07 January 2012

Unicorns in Pajamas

by John M. Floyd

Over the past few days I've been thinking about something Dixon Hill said in a recent column, about "flat" writing. He defined it as fiction that has no fizz or flavor.

I see that kind of thing a lot in my students' stories, and we as readers see it occasionally in published novels and short stories as well. On the surface there's nothing wrong--the writing is often technically correct and structurally sound--but there's no magic to it, nothing that would lift the words off the page and make them memorable. (By the way, the same thing can happen with nonfiction, and it's just as dangerous.)

Dix also called it perplexing, and hard to correct. He's right. It's even hard to recognize, when it occurs in our own writing, and if it goes undetected we usually wind up disappointed when those stories and books don't sell.

From the Reader's POV . . .

I should mention here a quick word about the opposite of flat writing.

Friends have told me they're sometimes not aware of excellent writing until after they've finished reading a story, because if it's good enough a reader can be drawn so deeply into the plotline he or she doesn't even think of anything else until afterward. Personally, I do find myself aware of extra "fizz and flavor" during the reading--maybe in a clever plot device, or a particularly elegant phrase, or a piece of information that I never before knew or understood. For me, though, noticing that kind of thing in flight isn't something that takes away at all from the enjoyment of reading.

I also like to find twists and reversals in a story. In the book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik (what a great author name, sort of like Francine Prose), he says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They love images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."

From the Writer's POV . . .

I learned long ago to search for dullness in my own work, and when I'm lucky enough to detect it (I wish it weren't there in the first place, but it usually is), I try to fix it. But that's easier said than done.

How do you correct lackluster writing? I know of only one way. I go back through the story, seeing it through the eyes of the reader, and attempt to make every page, every paragraph, even every sentence as strong as it can possibly be. Sometimes this is just basic rewriting: deleting modifiers, substituting action verbs for weak verbs, fine-tuning punctuation, adding exchanges of dialogue in place of description and exposition, changing passive voice to active. Sometimes it can be done via a metaphor or an analogy or onomatopoeia, or even humor--anything that might add sparkle to an otherwise routine and ordinary passage. I'm not saying this kind of search-and-repair operation is always successful; overcorrecting can make things worse instead of better. But I try. Always in the back of my mind is Elmore Leonard's advice: leave out the parts that people skip.

This whole process always surprises me a bit. Even when I think a manuscript is pretty much finished, I can usually trudge back through it with these things in mind and make it shine a little brighter. And when that happens it's a great feeling. It's the difference between functionality and beauty, between settling for par and making an eagle, between getting there and getting there in style. (Whether others will think my creation is beautiful is of course another matter, but I'm careful not to submit a story until I at least feel that way about it myself.)

I would appreciate hearing your views on this subject. Is flat writing something you worry about? If so, do you address it during the creative process or afterward? What are some of the steps you take to add "punch" to your own fiction?

A Sixth Sense

I'm convinced that the more one reads and writes, the more conscious one becomes, of bland and colorless writing. Quoting from Plotnik again: "I can see dead writing. I can see language that follows all the rules, but lacks the vigor and inventiveness ever to rise off the page."

He goes on to say, "I feel the anguish of dead writing, and sometimes as an editor I've applied a stitch here, a jolt there, so that it might stagger among the undead. But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing, give it corporeal clout, is to invigorate it at the outset." How true. These days it's not enough to hope an editor can do it for us.

To Fix a Flat

Anytime we discuss the quality and readability of fiction, I'm reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. That book could so easily have been no more than a coming-of-age story, or a courtroom drama, or a mystery novel, or a lesson about race relations and justice and loyalty and knowing right from wrong. Instead it is all those things, combined. It has elements of both literary and genre fiction, and was written with a style that, after half a dozen readings, still keeps me hooked every step of the way. If it contains any dead spots, any dull, featureless prose at all, I've never noticed it.

But wait a minute. All this talk of flat writing has made me a little nervous. Did I mention that it can apply to nonfiction too?

Maybe it's time to sign off.


  1. Wonderful post, John. And I love the picture of the discarded drafts. Did you take it yourself? And if so, how did you get your wife to let you eschew the wastebasket for so long? Or did you sacrifice a virgin (ream of paper, that is)? My most memorable recent example of discovering a writer's fizz and flavor (without losing engagement in the story) was on reading Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows. His prose, perfectly juxtaposing elegant locutions with zingy descents into the vernacular, had me chuckling and grinning with delight. I was only a few pages into it when I had to stop and say, "Listen to this!" and read my husband choice passages aloud. For me, that's the best sign that I've spotted a unicorn in pajamas. Gruber is kind of ignored by the crime fiction community, though The Good Son was nominated for a CWA Steel Dagger last year. If you don't know his work, either of those I've mentioned is a great place to start.

