Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #5

Attention Economy

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

Published by

Phil Huston


17 thoughts on “Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #5”

    1. Lanham breaks it down like an equation. All you need to do is find the “symbols” in your writing and reduce them. Find the right wrod/verb to replace three ineffective ones. I am always surpised at how something that simple rocks your work. Soft is soft. Hard is hard. Sad is sad. Anger is anger. All the emotional or descriptive content breaks free when you whack the word weeds away from the path and instead use words that tell the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the two styles called out as functionally and technically different. He seems to think that one can replace the Official Style with the Clarity Style — always. I’m not sure that’s true. For scientific, technical explorations or essays, where one needs to distance oneself from the assumptions, evidence, results, or conclusion the Official Style works.
        But for fiction, or creative writing of any kind, it’s the exact wrong way to write.
        I wish this dichotomy would have been pointed out in high school or my few lame attempts at college English.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t see the difference, either. In tech writing the descritive vocabulary is dractically reduced, but the need for enhanced clarity is more severe. All the unecessary and/or elliptical run on sentences need to hit it. Nobody RTFM anyway, but you have to be clear or the call center hits will climb ever higher.
        In fiction we need to get to the point. Of every phrase. Walking in circles around something is more work than finding a way to say what we mean. What Lanham fails to address is word choice. He does off verb replacement. All the modifiers we use, all the throwaway words that would never be missed need to go. There is no use, ever, for “basically.” Think about it. It is, or isn’t. It never is or isn’t “basically.” I had an editor tell me early on that dialogue in fiction wasn’t real dialogue. We could drop all the bunny chasing that goes on in lazy conversation. Writing is the same way. Rather than start sentences with qualifiers or “so…back before I invented fire…” we have the ability to drill down to the issue at hand and get to it, unless the object of the dialogue is emulation of small talk. There is never a place for it in descriptives or narrative. There are ways to boil it down to sloganeering. One of my favorites is an old ZZ Top sticker. “…be like good barbecue. Bear down on the meat. Ease up on the potato salad.”

        Liked by 1 person

  1. All of this. I was so bummed because i thought you were going away. I love all of John MacDonald’s books. Nightmare in Pink. A Purple Place for Dying. Genuine stories without the clutter. I’m going to have to get my hands on Lanham’s book!

    And thank you for mentioning me here. It makes me happy that you read and enjoy my writing. I temporarily turned the status of my blog ‘private’ because weirdo stalker made a brief reappearance. Also, i had a mini tantrum yesterday over the ‘like’ function and how much i loathe it. I wish i could ditch it and just have my posts open for comments. Every time someone ‘likes’ a post, i hear a little chime on my tablet. The last post i wrote, i got 3 dings within 5 seconds. Tell me those people read the posts. Anyway, i’m changing the status back to public. It’s way more fun. And that’s why i blog.

    So glad to see you here. I read everything you write. Saying this so that you know that when i click ‘like’ you know i’m being sincere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The whole social media aspect of “like” is bothersome. Because it doesn;t mean “like.” It means “checked her/him for today, see if I get a rebound.” Bleh.

      You’re very welcome for the mention. I enjoy your stories. Word cupcakes. God knows what’s in them, but they’re tasty. You might not need much of Lanham. I wouldn’t suggest anything to change your voice. The only thing I would ask, that gets beat into me, is that you make your own style sheet, and stick with it before you open the window and let your pieces fly. Italics or some other device for internal dialogue, to break it apart from action or narrative. No quotation marks for spoken dialogue is fine, and freeing, but in your case you might want to watch your attribution formatting. No ” means a lot of line breaks in something with more than one being talking, even if it’s the cat. That’s it. And all that’s just for us out here.


  2. GodallMighty: Got your last message just as I hit delete. You’re correct of course. Thinking of posting actual plot outline, plot synopsis on WP and leaving it there. You can comment on that and leave suggestions on that as well. Thanks.


    1. I know what you’re doing, we’ve all done it. Looking for a voice and story deivce that solves a back or parallel story line. write five or six, keep maybe two, and hack them into a scene/chapter. My problem is you keep writing in circles doing that with no forward momentum. One step forward, two back. One night you said “Here’s another bed story, written with this ethos or pathos POV.” Nobody, not ieven your fans, really want to see that. They want Akira and action and momentum. The most boring thing in the world is watching someone write. Especially when they are prone to commiting elliptical runarounds to the page. That’s all. We don’t need the outline, you do. We need the story. You can cobble it together out of the pieces later, keep it moving. Bed moments with long winded embedded social commentary are dull. MacDonald would have the bed guy down, depressed and dead, spot on, taking you right into his scene in maybe 100 words. half a page in an old school pulp, max. Hit the story hard and stop making us watch you think out loud, that’s all I ask. Think. Write. Think. Publish. I like the concept, the execution is killing me. (Hey, a pun!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You give great advice which I take seriously…and I appreciate your input. You’re right. Must now move on with “the plot”….if I have one. BTW, I actually save some comments received on WP…yours always included. But what happened to your WP vacation?


      2. I gave up being or posting anything creative until I have some stuff that’s in the can cleaned up. I still read that which is not teenage wasteland. We’re all trying to get better, in our own ways.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.