Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Trees Were Green.

I thought today that I should elaborate on yesterday's post, which was basically about voice. Voice is a tricky critter. Lots of people don't know what it is. That's usually cured by extensive reading. Hearing the difference between Susanna Clarke and Ernest Hemingway isn't hard, or shouldn't be. When you can hear the difference between Barbara Kingsolver and John Irving, then you're on to something.

It's not about the story. Yes, John Irving's characters will all be fourteen-year-old boys somewhere in the course of the story. That's not it. You read; you know. I know some folks who can't stand Chuck Palahniuk. Well, yes, some of his stories can be odd. Okay, three freeway stops past odd. But his voice is fantastic. What style!

Yes, some people don't like his style. And while it fits great with his stories, it might not work in a cozy mystery. This is where the "Trees are Green" comes in.

Hemingway was hugely influential in writing in the last century. Liking Hemingway's voice is on the Y-chromosome next to the Three Stooges, thinking parallel parking is a moral value and fire is a toy, and the phrase "watch this!" The Y-chromosome is probably written in the small, hard Anglo-Saxon words Hemingway used. He also used short sentences, active verbs, violence, and alcohol in quantity. He utterly demolished the kind of florid, slow writing that had come before.

I think Hemingway did more to open up writing for the amateur writer than anyone else. Because he was clear. Every reader could read him and understand what was happening. He made the idea of telling a story in plain language accessible to would-be writers. They might not understand how a man and woman could go through six bottles of wine at lunch and remain conscious, but they got the story. Likewise, I think Hemingway did a lot for writing in general. Letters, personal correspondence, even newspapers. He was a reporter who went on epic adventures and lived (barely) to tell the tale(s). He was a man other men wanted to be.

And his writing was crystal clear. It was simple. For years it seemed that everything that came after him shared that ruthless simplicity. There is more variety in voice now, but he cleared the decks of much of the purple prose that came before.

The lesson here is that clear is good. Screenwriting is a good discipline for writing plain, intelligible language. A screenplay wouldn't even contain something so uselessly decorous as "the trees were green." There's no room.

So that's it for today: until you find a voice that fits, at least be clear. Use those good, solid verbs. Use an active voice. Get the story told. You can curl the ribbons later.

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