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Writing That Sounds Like Writing

Once a twenty-something Catholic priest sat down across from me in a waiting area of an airport. He was wearing his long black cassock, but fiddling with his iPhone like a regular dude, which was pretty funny to watch.

An elderly lady scooted over to him. She peppered him with questions about which diocese he belonged to, and which seminary he attended, and whether he knew Father So-and-So.

The priest immediately snapped into padre mode. He sat up ramrod straight and started speaking in the kindly, formal way priests do in movies. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded like something he'd rehearsed. When he couldn't figure out what he was "supposed" to say, he'd just repeat in his best Wise Man's voice, "These are very interesting times. Very interesting times."

That was also pretty funny to watch.

People often slip into learned roles they think others expect them to play. Security guards who want to be seen as Authorities strut around in sunglasses with their thumbs hooked on their belt loops. Young managers who want to be seen as Professionals wear pointy-toed shoes and speak like they're in the cast of The West Wing.

And writers who want to be seen as Authors mimic the archaic styles of literary greats. This often results in what Elmore Leonard famously called writing that "sounds like writing."

What is writing that sounds like writing?

Writing that sounds like writing uses a lot of flowery adjectives and adverbs, clever wordplay, and million-dollar words in long compound-complex sentences. It prioritizes poetry and wit over coherence.

Here's a short example of this style. Its author shall remain unnamed, because I'm too embarrassed to admit it's me.

Leo Dawson stood outside the ballroom, carelessly fingering a carte de visite. A grainy face stared up at him from a miniature oval of black and white, as grim and washed out as the fog-choked streets of the city. He sighed and placed the photograph back in the engraved silver card case resting in his gloved palm. Then he snapped the hinge shut, slipped the case into his inner coat pocket, and nodded to the attendant. The heavy doors opened before him, sending a wave of bright lights and music crashing into the hall.

Leo stepped into the room, submerging himself in a sea of elegant gowns and dapper tailcoats. Feathers bobbled on coiled chignons and diamonds dangled from the ears below. High-heeled kid slippers and shined leather shoes scraped the floors in time to a lively waltz. The men and women twirling on the dance floor or chatting by the walls wore expressions on the spectrum from cheerful excitement to irritable exhaustion. Leo nodded to the ones he recognized with his face arranged in a tight-lipped smile, while the brain behind it counted down the minutes to freedom.

These are the first two paragraphs of WIP-B, which I fortunately aborted before I subjected anyone to the painful experience of reading it. After nearly finishing the first draft, I realized I was trying hard to be a great writer instead of trying hard to write a great book.

The language is needlessly convoluted and figurative.

When I wrote WIP-B, I pressured myself to be "creative" with every word. This resulted in convoluted sentences like "The men and women twirling on the dance floor or chatting by the walls wore expressions on the spectrum from cheerful excitement to irritable exhaustion."

I also used a heavy hand with figurative language. The point of metaphors, similes, allusions, and the like is to add layers of meaning in a short space. For example, "He huddled in a dim corner of the bar like a nervous rabbit" invokes the image of a small, twitchy, cowardly animal that might bolt at any second. The simile saves you the space of describing all that in detail.

But "a wave of bright lights" or "a sea of elegant gowns" adds little. These metaphors exist to show off what a great writer I am, not to convey additional information through imagery.

Sentences require multiple readings to understand.

The worst sentence in the passage is "Feathers bobbled on coiled chignons and diamonds dangled from the ears below." Even I needed to re-read it a couple of times to understand what I meant.

Here's an example of a sentence I could have written instead: "Elegant women danced with feathers in their hair and diamonds in their ears." This straightforward statement is easy to understand on the first pass. The reader would get the same mental image without needing to stop and go back to comprehend what's going on.

Nearly every sentence is compound or complex.

When Sweetie and critique partners read WIP-B, they missed important information because it was buried in long sentences full of commas, semicolons, and em dashes. Since then I've learned to appreciate the power of the simple sentence.

What I wrote in 2010
"Leo nodded to the ones he recognized with his face arranged in a tight-lipped smile, while the brain behind it counted down the minutes to freedom."

