Saturday, September 18, 2004

When the editor wasn't looking

I recently finished Undue Influence by Steve Martini, and it's one of those books that could be really, really good if an editor had simply taken a cleaver to it and cut down about a third of the text. Christine suggested that to me not too long ago, and it's now a guideline I try to follow when I'm writing. Martini, who is overly fond of explanations, repetition and metaphors, could have done the same.

I'm not really going to talk about the plot of the book or even review it, because it's the stylistic tics that really interest me (or rather, got under my skin). I first read this book quite a while back and Martini's style didn't grate on me then as it does now. The thing is, Martini doesn't just do things once or twice -- he does it multiple times so if you didn't get his initial cleverness, you have 80 gazillion additional opportunities to pick up on it throughout the text. Given the blundgeoning effect of these tics, I'd suggest avoiding them in your* writing at all costs or at least, use very, very sparingly. Examples**:

Page 149: "Then again," she says. "I can't tell you." She's looking at the ceiling, a pained expression.

The fact the statement is a little too short to actually break up effectively is nitpicky, but what is annoying is the 'a pained expression' part -- which describes *nothing*. Yes, there's a logical leap that Martini is describing the speaker's facial expression, but in general 'pained expression' doesn't really give the reader much to go on. And the sentence construct is just, in a word, painful.

Page 232: At this moment, when I look at Laurel I am moved by the fact that she is consumed with the fervor of the battle, in the way Joan of Arc led the troops before being fried at the stake.

Yikes! Holy metaphor, Batman! Now, this wouldn't be so bad if Martini didn't depend on similes/metaphors/cliches so often to carry his descriptions. By this point in the book, every single one of these gets right under the skin. Not only that, there's the problem of trying to be clever with the metaphor and it fails miserably. Fried? Not quite the 'write' description in the first place.

Page 266: "What is it ya wanna know?" He's making microscopic notes with a ballpoint pen, light ink-squiggles on the back of the picture.

Here's where an alert editor would have been a Very Good Thing (tm). A great example of redudancy combined with an acute awareness of the obvious. There's no reason to include 'ballpoint pen' because it really adds nothing, especially when you have 'light ink-squiggles' coming right after it. Also, 'makes' doesn't really fit the action here -- another more obvious verb will work better. In addition to its other crimes, the sentence itself is passive. It'd be so easy to tighten this up to: He writes in light ink-squiggles on the back of the picture or He writes microscopic notes in light ink-squiggles on the back of the picture.

Page 62: "It isn't the money. That ran out a month ago. Laurel passed me two bad checks since," she says. "Bounced and skipped like flat stones on a pond," she tells me.

Oh heck. We've got reptition and simile both in the same paragraph. When a person speaks without interruption, there's no need to throw in an additional phrase saying so unless there's some lengthy description interrupting the two statements. In this case, there isn't, so the second 'she tells me' is absolutely unnnecessary.

Page 178: Twenty minutes later, over the scent of a freshly brewed French roast, Dana is studying the contents of the note written by Kathy Merlow and the envelope it came in.

The sentence is passive*** and it wouldn't be so annoying if it wasn't for the fact Martini starts nearly every section in this way. Tighten it up to: Twenty minutes later, over the scent of a freshly brewed French roast, Dana studies the note Kathy Merlow wrote and the envelope it came in.

Page 119: Head slowly shaking. "No. I didn't know they had."

Whose head is 'slowly shaking'? This is a random body part -- it's always good to attach the body part to the owner. Plus, it's a fragment of a sentence. Complete sentences -- ones with subject, verb, and noun -- are always preferable, though fragments can occasionally be used for stylistic purposes.

Page 89: "Oh." An expression like leprosy is now stalking her beyond the screen door.

Good grief. Leprosy is a disease, not an expression descriptor, and unless this woman is about to get leprosy right there and then, there's no reason for it to be stalking her. Another example of how a simile can get totally off base and say *nothing* at all.

Page 232: "Tell me about Jack's operation." I'm talking about the vasectomy.

::facepalm:: Martini does this a lot. He'll use a piece of dialogue and then follow up with an additional explanation of what was just said. At this point in the book, we know about the vasectomy and even if we didn't remember, the word 'operation' coupled with Jack's name should make it fairly clear what the narrator is referring to. There is *no* reason to drive it home. If Martini wanted to be even more clear than 'Jack's operation', perhaps he could have written: "Tell me about Jack's vasectomy."

Page 137: The thing Jack lives for, power, will be drained from his bones like some leaking, dead battery in a discarded toy.

The sentence speaks for itself. Now imagine reading nearly 500 pages of text with writing like that liberally littered throughout. You* probably would go insane as well. My reaction, btw, was that I wanted to kick the narrator because he was rapidly getting on my nerves. I wanted to scream, "You're about as clever as a block of wood mildewing in the kitchen sink." Why, yes, I do have strong feelings about this book, why do you ask?

I don't deny Martini spins a good story, but some of the elements have a real way of bogging down the narrative and making the reader stop and go, "Huh?" None of this stuff is insurmountable -- only requires a good editor to rein it all in. I'm still giggling over the leprosy thing.

* 'You', of course, is generic.

** Examples are literally taken randomly. I didn't mark them through my initial read. I just opened the text as I was typing this up and found an example on each page I turned to. Kind of scary, isn't it?

*** Yes, I am aware of the passive sentences in this entry.

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