, and I gave her a tam-o’-shanter and a Scottish accent.
Now please join us today for the third of these weekly editor chats: Talking Prose.
Victoria: So let’s talk prose. Roz, you’ve mentioned in our earlier interviews your meticulous attention to the final polish of your manuscript, the scrutiny of every single detail and removal of even lines you love if they cast slightly the wrong atmosphere over a scene.
Roz: Oh yes. That’s one of the many painful things you have to do for a proper edit. When you say it in one sentence like that you make it sound so easy, but it isn’t. I might wander around for a good couple of days, trying to ignore the nagging voice that tells me a phrase doesn’t fit, or a joke is breaking the fourth wall, or the precious sequence I’d always wanted to use from the very beginning really does not work, no matter how much the shoehorn is applied. Especially towards the end of an edit, where all the drek has long gone and everything feels beautifully polished and meaningful.
Victoria: Drek. [laughing] Wonderful word!
Yes—that’s where even the most wonderful Line Editor in the world can’t Line Edit their own work. My husband does mine, and then I send it to another writer friend as well. Otherwise I’ll spend the next twenty years clutching that manuscript in my sweaty little palms, listening to the ringing in my ears and thinking the angels are coming to get me.
Was it Oscar Wilde who said, “I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in again”?
So, Roz, if you could give writers only one piece of advice toward accomplishing the best possible prose, what would it be?
Roz: If your writer’s spider sense is tingling, telling you something is wrong, for goodness’ sake listen. It knows what it’s talking about, and it is speaking for the good of your book. Fortunately I find that the more I edit a novel, the more sure I become of what it needs and what it doesn’t need. That allows me to be more and more ruthless and send those darlings packing.
But so much of writing comes down to instinct. Do you feel something is wrong? Well, you’re probably right.
Victoria: I have such a terrible time with my own manuscripts, and I have to warn clients away from this same trap—I’ll get to that point when I’ve done everything I can possibly do, and, by gum, it looks like it might actually be finished. . .and I’ll get a blinding flash, ‘No! Instead of being finished, I must now transpose something enormous and fundamental that will alter the entire novel!’ And the next thing I know it’s one particular night last week, 2:30 in the morning, and I’m doing a read-through of my latest novel, which has been going cold for the last year, and shaking my head, tutting at myself because that last enormous alteration was completely idiotic, and now I have made a ton of work for myself putting it all back the way it was before.
I know, I know. You’re going to say, “But didn’t you save the original?” Of course I saved the original! But that previous, correct iteration wasn’t it.
It’s a huge soapbox with me, with the manuscripts I see every day, that the hardworking, dedicated development of prose skills is criminally neglected by the mouthpieces of today’s publishing industry. “The writing’s not important,” they’ll say, and I just want to say, “Sure, the writing’s not important—if you don’t want to be a writer.” Otherwise, yeah, it’s kind of important. In fact, this is one of the four questions I get asked most frequently: what exactly is Line Editing and why is it important? Every time I see mindless cliches in published works I just want to shave my head and move to Tibet.
Roz: It’s not just about cliches. It’s about originality and developing an ear for what belongs. A book’s prose style is like its singing voice. Some people don’t mind too much about this, but for me, it’s tremendously important. I can be put right off a story if the writer’s voice grates on my ear.
Victoria: Oh, me too. That’s why I read so little recently-published fiction. I’ve waded through a certain amount of it, but since the demise of the publisher’s Line Editor it’s really not worth it to me anymore. Why bother, when there’s so much beautiful literature from the first half of the twentieth century still waiting to be read? (I just read Shirley Jackson’s ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House last week. Talk about beautiful.)
The thing is structure can be learned fairly quickly. The necessity for pitting characters against each other and themselves can be learned fairly quickly. Cliches of course can be learned without even thinking about it. But beautiful writing is a craft it takes a lifetime to learn to do properly.
Roz: That’s right, and it’s probably one of the hardest things to teach. Structure is logical, although the logic is often emotional as much as constructional. But writing good prose seems to come from somewhere else.
Victoria: It absolutely is the hardest thing to teach. Just last week I got a question for the advice column on how much Line Editing of a peer critique manuscript is too much, and I had to say, “Any at all. Just don’t do it.” It’s taken me thirty years in this profession to develop the proper ear for voice. It is simply not something you can learn to do from only a year or two in the trenches.
