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The Secret of Everything

This week, I’m still fishing in our Oceans of Jewels post. I want to present one more snippet from one of you. I’m going to comment on that, in the same way was I did last time, but I also want to draw attention to an issue that crops up in probably the majority of your pieces, and especially the ones that include some real descriptive writing. That issue is so prevalent and so crucial – and so easy to get right – that it’s worth spending real time with.

So, let’s take a look at another one of your snippets, taken from this Ocean Of Jewels thread.

The piece is from THE TAXI, by Helen Parusel, and it runs like this:

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me. Linking arms with Stefanie on one side, and Anna on the other, I wonder if this was a good idea.

Yesterday, Anna pointed at the events board, and looked at me, her jade eyes glinting. ‘You are not fully integrated in North German culture until you have experienced a Wattwanderung.’

I’m not sure if trudging barefoot across the cold mudflats on the North Sea is a prerequisite for integration, but assured by Anna it would be a great laugh, I signed on the dotted line.

We are a group of fifteen. Our guide, Guido, white bearded and crinkly eyed, tells us that when the tide recedes, the treasures of the Wadden Sea are revealed. But he has a warning: venturing onto the mudflats without an experienced guide with knowledge of the tide time-table can be fatal. We all nod, grateful to be in Guido’s capable hands as he leads us across the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With infectious enthusiasm, he splodges along with broad, brown feet, pointing at the scuttling crabs amongst the seashells, nuggets of amber and the heaps of sand-worm burrows scattered on the beach. Our feet make strange sucking sounds as tiny shrimps shoot out between our toes. We laugh and shriek. 

Despite cancer. 

God, this is good. The gusty wind flinging grains of sand and droplets of seawater against my face. My soul rising and dancing on the wind with the Oystercatchers, screeching above. Drunk on elation. I am here.

There’s a lot of quality in this. The best bit is the paragraph about the scuttling crabs and the sand-work burrows. That kind of minute, specific observation forces you into the landscape precisely because it is so specific. Before reading that sentence, you probably didn’t know that sand-worms made burrows on tidal flats (I didn’t), but by calling attention to that detail, the author has brought the beach vibrantly to life. Indeed, even if you were actually on the beach, you might not notice the sand-worm burrows, so there’s a way in which this line of text makes you more aware of the beach than if you were there in reality. (More on writing evocative descriptions.)

That’s what good prose does. It explains the world – life – back to us, in a way that just being in the world can’t always manage.

OK, so good. As I say, there’s plenty of good stuff here, and I like it.

But let’s have a think about that very first sentence. This one:

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me.

What do you think of that? Do you like it? Or hate it? Or are you carefully sitting on the fence? Just take a moment to see how it feels.

And – full disclosure – I have a problem with it and my problem is simply this. That sentence feels like writing. And that’s not good.

Now in part, that’s just the result of adjectival overgrowth: five adjectives in a sixteen-word sentence.

My bare feet squelch in the cold, slick sludge that spreads vast and bleak before me.

I also think the word ‘sludge’ is a bit imprecise here. Almost anything can be sludge – apple puree, radioactive gloop, a mudflat. I think that, especially, this opening description needs something more precise, more specific.

So, OK, let’s fix the sentence to address those niggles. Something like this, maybe:

My bare feet squelch in the chilly mud that spreads out before me.

So, I’ve vaped three of the five adjectives, and I don’t really think we’ve lost anything. The phrase ‘spreads out’ implies extent, so I don’t think the word ‘vast’ added anything much. I don’t think we need the word bleak, because we’re on a North Sea mudflat which is – duh! – made out of mud. I think the bleakness is already baked in. And the word ‘slick’ – what is that really adding? How would you distinguish a slick sludge from any other kind of sludge? I’m not sure. Perhaps the writer is wanting to call attention to the smoothness and shine of mud that hasn’t yet been trampled, but the word ‘slick’ is just too compressed a way to suggest this.

