Not long ago I made mention of Revising Prose by rhetorician Richard Lanham. That, and another of his books, The Economy of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information should be read by anyone who communicates with the written word. In 1979 he identified the burgeoning modern trend of stringing words and prepositional phrases together ad nauseum to make a point. His example was no one can write “Jim kicks Bill” anymore. I won’t plagiarize his work. I will tell you this – read the first chapter (eight short pages) of Revising Prose and it will make you think better, write better, and not commit wordiness to the page. It will scare indefinite comparisons and “is,” “was,” “will be,” “seems to be” “of” and other “weak” verb glue out of your writing vocabulary for any purpose other than dialogue. If you’re like me, the first eight pages will hook you into going further into what I harp on. Sentence length, rhythm and sound. But if you read no more than those first eight pages, your word count will have dropped 45% before it ever hits the page.
I was made painfully aware of the failure to write “Jim kicks Bill” and what that directly entails in my own work, as well as in published authors’. Example – I read Richard Rayner’s 2005 The Devil’s Wind, his paean to Noir. I referred to it in another post, namelessly, as “soft boiled.” It was wrapped in “language” and “writerliness” and when he occasionally hit a “Jim kicks Bill” line it stuck out like a pew rattling fart. Rayner disregarded economy of attention (Elmore Leonard’s rule “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip”), and I found myself skipping blocks of Rayner’s text that proved he was a writer and had done research but stalled the story. Writerliness that became an overturned eighteen-wheeler on the freeway at rush hour. Had all that excess backstory been committed on the front end and led me into the book on it’s own, defining the character? Fine. War hero changes last name, turns architect. But in the middle of the action here’s an unnecessary two-page flashback?
Virginia Wolff called thoughts “arrows.” Thoughts are often a component of stream of consciousness. Arrows with a point, that hit a target, agreed. Arrows that eat up two pages of word count way past time to be important to our understanding of the character? WTF? Granted, Rayner stylized the novel like a Noir film. I could see Mitchum sweating in black and white, staring into the bathroom mirror reliving his war experience, his white shirt gone limp in the desert heat, tucked roughly into his armpit high pleated slacks belted across his ribs. Close up of his face, maybe he pulls his bottom lids down, cue the WWII bomber footage. But it wasn’t written that way. It was a novel, not a screenplay. Which are Rayner’s claim to fame. Attention economy isn’t on the menu for Hollywood, as witnessed by this season’s incredibly boring three episodes turned into ten of Bosch. The last two aimless seasons of Justified after Leonard died. And furthered into the reading realm by books like The Devil’s Wind(iness).
“Jim kicks Bill”
I stumbled over a 1959 John D MacDonald, The Beach Girls. It has character building with dialogue scenes that should be in a textbook. I had never looked at MacDonald in any light beyond my father’s hand me down pulp with the possibilty of sex scenes. Looking at JDM in the light of verbal economics explains why authors as diverse as Vonnegut, Block, Hiassen, Koontz, Leonard, Parker, King, Philbrick, have all dedicated works to, and sung the praises of, MacDonald. My favorite description of MacDonald is “verbally precise.” Simply because he writes “Jim kicks Bill.”
Following on the heels of war and the first half of the 20th century “attention economists” like Cain, Hammett, Hemingway and Steinbeck, MacDonald leaves no doubt in your mind what is on a waning Southern Belle’s mind about an arrogant asshole. Not, “Sally thought it seemed like she felt angry whenever…” Instead he writes, “When he grins I find myself thinking how fine it would be to kick him square in the face.”* Hot damn. “Jim kicks Bill.” Emotion. No PC. No apology. Real people thoughts. Check this out. It should have its own Flash Pulitzer. “He’s a small souled man, but picturesque.”* BAM. I am amazed at how much story, how many fabulous, precise one liners are in one of those thin JDM books. If reading one does nothing but embarrass you out of trivial minutia in your storytelling and sharpen your “point,” it is worth the read as a textbook exercise.