Beautiful voice involves the work of both a talented, dedicated writer and a talented, dedicated editor, and mastery of prose defines the literary voices we best remember and love. There is simply no comparison between a writer saying, “We threw ourselves into each other’s arms and smothered each other with frantic kisses,” and Hemingway saying, “Like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on too.” Or between the writer who says, “She was a tramp and a whore, and I would never forgive her for what she did to Moose Malloy,” and Chandler saying, “It was a cool day and very clear. You could see a long way—but not as far as Velma had gone.”
Prose is, in fact, the single greatest over-riding quality that separates passing blips on readers’ radar from timeless classics.
Roz: What makes good prose? Can we pin it down?
All the great stylists wrap you in their rhythms and the way they see the world. You know that if you had them in the room with you, the way they talked would be very different from the way anyone else did. To build that distinctive quality takes a long time. They are more persuasive than the average writer, more compelling. Charisma on the page.
It doesn’t have to involve fancy or complex language, although that works for some. But ‘writerly language’ is often used to hide, too. Those two examples you’ve picked are excellent choices because the words and the sentences are simple. So what do we find so compelling about this simplicity? Intelligence , perceptiveness. The confidence the writer has to be stylish yet direct. Too many writers assume that good writing has to be complicated, or difficult to read. But good writing doesn’t obfuscate. It lets through all the light it can.
Victoria: Absolutely. It’s all about learning the many techniques of fiction—techniques that have been stumbled upon and investigated by literary geniuses ever since Austen and the Brontes—that allow you to make your words transparent. You want the page to completely disappear, so your fictional dream itself comes right out and takes up habitation in the reader’s world, in their own living room. It is, as you say, all about illumination.
Roz: I love these words we use to try to define what makes great prose. Transparent is a good one. Crystalline is another. Good writing doesn’t get in the way.
Victoria: Crystalline’s a fabulous word. Words are wonderful, aren’t they? You know, I’ve seen the last few Line Edits Chandler did on the final sentences of The Long Good-Bye. It’s meticulous.
Roz: Now that would be interesting to see. But final sentences need forensic amounts of work. Indeed, I always feel like the final scene in a novel, more than any other, needs to be as carefully staged as a conjuring trick. It is pulling together threads, withdrawing from the story, tucking it away (neatly or not) and saying farewell. It often feels as though there is too much to squeeze in—and not just in terms of tidying away the plot details. There are emotional beats to despatch as well. Very tricky to make them all play well together.
Victoria: Totally forensic! Ye gods. The first page, too. But the final scene even more so. It’s the point at which you’re no longer hauling the reader willy-nilly through your story, you’re jujitsu-ing them through you and blasting them forward without you into their own future, the epiphany that changes them.
Now, after all these years of editing, I can actually pin the preliminaries of beautiful writing down pretty closely: clean, clear, detailed language. Notwithstanding someone like Henry James—who was a pure-&-simple sadist about his perfect grasp of English—simple language is classic language. So that’s the first thing I do in a Line Edit: go through removing all extraneous words. You’d be surprised how many words we can take when we think we know how to say something we think is the thing we want to say. Just say it.
Roz: Still trying to work out how to. . .
Victoria: You say that, but with your publishing track record I know you’re being modest. Because as soon as the writer cuts out the extraneous words, they see they forgot to put in quite a bit of the actual story—and I happen to know from reading Nail Your Novel this isn’t something you let happen to you.
Roz: [laughing] It still doesn’t come easily. I sweat waterfalls trying to strip out the unnecessaries so that I can see what needs to be there.
Victoria: Take stuff out, put stuff in. There’s that comma again. I spend a lot of time with clients saying, “Cut all that exposition. You don’t need to explain. Send me a description of x, send me a sketch of y. When so-&-so looks at such-&-such, what do they see?” I don’t care if they’re writing fantasy or sci-fi or whatever—it had better be completely and entirely detailed and tangible.
Roz: That goes back to the groundwork we talked about in the Character chat last week. Sometimes authors leave these questions until late in the process, others prefer to do it earlier. Those descriptions, thoughts and reactions may not reach the final text, but they are necessary to make the world of the novel real.