What I'd write now
"Leo made small talk with a tight-lipped smile. He stole a glance at his gold pocket watch. Forty-five minutes to freedom."

There's little difference in word count, but the second example seems much shorter because you can read the simple/nominal sentences much faster than you can the complex one.

Sometimes you want to use many complex and compound sentences to slow down the pace of a scene. But if every sentence is long and requires a lot of mental energy to understand, you'll tire readers out and they'll lose interest.

What's wrong with writing that sounds like writing?

Writing that sounds like writing is sneaky. It's the sort of style that earned you A+ grades in high school and college. Your friends and family will read a manuscript and say, "It's really well-written," or, "You're a very talented writer."

But they won't love it.

They won't be sucked in to the plot. They won't feel eager to turn the page. Their comments in the margins will betray impatience as the book drags on.

This is because writing that sounds like writing gets in the way of the story. It's self-aware and hard to read. Writers who write this way are like actors who overact. By putting the spotlight on themselves instead of the story, they make it difficult for the audience to suspend disbelief.

Of course, some readers like writing that sounds like writing. I see it often in literary, historical, and high fantasy novels. Many fans of those genres would agree with NPR book reviewer Jason Sheehan, who said, "All you have to do is write the best sentence you've ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something."

But for most people, a great story is paramount and gorgeous language is optional, not the other way around. Most read to find out what happens, to connect with the characters and feel excitement and joy and despair along with them. The most damning criticism a non-literary novel can receive is "boring." Writing that sounds like writing is boring. Unless you're okay with readers putting your books in the Did Not Finish pile, kill it with extreme prejudice.

How can you avoid writing that sounds like writing?

The trick to avoiding writing that sounds like writing is simple, but difficult to put into practice. Stop trying to impress people.

While you're writing, take your ego out of your head and lock it away in another room. If it wriggles free and tries to sneak back in, say, "No!" in your most commanding tone of voice. Ego has no place in the writing process. It only pollutes your stories with purple prose by whispering, "I want people to call me the 21st-century Dickens. I want to receive glowing praise from the New York Times. I want to drink champagne at dinner parties with Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt."

Having pride in your skills is good and healthy. But pride can turn into a problem if you let it get in the way of your work, and if your desire to be a great writer prevents you from becoming one.

Beware the Itchy Twitter Finger

Recently there's been a kerfuffle about Portland Community College, where I work. One of the diversity councils has scheduled "Whiteness History Month," a month of lectures, film presentations, workshops, and so on about the Western European origin of mainstream American culture and its effects on race relations today.

There's nothing offensive about the idea in and of itself, any more than it would be offensive to discuss how Han culture shaped laws and philosophies in East Asia, or how Arab culture did the same in the Middle East. However, the controversial term "whiteness" was bound to cause confusion and outrage. Some of the text on the project webpage is frankly incendiary, implying that people who identify as white are the origin of all social ills. So to no one's surprise but the administration's, on Monday the media blew up with indignation over PCC's "White-Shaming Month."

Though it's understandable that people are angry, many are directing their rage at the innocent staff and faculty of PCC, who have nothing to do with Whiteness History Month. Netizens around the country are bashing PCC instructors on blogs and news sites. Librarians are receiving threatening phone calls and emails like, "You bunch of stupid mother fucking liberal hippie dumb fucking ingrates. Go straight to fucking hell you piles of dog shit."

The most shocking thing about these spiteful attacks is...I'm not shocked at all.

Over the past two decades, I've learned to expect unabashed cruelty from strangers. Every time I post a polite comment on a blog or forum, I resign myself to being told I'm a stupid bitch who needs to grow up. Reading Goodreads reviews of a novel is like watching a Spanish bullfight, with the author as the bull. (If you've ever seen a bullfight, you know it's not a fight at all. It's a slow, sadistic ritual slaughter.)

The Internet has torn down protective barriers of politeness. Fifty years ago, people were just as mean as they are today, but they didn't advertise it. Even if they were secretly thinking, "My God, you're dumber than a box of rocks," they wouldn't say it out loud. They certainly didn't stroll around telling random passersby, "You look like your mum sat on a weasel's dick and got pregnant with you, LOL."