As an example, I have a now-offended ex-friend who wrote a book. I know the guy can write, so I offered to read it as he beta read for me. It took him and his family 7,000 words to get from the curb to boarding an airplane. Another 6k to get to Paris. He was striving for humor, via overwritten minutia, hyperbole and simile. By the time they were done with the currency change kiosk, before the first security check, I was done and didn’t care what happened after that. Why? Attention Economy. Dave Barry can go to a convention in Hawaii, with his family, take a charter sightseeing boat, eat dinner and have you laughing so hard you might fall off the commode. In 2k. Or go to the proctologist with the same effect in 500. Attention Economy. Think Billy Connolly or Robin Williams on stage. It isn’t a matter of being passively entertained, it’s a matter of keeping up. No special effects. Precision phrasing. “Jim kicks Bill.” I once had a beta reader tell me that with all the dialogue a book I wrote moved almost too fast. I was upset. Now I am proud.
Mind the POV
Every modern editor with a blog has a mantra. “Watch Your POV.” With first person, you really have to watch it, and often need to narrate the adventures of other characters or share scenes with them as they are living through the “I”. Usually. There is a WordPress author, marple25mary, who writes short, delightful flights of fancy vignettes. They involve the same set of rotating characters. I can’t follow them like there’s a story line because my head will explode. They are like cupcakes. I enjoy them for what they are. Down to POV.
For over a year I read her stuff and thought the woman had a monstrous case of AADD. She knows, I mentioned it. I thought she was all over the map. What do Mary’s vignettes, JDM’s The Beach Girls and editorial admonitions have in common? Watch the POV – shift! Each of Mary’s offerings hands the first person POV to whoever is the “star” of the scene. It took me forever to catch that. Every chapter of The Beach Girls tells the story from different members of a boat dock community’s POV. Previously I have only seen drastic POV shift in the epistolary format. Maybe I have led a sheltered literary existence. But it’s a discomfiting mind bender to flip the page and be in someone else’s first person account of an unfolding story. The shifting “I”. Brilliant, if you can pull it off, and in JDM’s case it’s used in a new take on the “stranger comes to town” vehicle. As if everyone in High Plains Drifter is giving their POV of Clint Eastwood. POV shift is easy onscreen. Change camera angles, change the POV. Turn the page, no visuals? Ouch!
To me, “I” is singular. “I” am me. Which is why I usually write third person. “I” am not a gunfighter or skirt hound or detective or leap tall buildings in a single bound. “I” am not important. “I” can see it as a storytelling device. “Let me tell y’all ‘bout the time ‘I’ had a crazy jealous woman in one hand, a scalp hungry Injun in the other, a rattler in my boot and seen the tax man comin’ my way, no horse in sight.” That’s a story, by a single person. But to turn the page and get the woman’s account, and then the Injun’s and then the tax man’s, all in first person?
Gawldamn, I got fences to mend and this damned woman is about a handful of I hate you, good for nothing tomcatting SOB and if you let go of my throat I’ll bite your ear off before I’ll have good hunting with plenty firewood for my winter teepee with this white eyes hair ledgers that tell me I have a decent commission coming on this clown that thinks he can write off sunglasses because he’s outside all the I can’t hold her off much longer. I’ll take my chance with the injun and I’ll kill the SOB’s slutty girlfriend if I don’t strangle first…on and on. I repeat. Ouch.
Watch your POV. Unless you’re Mary or JDM. Mind your attention economy regardless of who you are, or people will skip your writerliness and miss your story. Leave tap dancing to professionals and say exactly what you want the reader to hear. Write your stories with the power of each phrase’s direct effect. If people wrote music like any number of popular authors write books, there would be chaos and people rolling in the streets screaming with their hands over their ears. Much like the first public performance of Bolero.
Takeaway? “Lanham, MacDonald and company kicks Phil’s ass.”
Invest in yourself. Lanham is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpRnAJuy-Ck
*The Beach Girls – © 1959 John D MacDonald