Victoria: Those are your complex layers, which is why you need simple language, so the complexities of your characters’ world will be clear and deep and intuitive to your reader. I even tell aspiring writers to use simple rhythms for their sentences: when in doubt, two short sentences and a long, or two longs and a short. Start with these basics. Later, when your manuscript has gone cold, you can go through cutting compound sentences in half or creating new compound sentences, altering an active verb to a gerund here or a gerund to an active verb there, smoothing it all out, listening for the silence in the background that signals the white noise is gone, ‘This is the way it’s meant to sound.’
But of course doing that kind of thing over and over again on your own manuscripts takes years—years added to your ms, years off your blessed life. This novel I was working on until 2:30 am last week I started when my son was four, and he’s now almost fourteen. And it’s one of my more recent novels!
That’s why I’m always telling aspiring writers, “Be in it for the long haul, or find something you like better. This is not a lottery, it’s an art form.”
Roz: I’m always telling people novel-writing is a long game. We write stories in long form. We take even longer working out how to do it. Novels and novel-writers evolve at glacial pace. It’s a wonder we have time to get good at it. At least we can look forward to getting better at it the older we get! (Touch wood. . .If you ever see me wearing plaid, soft or loud, you’ll know I’ve lost my marbles. . .)
Victoria: ‘I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.’
Here’s your question, people: In your experience, what’s the most difficult part of developing prose? (Extra brownie buttons if you can identify that quote!)
48 thoughts on “We can’t leave fiction alone—Talking Prose”
The quote is from T.S. Eliot. The Mental Rolodex is throwing up “Four Quartets” as the source.
The most difficult part of developing prose for me isn’t listening to the Internal Voice recite a laundry list; fixing all the items one by one is fun (don’t tell anyone I said that). What takes a bit of courage on my part is to write in a way which the Voice won’t pick apart later. I can sometimes tell when I’ve done so, but not always; what I can always do, though, is trust the Voice.
I’m also beginning to find out just how hard it is to write a novel, but I’m quite fortunate in that I remain entranced by the work.
Ooh, so close, Vivienne! I’ll bet you get it if you give the Rolodex another flip.
Yes. We do this work because it’s the work we most enjoy doing. It’s a huge amount of work—really quite mind-boggling—but, then, so is building model railroad layouts. ‘Entranced’ is a lovely word for it!
It certainly is a herculean task. But one by one the problems are solved and finally you have something that’s fit to be seen. There’s no sense of achievement like it!
That reply had nothing to do with prose style, but it had to be said!
Yes, it did.
For me every part of prose is a challenge. I stare at the page for long periods of time, unable to form a sentence quite the way I want or make it say what I want it to say. I’ve heard people say that it takes aabout half an hour to really get into the flow of writing, but for me it takes much more time, and I get frustrated since after writing for an hour every word is still as hard as it was when I started.
It can take me hours, Jacob. Just being at my desk with my head in my hands staring at my notes, mulling them over in my mind, slowly becoming the characters. At some point I’ll kind of wake up and flip through my outline to find what scenes need to be written yet and pick one to sink into. When I can picture it clearly in my mind, I zero in on any odd or interesting gesture or sentence or image and begin to write about that. Then all that time slowly becoming the characters pays off, as the scene unfolds around me.
Kurt Vonnegut told his son Mark two paragraphs were a good day’s work. But I don’t self-edit sentence-by-sentence in first draft like that. If I did I’d simply never get anything written at all.
Are you familiar with Anne Lamott? She gave the world of writers a great gift when she came right out and said, “Everyone writes shitty first drafts.”
Jacob, you’re right. Our muse is so fragile and sensitive sometimes – and as you know I’m not inclined to be precious about writing, I just wade in and get my hands dirty.
Graham Greene used to manage real, usable 500 words a day, and agonised over it.
@Victoria – Anne Lamott is an angel. I’d kill for her prose style. And Greene’s.
Oy! When I was working on the voice for The Art & Craft of Fiction, I took apart Lamott’s first chapter of Bird by Bird word by word. I analyzed what she’d done every single step of the way. That book’s not a classic because it teaches all the big stuff—it doesn’t—but because she’s spent her whole life developing a voice that swings just right between comic self-deprecation, poignancy, and her own very real search for peace. Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wonder what it’s all about. And she is a very kind person—she gave me feedback on a chapter of the novel I was working on when I was at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley right after Bird by Bird came out. I wrote about it in Art & Craft.