Oh yes, and I’ve changed the word ‘cold’ to the word ‘chilly’. How come? Well, no reason, really. It just felt better. But I think it’s mostly because the sentence is made up almost entirely of single-syllable words and it just felt rhythmically better to break that up.

So the sentence has got better, but I still don’t love it and we’re now starting to get closer to my primary discomfort. The sentence has two chunks, which can be split up like this:

My bare feet squelch in the chilly mud – focus is on the narrator’s feet.

… the chilly mud that spreads out before me – focus is on the extent of the mud.

So that one sentence has a dual focus. Now that’s not, as it happens, usually a good thing to do with sentences, but sentences are flexible things and I’m not going to say that sentences can never point two ways at once. They can.

But, but, but.

Do you feel the problem? (And honestly, honestly, I’ll feel a gooey little thrill of pleasure if you do.)

The issue is this.

The sentence purports to convey the experience of the narrator. And the sentence sort of shouts out the kind of lessons learned in plenty of writing workshops.

Look, I’m speaking in the first person! And the present tense! And I’m using a full array of senses (squelch, chilly, spreads out)! I’m showing, not telling! I’m right here in the narrator’s head!

But phooey, says I.

And piffle, says I. 

And balderdash, bunkum, claptrap and poppycock.

The thing is: this sentence reads like something constructed in a writing workshop to sound like it conveys the experience of an alert narrator … without actually conveying a true first-person experience.

So let’s say you, right now, were transported to a chilly North Sea mudflat. Your shoes are torn from you (politely, of course; and you’re given a chit so you can reclaim them when you’re done.) You are then asked to walk out on the mudflat.

I think you experience one thing at a time. I think you bounce between sensations and thoughts. And I think you assemble the whole experience relatively slowly.

Indeed, I think your experience might run something like this:

It’s a strange experience stepping out on the mud. The mud appears as smooth as whalebone and I first assume it to be firm. My first steps give the lie to that. The mud is silky soft and squirts away between my toes, until I reach the hard sand beneath. It’s cold, too, the chill of January seawater. And as we start to walk, the group of us, it seems like the landscape broadens as we move. Spreading wider and wider, as we leave the dunes and beach-huts for the huge, open horizon.

And look: you could write that same passage in a hundred different ways, and they’d all be fine. But I think you do need to isolate one experience at a time. If that experience is a new, strange thing – the purpose of the paragraph, in fact – then I think you need to tease it out. I think it needs two or three lines, not just the one. I think you can only move onto the extent of the sands, once you’ve properly dealt with the feel of the mud. (Or vice versa, of course. I’m not fussed.)

And the real thing here – the Secret of Everything, in fact – is YOU NEED TO KEEP EVERYTHING FROM YOUR CHARACTER’S VIEWPOINT. Every detail. Every shade of every word.

That dual focus sentence didn’t feel like how we authentically experience things like walking barefoot on mud. And the only thing that really matters in that sentence is capturing that exact experience. Not compressing it. Or rushing it. But capturing it and expressing it.

I call that the secret of everything, because the issue is so widespread and infects even pretty good writing. Here’s another tiny snippet from that Ocean of Jewels collection. (This snippet is from Gabster’s Finding Charlotte.) Her opening para begins like this:

One minute the sky was clear, then dark clouds rolled in, casting ominous shadows. Flashes of lightning on the horizon; a sense of anticipation. She tugged her seat belt tighter as the plane plunged into a dense grey mass

Now, again, that extract comes from a page of perfectly decent writing. (It tells of Charlotte’s encounter with a peculiar character on a flight to Cambodia. If I were reading that page, I’d turn onto the next, wanting to know what happened next.)

