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.