But Greene. . .oh, my. What an extraordinary, understated talent. Remember Travels With My Aunt? Remember the Climax, when the protagonist rushes in to tell his aunt someone (their driver?) has been killed, and she’s dancing with the old man by candlelight and says, “Later, later. I’m dancing” ? And suddenly the entire novel snaps into focus, and all the clues to the aunt’s world fall into place, and you understand. You understand!
Such heartwrenching and deft sureness of touch.
I can’t read Greene when I’m writing. His style is so infective I don’t want to write like me any more.
Listen to “the Voice?” You’re kidding, right? I’m glad when I can just turn the volume down a little. If it were up to the Voice very few of my sentences would make the grade!
I like very much that you said this, Victoria. “…listening for the silence in the background that signals the white noise is gone, ‘This is the way it’s meant to sound.’ What a wonderful way to think refining and revising my prose.
I have this image of you saying to your psychiatrist, “But Victoria told me to listen to them.”
I loved that phrase too. Victoria Mixon is an angel…
Wonderfully informative piece. This is truly a great series and indeed raises the bar for how-to-write blogs.
I love Wilde’s quote about the comma. I think it was Hemingway who said, ‘”Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” and this advice works well for me in the revision process. If during my revisions I can polish just one potentially good, albeit cluttered and confused, sentence into the brilliant jewel I know it can be, then I’m satisfied; when I’m satisfied I can easily move on to the challenge of the next true sentence.
Was it Wilde, Cathy? I honestly don’t know. Whoever it was, it’s a great line.
Of course, they also say Wilde’s last words were, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”
Thank you, Cathy! You’re so right that truth has to be at the heart of our writing – that’s what comes through when the words allow it. when revising – whether it’s at macro level with the structure, or looking at the microns of every word – I ask myself ‘is this for the good of the book’? No indulgence, no darlings – only what the book needs.
That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? ‘only what the book needs.’ You come up with this story for your own sake, and you work on it for your own sake—because you love to. But when all is said & done, the words that remain in the book had better be there only for the sake of the reader.
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Wilde indeed.
I enjoyed reading this even though I can hardly relate. I’m still dumping yards of excess material into my first draft and calling it linguistic fertilizer. Something’s bound to spring up in this manuscript one of these days… something worth keeping.
Thanks, Victoria and Roz. Do not stop!
Aaah! Genevieve knew it! Thank you.
You’re just in a different stage, that’s all. Keep dumping. Fertilize, fertilize. You will have plenty of wonderful, rich, composty material to work with whenever you’re ready to move on.
Thank you, Genevieve! I’d add this: keep your compost draft. There will be brilliant, fresh phrases in all the tangled ones and later on you might find they rekindle something essential you still need to capture.
Thanks, Victoria and Roz.
You affirming my work was really encouraging just now!
Keeping is hard for me. Hard with a capitol H. I purge my closets, children’s toy baskets – anything if it will make me feel free again. (Boy that makes me sounds like a real freak. Where’s the nearest therapist?)
My point is that I will have to practice keeping words instead of replacing them with new ones. Now I will have a homepage that says Write First and a pop-up dialog box that threatens to remove a finger from my right hand if I confirm the deletion I’d begun.
ha! sad to have missed the twitter chat.
First it was knowing what makes good prose. A pubisher friend solved that when she told me that
‘Beautiful writing is when every word is the right word, in its right place and there for a reason. There is nothing extraneous. The words flow so smoothly that the reader is transported beyond the words. They even forget they are reading.’
Next came cutting chunks, learning to see what should go – the nice part was discovering that I could then see what had to be in there.
Then it was finding and trusting my own voice. Knowing what I wanted to say, saying it clearly and going with what sounded right when I read it aloud- when that little voice stopped sticking pins in my heart to tell me it still wasn’t – and learning ways to fix it when it wasn’t working .
I don’t know if I’ve managed good prose or not, but I think good prose is important and I’ve worked full time for nearly 4 years trying to learn how to do it, so at least I’m trying. I enjoyed the final polishing process and I hope it shines enough now for my agent to find a publisher.
It’s all been hard, but I’ve enjoyed the journey and it’s been worth it. Now when I look at the second draft for a sequel that I wrote more than a year ago, I know what I have to do with it, and that’s very satisfying.
As for beautiful prose – I pray that I’ll achieve it because after all the techniques we learn, prose isn’t really beautiful without a spark from within driving it.