But the problem here is pretty obvious, right? Charlotte, from her airplane seat, won’t really be able to see clouds roll in. She might see them thicken up as the plane moves, but she won’t really be able to distinguish rolling-cloud movement from travelling-plane movement. Likewise, what are the ominous shadows? They’re cast on the ground presumably, which Charlotte can’t see, because she’s in a plane. She can’t see a horizon, either, not in its normal sense of earth-meets-sky. And then “the plane plunged into a dense grey mass” might be a correct description of what happened … but that viewpoint would require an observer positioned outside the plane, so therefore not Charlotte.

And so on. The result is that we can’t stay close to Charlotte’s own experience because we are constantly being pushed out of it.

I could find probably fifty similar examples from that Ocean of Jewels collection with similar issues.

And the issues, by the way, arise because the writer is trying to do the right thing (get specific, get descriptive, get atmospheric) but in a way that detaches the reader from the character’s own experience. (More on developing characters here.)

And better to have a bland sentence that is authentically from the character’s viewpoint than an interesting one from the wrong viewpoint.

That, my friends, is the secret of everything.

That’s enough from me. If this email runs on any longer, somebody will shoot me.

Till soon


PPS: Now look, you probably know we’ve got some Lovely London Events on shortly. Tickets are starting to run short, so don’t be a chump. Do what you gotta do:

1.    Come to The Getting Published Day. Don’t fail to get published because you’re doing the basics wrong. We’ll tell you what to do and how to do it. Learn more.

2.    Come to our Self-Publishing Day. I love self-publishing. It’s magnificently powerful, But you must, must, must do it right and ninety-something percent of self-pubbers do it wrong. We’ll tell you what to do.

PPPS: If you are a member of Jericho Writers, you can submit your work to the upcoming Slushpile Live with the Soho Agency. That’s right: you get to pop a chunk of your work in front of a real live literary agent who is actively looking for new clients. We film the whole thing and stream it live so you can listen – and ask questions. Sign up page – for JW members only – is here.

And if you’re not a member of Jericho Writers, then what are you thinking of? Hurry over to this page and put things right at once. We do these Slushpile Live events regularly, but they’re members only, kids.

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Comments (8)
  • Harry, thank you for the explanation. Being new to all of this, I'll sponge it up. The first sentence just didn't read right to me, and I really didn't know why. So, I'm glad you explained the sentence in the way you did, as it is helping me to become a better writer. 

    One thing I've noticed in my short contact here are the different adjectives all y'al use, which are so different from my Midwest upbringing in Missouri, USA. When I looked up the word 'squelch' I was amazed it fit so well in the writing as the only way I've ever heard or read the word used is in radio electronics. I'm constantly improving and broadening my vocabulary, (now measured in decades) so thank you for sharing.

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    • You're welcome, Don! We Brits tend to be quite good at decoding Americanese, because we get so much of it from Hollywood. The other way round is always more exotic, I think.

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    • Hi, Harry. That was certainly a wow moment when I saw my name in your newsletter! Really pleased that you liked much of what I wrote, but I really cringed at what you said (rightly so) about the first sentence: got a bit carried away with my adjectives. As this was my real experience, it´s important for me to convey it as such. The opening was supposed to take the reader into the middle of the scene but obviously my POV was wrong. Thanks alot for your time and insight.

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      • Another thought, Harry. I'd keep the adjective bleak; this connects the protagonist's view of the landscape to her life situation. The point of this piece is to show the shift of her view of both to a more positive perception. Did this come across to any of you?

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        • Hi Helen, your POV is basically fine; it's just that you have to make sure that every word and every sentence is stuck like glue to that POV. And yes, the transition from bleak to elated is all there. Just - you can't cheat or take shortcuts. If a sentence/para doesn't quite feel like it's authentically from your character's POV, you need to tweak things so it is. Then make sure the transition is there anyway

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          • Is it ever ok to be somewhat detached from the main characters' POV? I refer back to the 'swooping in, pulling out' post from a few months ago. Is it sometimes ok to give the reader a general view of the setting/landscape and then delve deeper into the character and then detach again? Or did I misunderstand that post?

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