So before the 1990s, it was possible to grow up happily sheltered, thinking the whole world was like Mayberry and everybody was just as nice and civil as they pretended to be. But it's hard to stay sheltered when everybody's proudly shouting their most malevolent thoughts for all to hear.

Beware the itchy Twitter finger!

These days, it's so easy to lash out online that people don't bother to hold back. Then they're blindsided by the consequences. You never know when someone's going to take your careless comments on an obscure blog and share them with the rest of the planet. And you never know who's going to visit your Twitter account and see a catalog of every silly notion that's passed through your head.

When I was sending out queries for Kagemusha in 2014, I looked at six resources for each potential agent.

  1. Preditors and Editors
  2. The agency's official website
  3. The agent's Publishers Marketplace profile
  4. The comments on the agent's QueryTracker profile
  5. Interviews and blog posts by the agent
  6. Twitter

Some agents would pass with flying colors through numbers one through five, only to be deleted from my list as soon as I glimpsed their Twitter accounts. They worked for reputable agencies. They represented works similar to mine. Their clients said great things about them. And then...

"Caught a bitch of a cold the night before vacay. Fuck my life!"

Now, I'm no prude. I've written erotica that makes Sweetie blush, and my teenage characters' dialogue can contain more F bombs than the script of a Jay and Silent Bob movie. I don't care if you curse in your own living room, or occasionally in public when you drop something heavy on your toes.

But the Internet is not your living room. If you're a writer or an agent, the Internet is your global office. You use it to connect with the people you're going to work with, negotiate with, and market to. They see it all. They see you being petulant because you're sleepy and you have a headache. They see you whine about your colleagues after a bad day at work. They see you get into squabbles with strangers over whether Jeff Bezos is a saint or Adolf Hitler reincarnate.

Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles, blogs...these feel like "personal" and "private" safe havens. But in reality, people use them to judge you as a professional, and they're anything but private.

I know how tempting it is to vent in writing when you're upset. You want to punish the people who angered you. You want to tell the whole world how unhappy you are. But if you rush to ridicule your enemies in public forums, you could end up looking very foolish and unpleasant to potential agents and editors. Or to potential clients, bosses, friends, lovers, etc.

Now, some writers take caution too far and claim you shouldn't express any controversial opinions at all. For example, they say you can't ever criticize a popular book, because other people like that book and they'll be offended and hate you. I think this is silly. You should feel free to express your opinions without fear, even unpopular ones. But you need to express them in an adult, civil manner.

Exercise A: An agent requested your full manuscript half a year ago, then dropped off the face of the earth and ignored all of your polite requests for a status update. Do you...

  1. Head straight to the forums to post, "This lazy ass agent has had my book for six months and still hasn't read it! This whole system is so retarded!!!"
  2. Tweet, "Still no response from @agent who req'd my full...6 months & counting. #disappointed"
  3. Do nothing.

Correct answer: C, do nothing. This is a personal grudge that isn't worth sharing. Let it go.

Exercise B: You just read a blog post that you disagree with so strongly, you think the world would be better off without the toxic influence of its author. Do you...

  1. Leave a comment saying, "This is the most disgusting article I've ever seen. I worry for the future of humanity, if it's filled with vile people like you."
  2. Calm down. Then write your own blog post that expresses your opinion on the subject without aggressive language or personal attacks.
  3. Do nothing.

Correct answer: B or C, depending on whether you believe the matter is important enough for you to put the time and effort into B. Sometimes, after calming down, you'll find it's not.

Faux Strength in Female Characters

"Strong female character" is a big buzz phrase these days, and I am not a fan. Sophia McDougall explains many of my reasons for disliking it in her 2013 article "I Hate Strong Female Characters."

No one ever asks if a male character is "strong"...this is because he's assumed to be strong by default. Part of the patronizing promise of the Strong Female Character is that she's anomalous. "Don't worry!" that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero's love interest is an SFC. "Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can't do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face."