  2. Thanks, Liz. No, the office in the picture isn't mine--but I do go through a lot of drafts.

    I've heard similar praise for Gruber's novels. They are now on my list. And yes, I love to read something that causes me to stop now and then and tell my wife "Listen to this!" That's happened several times with Nelson DeMille books.

  3. it is funny. Just before you mentioned it I was thinking that my treatment for flat prose is the sentence by sentence search for dull words that can be replaced.

    i am facing another problem: a story narrated by a dull kind of guy. The solution there, I think, is to surround him with the dialog of more vibrant people (see larry blocks Matt Scudder novels.)

    as for nonfiction, I am reading a book by Bill Bryson, one of the greats. Here he is talking about an architect. "No one, other than perhaps the Luftwaffe, has done more to change the look of London than John Nash did over the next thirty years."

  4. I agree that Bill Bryson is one of the greats. Years ago I bought his A Walk in the Woods for one of our boys before he hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I read it before we gave it to him. One of the best nonfiction writers around.

    Good luck with the new story, Rob. Sounds as if you're taking the right approach.

  5. Elizabeth beat me to the punch -- I was going to post about Michael Gruber. His prose is absolutely beautiful. There is a bit (don't want to spoil too much) in an early novel where he suckers the reader into three distinct dream sequences, each time convincing the reader that the character has awakened, only to reveal that they are still asleep. I must have re-read that sequence at least three times.

    When I used to teach writing (well, legal writing) I found that students invariably thought that their writing was improved by the addition of adverbs. By contrast, Manfred Lee's advice on writing was to finish a story and then read through it striking every single adverb. Then go back through again and see if any of them deserved a reprieve.

  6. Okay, John, you made me think about how to make my comment interesting.

    I don’t always immediately recognize flat writing, or writing that has no zing. I sometimes feel as I’m reading that something is not quite right about a word, sentence, or paragraph. It feels as if something is missing. This is so even when I like a story because of the plot or characters. Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve hit a dead spot in the writing. Eventually, if I go back over the piece, I find the problem.

    I write nonfiction. And I never feel a piece is ready to go out into the world. Again it is more a feeling rather than an analysis of the piece. This is true even after I think I have corrected the grammar, the punctuation, and punched up the dead sentences.

    I remember getting some confusing advise while in college. A writing instructor told me to write with verbs. An instructor in American literature told me to use more adjectives.

  7. Dale, I agree with Manfred Lee on the adverbs (fewer is better), and Louis, I think too many adjectives are almost as bad as too many adverbs. But it's hard to generalize, and--you're right--too much advice from too many quarters can be confusing.

    As for feeling a piece is ready (or not) for submission, I share your pain, there. I guess all we can do is try hard as we can, and then let it out into the world to fend for itself.

    You folks have certainly sold me, on Gruber. I'll be reading him shortly.

  8. Everything John (and everybody else) said! I've reached the conclusion all modifiers are potentially evil, so I chop adjectives as vigorously as adverbs.

    In mid-December, I wrote about struggling with a dead story, and I'm not certain the battle's over. Changing the PoV helped tremendously.

  9. I think Mr. Plotnik hit the nail on the head with: “But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing . . . is to invigorate it at the outset."

    When writing, I sometimes feel as if I’ve grabbed onto the side of a speeding rail car; I tap into a story that just carries itself away with me. At times like these my fingers struggle to keep up with the story flow, but still strike the keyboard so quickly that Word gets jammed up and I repeatedly have to stop and wait for the cursor to recover. I call this “being in the groove,” and nothing written while in the groove is ever flat. Because, as Plotnik might put it, it’s “invigorate(d) … at the outset.”

    Knowing that this “groove” invigorates writing so much, I often feel caught when I sit to write but can’t find a catalyst to make it pop alive. I keep a quote from J. Ireland on my wall for these times, which reads: “Inspiration is what unsuccessful writers sit and wait for while successful writers are sitting and writing.” Still, I’ve long worried about the level of “life” present in words written without being in the groove.

    Since reading this article, however, I think I’ll balance that first quote by printing out another Plotnik quote to post on the wall beside it: "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They love images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."

    Incidentally, I’m not surprised John picked this quote. Anyone who’s ever read his short story Survival (which you can find in pdf format by clicking on the title) will quickly recognize that these are ideas John works in strict and magnificent accord with. He packs more twists into that 1,000-word story than I can get into 8,000 words -- even when I am in the groove!

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  11. Dix, many thanks for the kind words. And yes, those Plotnik quotes do hit the nail on the head, don't they?

    I also like the Ireland quote that you mentioned. Wouldn't it be nice to think someone'll be quoting US one of these days . . .

    By the way, I owe you thanks as well for inspiring me (via your recent column) to write this piece. Your insights on "flat writing" were excellent.

  12. Hey, buddy, I may have saddled the horse . . . but you're the one who taught it tricks and rode it in the rodeo! Great Column!


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