The right words

Beginning a column which will look at aspects of imaginative writing…

Updated - October 08, 2016 06:23 pm IST

Published - February 05, 2011 07:07 pm IST

Towards the middle of December, I received the copy-edited version of my short story ‘Number 9' from Clare Hey, a former Harper Collins UK editor who edits Shortfire Press — a digital publisher of short stories. Clare wanted me to tweak a sentence that read: As he switches on the mic there is a wail. The problem lay in the two words in the middle — there is. I didn't have to read her comment to sigh with a shake of the head. A habit I thought I had buried with my schoolboy years had once again surfaced.

Most of us learn how to write by writing essays, where we use declarative sentences to make statements. Hence, a glut of words like there is, he is, she is…Creative writing, on the other hand, utilises sensory images to make the world come alive for the reader. Hence, something like there is can be a liability, because it gives the impression of telling when you should be showing.

I rewrote the sentence: A wail rises, as he switches on the mic. That fixed it, but created a new problem, for, the following sentence read: The din of conversation in the auditorium eases as eyes rise in his direction. I started to think of a suitable synonym for rise, and then realised I didn't need one. The clamour diminishing in the auditorium was enough to suggest the man with the mic had the people's attention. So I simply deleted the second half of that sentence. The published version reads: A wail rises as he switches on the mic. The din of conversation in the auditorium eases.

For better impact

This example illustrates some of the cornerstones of creative writing — showing rather than telling, avoiding repetition without good reason, and not using more detail than necessary. The final maxim is especially relevant for us Indians, for, a lot of Indian literature is garrulous. You need look no further than Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Garrulity, however, is not a virtue in creative writing. If you want to succeed by going down that road, then your prose better be as good as Rushdie's. If you want people to read more than necessary, then you have to write that much better.

Returning to the example, in the first sentence I use mic rather than microphone. A creative voice is best when it is informal, unless there is good reason for it to be otherwise, such as the voice Kazuo Ishiguro summons for the proper English butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day. Stevens is so consumed with propriety that it is natural for him to tell his story formally.

Alongside showing comes the need to be concrete. Why do adjectives and adverbs make editors bristle? Because, more often than not, they tend to be abstract. Saying someone's complexion is a little dark evokes no clear image. On the other hand, saying someone has coffee-coloured skin allows the reader to visualise the person immediately. Creative writing gets its strength from verbs, and that too strong action verbs rather than the present continuous or the past continuous; the birds scatter/scattered is far more impactful than the birds are/were scattering.

The bigger picture

Just having the words, though, is not enough. You also have to stitch them together in an attractive garment of prose. One of the worst things you can do is write a series of declarative sentences of roughly the same length. No matter how beautifully written, they will make your paragraph move with the boring, repetitive rhythm of a grandfather clock. Varying sentence length is important. And if you have too many declarative sentences strung together, it is not a bad idea to break the monotony by throwing in an interrogative or exclamative sentence.

When I started writing seriously, one of the first exercises I did was write up to 500 words a day on anything that came to mind; a film, a book, or simply how I spent the day. After getting everything down, I would go over the passage to mark instances of repetition, formal or abstract phrasing, unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, too many sentences of the same length, and needless detail. Later on, I added sentences ending with prepositions to my blacklist. Then I re-wrote the passage, making suitable adjustments. Each day the portion I had to revise shrank, as invoking the language of creative writing became second nature.

You may have all the imagination in the world, but if you don't have the words to make it resonate on the page you will come up a cropper in creative writing. As a wannabe writer, I asked one of my college professors what editors look for in the books and stories they publish. He replied without the slightest hesitation, ‘The way you use language before anything else.'

That hasn't changed.

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