Not only does the very phrase insinuate that strong women are unusual, but the Strong Female Character has become an inflexible mold that's no better than the feminine ideal of the 19th century. Victorians demanded that women be chaste, obedient, self-sacrificial angels of the home. Authors like Thomas Hardy who wrote about heroines who were smart, outspoken, or sexually curious were "vulgar." Now people demand that every heroine be smart, outspoken, and sexually curious, and any writer who fails to meet the SFC requirements is "misogynist" or "anti-feminist."

To avoid accusations of sexism, writers and Hollywood producers feel obligated to slip in token SFCs who appear suitably kick-ass. Every romance novel must have a heroine who is bold and fearless, as proven by the fact that she can ride a horse. And every action blockbuster must have at least one love interest in black leather who strikes sexy poses with guns.

Promotional photos of women in skintight black costumes with guns

Promotional photos of Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, and Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

These photos exemplify what I dislike most about SFCs: Strong Female Characters are rarely strong. In stories for men, they're often little more than eye candy. In stories for women, they're often vivacious tomboys who give a halfhearted show of wit and independence, but ultimately rely on men to rescue them and whisk them away to the altar.

These sheep in wolves' clothing are even more annoying than straight-up damsels in distress. Not every heroine needs to be strong, but if you intend to write a strong heroine, you should do it properly. You can't just put her in combat boots and call it a day.

What Is Strength

Most lists of "Strong Heroines in Literature" contain characters from very old novels. Scarlett O'Hara, Jo March, Elizabeth Bennet—these heroines are admirable in the context of the historical eras they were written in, but they don't meet modern standards. Or at least, they don't meet my standards.

So I'm going to throw objectivity out the window and outline my own criteria for strength in any character, male or female.

Proactive Behavior

Elizabeth Bennet doesn't cut it for me because she's 100% reactive. I'd rather have a heroine who does foolish things than a heroine who lets the characters around her propel the story.

There are a couple of reasons protagonists should be proactive. The first is that active people are interesting and reactive people are boring. Audiences sometimes like the villain of a story more than the hero because the villain does things—schemes, backstabs, battles with his internal demons—while the hero merely sits around being a good guy. Even a character who commits horrible crimes is more interesting than a character who does nothing at all.

The second reason is that people admire leaders more than followers. Readers want to fantasize about taking charge, righting wrongs, and seizing happiness. Few want to fantasize about being a helpless, useless tagalong.

Moral Resilience

Maybe it's because I saw many adaptations of A Little Princess when I was young, but I've always admired heroes who refuse to compromise their morals even in adverse circumstances. I can't stand protagonists who stoop to the same level as the villains.

In movies and shows for children, the underdog heroes often "stand up for themselves" by playing humiliating pranks on the mean, overweight bullies. Even when I was in the target age group for the Nickelodeon and Disney channels, I hated these scenes.

To me, real heroes are like Atticus Finch and Jane Eyre, who stay classy even if people treat them poorly. Sticking to their ethics despite the temptation to break them shows true strength of character.

The exception is a well-drawn antihero or tragic hero. I dislike writers who expect us to applaud reprehensible behavior as heroic, but I can empathize when it's clear the protagonist is doing bad things because he or she is scared, jealous, desperate, etc. But these types of heroes aren't strong; they're interesting because they're weak.

Capacity for Growth

Capacity for growth is the number one most important trait for a hero, and I think for people in real life too.

Nobody comes out of the womb a good person. Babies are naturally greedy, amoral, ignorant, and rash. Three-year-olds scream, snatch at shiny objects, hit people, and put dangerous things in their mouths. "Growing up" means overcoming these natural faults by developing empathy and self-control. Over time, good adults admit their failings and fix them. Bad ones remain three years old forever and end up in jail for snatching at shiny objects, hitting people, and/or putting dangerous things in their mouths.

In fiction, a good hero starts out with faults and overcomes them through the story events, while a bad one stays the same from beginning to end. Conquering pride and fear to change for the better takes a lot of strength, and readers will cheer for a hero who can pull it off.

