Writing exercise: Repetition

Issa Dioume posted another writing exercise from the great Ursula. This one, to write 150 words using at least three repetitions of key words appealed to me. It’s exactly 150 words with quite a lot of repeated words.


Pigeons litter the sky as cartons litter the pavement and cars litter the kerbs. She takes out her phone and checks the time. He’s late. He’s usually late, doesn’t seem to care if he keeps her hanging about in unsavoury places like this tatty square full of life’s litter and grubby pigeons. There’s a fountain somewhere, across the cobbles. Not that you can see the cobbles for the cars. She’d like to see the street sweepers come along with hefty brooms and sweep them away, like the cartons.

Pigeons flutter down with a rattle of wing feather and strut around her feet, pecking at pebbles and ring pulls. Some people would sweep them away too, with their deformed feet and lice-ridden feathers, she thinks. Yet they’re just cleaning up our mess. She looks up at the sound of footsteps. Someone squeezes between the parked cars, grinning.

“You’re late” she says.


Writing exercise

I’ve just been reading Issa Dioume’s post, one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing exercises. This one is to write a short piece (paragraph to a page) without using punctuation of any kind. I’ve taken two scenes from the novels I’m rewriting and used them for these pieces without punctuation.

What comes over, I think, is that it’s possible with careful word choice and structure to just about get away with lack of punctuation in a straight description, but much more difficult (maybe a really good writer can manage it) with an action piece. See what you think.

Ever since he was a child hiding in the cupboard underneath the stairs where the sanitation workers stored their buckets and mops for keeping the stairs and hallways clean Quirino had felt at home in dark enclosed spaces the kind of places that hid him from his father the man with the hard heavy fists who dealt with Quirino’s mother in a way that was painful and definitive leaving Quirino at the tender age of ten years with no alternative but to deal with his father in the only logical way possible by making him the first criminal he reported to the Pure Ones building his own road following the light of duty around this turning point to a future that was so different and so much more rewarding than that of metalworker for which his birth had destined him and creating from the dust of the workshop floor a sharpened, polished instrument of the Wise God’s justice.


The car swung into the avenue treeless and completely straight like all of Providence’s arteries and the driver aimed it like a missile at the couple hurrying ahead towards the wasteland swearing quietly when they disappeared up a side road accelerating taking the turn on two wheels even then not in time to see where they’d gone doorway perhaps but nobody would let them in nobody ever did especially not when they heard the squeal of car tyres where then there was nowhere else he thought casting about left right rear view mirror and caught a flutter of fabric pale instantly gone whipped out of sight he grinned and swung the car around slamming it back down the empty street braking hard at the suspect entrance of a dilapidated building and saw all he needed to know the door with a broken panel and obviously a broken lock he slipped his pistol from its holster and leapt from the car.

I would prefer not to

I was discussing with an editor friend of mine the other day some of the infuriating comments I had received from publishers about a rejected manuscript. I have had a couple in a row now saying more or less the same thing—great story, great writing and we’d love to take it if only you could change a few things. The few things being essentially take out all the imagery, introduce snappy smart-ass dialogue instead of description, cut the number of important characters who the reader will get to know down to two, and get rid of all the passive voice. In other words, rewrite in such a way that my story resembles, in everything but irrelevant details, a hundred other stories that have made money for their publishers.

Keep the language and the concepts simple, they advise, because no reader likes having to think about the meaning of an image. Don’t describe because it’s boring, instead have the characters chatter incessantly about the snow, the rain, the scenery, the car crash etc. Get rid of all adverbs and all dialogue tags except for ‘said’.

Not only is this the tyranny of the mediocre, it’s also plain ignorant. Adverbs are perfectly good parts of speech. Like everything, they can be over-used. But they are not intrinsically evil. If I want to indicate that a character whispered a comment, I will say, “she whispered.” I will not say, “she said.” Or “she said in a whisper.” There is a perfectly good verb that condenses ‘to say in a whisper’ into one word: whisper.

Banning the passive voice is another directive that gets on my nerves as it is often through a misunderstanding of what the passive voice is. I was told, as an example, to change “George was reading the book” (passive) to “George read the book” (active). George was reading is past continuous not passive. It is no less active than any straight past tense and it doesn’t mean the same thing. The passive would be “The book was read by George.”

Take “George was reading the book when the doorbell rang.” Compare it with “George read the book when the doorbell rang.” Doesn’t make sense.

These blanket instructions are not intended to help make a particular manuscript better, just to turn all manuscripts into the same, homogenised product. The same is true of dialogue. It has to be clever, smart, snappy. Regardless of the situation. I’ve just been reading a novel that typifies what editors insist upon. It starts with a guy getting knocked down by a van. Because an opening has to be action-packed, right? Instead of the guy’s unspoken impressions as the van hits him, the reader is given an internal monologue of ‘humorous’ quips and observations. To my mind this is misplaced and unrealistic, and it’s not even funny. It’s life reduced to clichés, situations reduced to tropes, and characters flattened to cardboard cut-outs.

I am coming more and more round to the opinion that publishers, editors, agents are looking for a product not a book, a brand not an author. I try to step back from what I write, try to use the advice I’ve been given to make the story better. I can always see how to make it different, it’s the ‘better’ that is so subjective. Does ‘better’ have to mean easier to read, as in taking what was written for 16-18 year olds with an adult reading age and making it suitable for ten year olds who have to be cajoled away from their comic books with promises of similar action and wise cracks? If that’s making it better, then I’m afraid I don’t share the same fundamental ideas about what makes writing good. In fact, to me it looks suspiciously like an encouragement to dumb it down.