Lovely reply, Tahlia. I think we have to give up worrying about the spark and let it flash through by itself. Best of luck.
The spark comes from the details. That’s why Roz told Genevieve, above, to keep her compost draft. It sounds like you’re doing wonderful work, taking your time to do it right, and that is, truly, the satisfaction of the job. So don’t worry too much about your prose. Keep writing clean, clear sentences full of fascinating factual detail, listening for the rhythm, moving your story always, always forward toward its Climax. The beauty and the spark come from the juxtaposition of technique and the telling details that tell the truth.
An interesting chat, ladies, thank you. Adding prose and flow has not easy for me. When I read back, I look at flowery and – yawn. I do not have a large vocabulary, but have learned many new words since writing my two novels. Some cannot be used in public though. ;0
I have just entered my fourth year of my first novel. Three have been spent editing. I sent it out to agents one year ago, and can understand why they rejected. It was not ready. The rejection comments were personal, pleasant and encouraging. So, I bagged me a handful of readers. One wonderful beta reader, was totally honest and showed me my flaws. I have cut thousands of words, one whole chapter of drivel and have two endings. This morning, the correct ending seeped into my brain as I lay composing a shopping list at sunrise. It is the ending I have been waiting for, with a different character insitu.
Cutting words, and balancing my sentences, have helped sharpened my story, even I can see the difference.
My chunk of rock has a long way to go before it is a marble. It will never be a diamond until professional eyes have glanced over it, if they dare. My grammar struggles alongside of Madam Braincell, but we will get there one day.
Personal comments on rejections is wonderful! Agents so rarely have time to take a moment to give feedback, they only do it when they think a manuscript holds real promise.
Don’t worry about ‘adding’ prose. It sounds like you may be adding exposition, which you very rarely need and, even when you do, must be fully grounded in telling detail in order to keep it real. Just keep writing more and more wonderful scenes of your characters living out their story, give yourself plenty to cut when the time comes. The best thing about this craft is that you can keep on adding and deleting as long as you like, and the finished product never shows it. You sure can’t do that if you’re a painter! And a dancer who tried it would get boo’d off the stage.
Lucky us. 🙂
Echoing Victoria here, Glynis – personal comments from an agent are never insignificant, no matter how short they are.
‘Give yourself plenty to cut’… actors do this to an extent too when they explore a character in order to arrive at a performance. There’s a lot that they reject along the way. And Victoria, you’re so right that this is the most amazing luxury of being a writer – not having to be right first time!
The quote is from TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I struggle with critiquers having a mind set of ‘just the facts’ style of writing, paring the story down to the bare bones, but maybe that’s not the writer’s ‘true style’ and the critters can’t see that, so even when the mss. is whittled down to its essence, there still seems to be something missing–it lacks life, character, voice, whatever you want to call it.
Especially troubling to new writers who haven’t found their voice yet. My sense is that it takes that proverbial ‘million words’ to even begin to find one’s voice. If that’s true, I’m not even a fifth of the way home …so back to work. 🙂
And the burst of applause goes to Chris, who nailed that quote. It is, indeed, from “Prufrock,” right before the final stanza, and as far as I’m concerned ought to be the final stanza itself.
As far as your issue with critiquers, it sounds like you’ve got two problems going on at once.
One is that peer critiquers can’t really guide you in learning your craft. They don’t know any more about it than you do. So you really, seriously need to take their advice with a grain of salt. Half of it will be good, and half will be bad, and until you’re more accomplished than they are you can’t tell which is which. They more or less cancel each other out.
The advice to write in scenes rather than exposition is good advice, and there are important reasons for it. If there’s something missing when you whittle your ms down to its scenes, write more vivid scenes. Think up more intense events for those scenes—not violence, but internal struggle. And keep in mind that if you haven’t yet learned to detach from your work, you’ll assume just because your early drafts came out of you in one form that means they can’t live in any other form. They can, and they will.
Exposition is a tool in the writer’s toolbox, but it’s a tricky and, actually, not essential one. You need to get really good at writing scenes before you try to get really good with exposition. The one leads to the other.
The other problem is that it sounds like you’re struggling with voice and prose pretty early in the game. Don’t worry about it in first drafts or even at this stage in your writing life. Just write clean, clear sentences full of detail recording what you see your characters doing. Go out and take notes on the real world to practice seeing the details that are there. Go home and pay attention to your characters—make lists, draw diagrams, doodle their names all over your margins.