What Is Not Strength

Unnecessary Violence

Violence is a huge problem with films and books featuring Strong Female Characters. Writers will make a heroine punch, kick, or shoot people at the slightest provocation, and they expect audiences to think she's awesome for it.

There are some extremely violent fictional heroines out there, but more insidious is the portrayal of casual violence as strength. The spunky girl who knees boys in the groin for jilting her friends, the sophisticated Southern belle who slaps the hero across the face for making rude remarks, the no-nonsense mama who whacks her husband and sons upside the head for doing stupid things—these are the characters who teach people that violent women are strong and cute. They are not.

A prime example of "cute violence" in fiction is Steve Rogers' love interest, Officer Peggy Carter, from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). When a soldier under Peggy's command mouths off, she punches him in the jaw and sends him sprawling. Then she gets jealous when a sexy blonde kisses Steve, so she whips out a pistol and starts shooting at his back as he walks away.

Because Peggy is a female character, her vicious behavior is supposed to be adorable. If a male character named Peter Carter sucker-punched his underlings for cracking wise and wielded a lethal weapon on his girlfriend because another man hit on her, he wouldn't be adorable in the slightest.

The only time violence shows strength is when a heroine uses an appropriate amount of it to defend herself in a life-threatening situation. But attacking a sleazy flirt with fancy karate moves, or wailing on a cheating ex with a handbag? That's not strength; it's assault and battery.

Victimhood

We have another bizarre double standard in fiction: victimhood. A hero who does nothing but get beaten up is a loser, but a heroine who spends the entire book or movie being abused is a "survivor."

A stock character I see frequently in books, especially historical novels, is the dazzlingly beautiful woman every man on earth wants to rape. Her father promises her in marriage to an arrogant nobleman. The nobleman tries to rape her, but she throws pillows at him and runs away. She bumps into a macho creep who stinks of cheap wine. The creep tries to rape her, but she pushes him into a mud puddle and runs away. She gets captured by a villainous warlord. The warlord imprisons her in an opulent bedchamber and—surprise!—tries rape her. She stabs the warlord with a dagger hidden up her sleeve and rushes outside to fall sobbing in the arms of her true love.

I said above that a strong woman will defend herself, but these Princess Peaches who do nothing but defend themselves don't come across as strong female characters. They come across as reactive female fantasies.

Defiance

Many teenagers think rebelliousness is synonymous with strength, and some writers never grow out of that. Heroes in books and shows for young adults often demonstrate how cool and "free" they are through theft, vandalism, drug and alcohol use, and other antisocial or self-destructive behaviors. Princesses in fantasies often escape through their bedroom windows and set off on adventures because they feel stifled by the rules of palace etiquette, or they find their fiances unattractive, or they're simply bored with luxury and crave excitement.

These characters are supposed to come across as brave and independent. Instead, they come across as spoiled. If the only reason the protagonist has for acting up or out is self-gratification, it shows recklessness and immaturity, not strength of character.

Empty Testimonials

Sometimes an author will tell the audience that the protagonist has a certain attribute, but then demonstrate the opposite in the story. For example, TV characters will fawn over a genius detective with an IQ of 200, but he can't figure out the simplest of clues. Or a romance heroine's friends will gush about how kind she is, but she spends the whole story selfishly toying with men.

The most annoying variation is the sexy FBI agent with a Glock 22 and a black belt in judo who needs rescuing in every episode or chapter. Other characters go on about how brave and capable she is, but when bad guys attack, she's totally helpless. She flails about until she gets tied up or knocked out, and then she needs a Knight in Shining Armor to swoop in and save her.

(Or, like in Silence of the Lambs, she's supposedly the best and brightest in her class, but she does incredibly stupid things. "Hmm, I think there's a murderous psycho in this pitch dark, unfamiliar house. Instead of calling backup and scoping out the situation, I think I'll chase him in there alone and blind. Yes, that seems like an excellent idea!")

In fiction, actions speak louder than exposition. You can't simply declare that the heroine is strong and smart and expect readers to believe it without question, especially when all evidence points to the contrary.