But don’t pressure yourself to develop a voice. As Christopher Isherwood said, just be a camera. All else flows from there.
This reply should be a post in its own right, Victoria. Voice is something that seems to evolve while you’re working on all the other stuff – either your overall voice or the voice that will be suitable for a particular WIP. It can’t be forced, it comes by experiment and by itself.
And this point about struggle… too many writers mistake what ‘action’ is. It is not necessarily chase sequences or fights – which in prose are quite dull. It is internal – it’s about secrets, choices, difficulties. Events are only intense because of what they mean to the characters.
Thanks for the followup, Victoria. Sage advice, much appreciated. I have learned to take critique comments with a grain of salt–especially after reading some of the submissions of those who have critiqued my writing! Once I realized I was far from the worst writer in the pack, my confidence increased exponentially. 😉
You’re welcome, Chris! I think I’m going to take Roz’ advice and put this up as a post on the advice column, too. There must be zillions out there in exactly the same situation as you.
Maybe you guys can get together and start your own critique group! 🙂
“Just keep writing more and more wonderful scenes of your characters living out their story, give yourself plenty to cut when the time comes.”
Now that, Victoria, is possibly the finest advice ever written!
Few things give me more pleasure than removing all the extraneous deadwood from a manuscript, letting light illuminate what is (hopefully) worth keeping.
But overwriting (in every sense of the word) in the early stages is a fine way of getting it out of your system and onto screen / paper so you can later see what does / doesn’t pull its weight.
It’s the big secret of writing we should all have tattooed on the backs of our hands: you can always write more. Words are free. Such extraordinary value for what they’re worth!
Mark, I answered your question about quality literature on the advice column today. Let me know what you think.
Mark, I think of this drafting stage as like shooting material for a movie. Not all of it will be used, but the best shots will be spliced together. I even go so far as to label my first draft ‘rushes’ because I know it’s very rough.
And yes, I enjoy the honing too.
What a great conversation — feels like I was right there with you! Time and practice have enhanced my prose. Little by little, you figure it out.
Time, time, time is on our side—yes, it is!
I’m glad you’re enjoying the chats. Aren’t they fun? We piece them together behind the scenes quite differently from how they appear. Next we’ll have to demonstrate how we do it in order to demonstrate revision in real-time.
It’s the great joy of writing in everything we do.
Aw, don’t spoil the magic…
* 🙂 *
And pass the wine.
Having English as my third language, I struggle, a lot. The most encouraging fruit I plucked from this conversation is getting an editor. However a problem pops up even with that fruit in my hand. When I am lost into the writing, transcended into the other world I do direct translation from my Luo language. When I wake up and try to correct grammar, prose and what else English so demands, I lose my voice, that Luo song to it is lost. My beta readers and now torn between keeping the voice or leaving it there. I gota go drink from the pool of miracles.
Thanks for the advice.
Oh, Grace, I’m so glad you’re back! Roz & I both replied to your last comment about being concerned over your grammar.
There are ways to make your voice easily readable to English-speaking readers without losing your Luo song. I wrote about this a bit in my book on the topic of dialect. The metaphors and details (encouraging fruit to be plucked—a pool of miracles) are the voice to be preserved, as are sometimes unusual grammatical constructs that reflect the syntax of your own language. The trick is not to eliminate those unique elements, but to strike just the right balance between keeping as much as humanly possible and preventing the language from interfering between reader and story.
That balancing trick is the essence of the wonderful, rich world of Line Editing. Give me a paragraph of direct English translation from Luo—no correction for grammar or anything—and I’ll show you.
Hello Grace! I understand your problem. You’re obviously an instinctive writer with an ear for rhythm and an eye for shape. I’d love to see what Victoria would do with one of your paragraphs – that would make a terrific post.
I’ve got a suggestion of my own – as you’re so sensitive to this hypnotic quality in language, maybe you should look at favourite poets to see how much they are allowed to bend formal grammar styles and how they make themselves understandable while not deadening their distinctive song.
Reading this was like going to a conference. Thank you!
I’m thrilled that I mentally got the quote right, although someone beat me to it.
You get a burst of applause, too, Katherine. Poor ole sad-case Prufrock!
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