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Tag: prose quality

Flash fiction story: “When Mummy Visits”

“When Mummy Visits,” by Felicia Wulandari

Every Day Fiction, February 10th, 2019

983 words

I had a hard time understanding this one, but I was impressed with the writing. I think it’s the story of a man who’s had a fraught relationship with his mother since childhood and now struggles to accept her. It seems she verbally abused him, or perhaps was merely incoherent and frightening due to a mental illness, and he physically attacked her in response, and now he perhaps feels guilty.

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An approach to advice on writing craft

I’m tired of bad writing advice like “Avoid the verb ‘to be'” and “Avoid adverbs.”  I’m even tired of the sort of advice I consider pretty okay, like “Omit needless words” and “Be as specific and concrete as possible.”

The test of good advice is that if you take it, your writing will become better. I feel stupid writing this out, it’s so obvious. By definition, to qualify as good, a piece of advice must be at least somewhat effective for at least some meaningful percentage of all advice-taking writers.

What’s infuriating about most writing advice is that it’s generally given out slapdash fashion. “Avoid the verb ‘to be'” is good advice for someone who uses it inappropriately. It might even be good advice for writing an action scene (I don’t know offhand). But is it good advice for the average writer?

I don’t know. I think it’s terrible, but my opinion isn’t what matters here. What matters is whether it gets results.

Then come the qualifications: “Avoid ‘to be’ except when doing so makes your writing sound convoluted or clumsy.” “Be concise unless the piece you’re writing calls for a wordy prose style.” And the ever popular “You have to learn the rules before you can break them”—essentially an all-purpose cop-out that makes the Rules impossible to refute using evidence.

Notes on a description

“This is from Chapter Two, Part 4, of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, immigrant professor Timofey Pnin, has just had all his teeth pulled:

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.

“[…] Nabokov, as he often does, takes big risks with figurative language in his description. He’s likening sensations to objects when he talks about the ‘ice and wood of the anesthetic.’ It works because these objects so rightly represent the way the anesthetic makes the mouth feel—frozen (you can’t properly control the muscles of the mouth and tongue and lips the way you can’t when you’ve been sucking ice, and you can feel things but only dully, also in a way that recalls the post-ice-sucking sensation) and wooden (dull, heavy, strangely solid in a manner that becomes more apparent when contrasted against the ‘warm flow of pain’ that replaces it, which is rightly given liquid and thawing qualities.)”

—Kyle Minor, in this essay

I sort of want to quote the whole piece.

Short story: “Big, Dark Hole”

“Big, Dark Hole,” by Jeffrey Ford

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

8.25 pages in the magazine, therefore approximately 4,364 words

The struggle to understand and remember someone who’s lost forever. This struggle seems to arise most often with suicides, and, as in this case, disappearances that might or might not be suicides. It’s like there’s something unfinished and we have to keep telling the story to find out how it ends.

That’s the struggle to understand. The struggle to remember involves the horror or melancholy of losing parts of our own stories, parts of ourselves.

Like “Transfer,” this story is about an outside observer of a mysterious drama that’s never completely explicated. I find it more effective though. Maybe because it so blatantly dwells on the narrator’s loss at the end, making it clear to the superficial reader (me) what the story was about. “Transfer” ends with the narrator contemplating the harm she has done by interfering, and then “marvel[ing]” at the stories she can now tell. Perhaps that story is about casual cruelty, and was just too subtle for me.

The last line ought to be a little too neat, but to my ear it rings just right. The narrator is approaching his own death, his own disappearance.

I admire the prose—snappy and full of juice.

My theory on the dog is that he was bleached by old urine.

Short story: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” by Harlan Ellison

Appeared in Galaxy in December 1965; won the 1966 Hugo Award for best short story; won the 1965 Nebula Award; anthologized in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1966

Not sure how many words

I was pretty underwhelmed when I finally got around to reading this. I’ll admit that the prose style and the unserious tone are awesome, especially the cheeky 1984 reference. Maybe that stuff was striking and innovative when this piece was first published, but today, treating serious subject matter with complete irreverence is unremarkable. The same goes for the dystopian plot. (Maybe the moral is that even small, doomed acts of rebellion can make a difference in the long run? Sure, whatever.) It doesn’t help that the characters are deliberately paper-thin.

This essay describes the story as a self-subverting fable, which is fair enough. Another essay says it’s about “the futility of protest in effecting social change.”

I feel like “‘Repent'” fails for the same reason any story of its kind must fail. You can use the techniques of storytelling to deny that stories hold meaning, but you just end up undermining yourself.

The juggling act

“The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer. His pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of logic. Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer, or the artist has been proved unequal to his design. And, on the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game. The genius of prose rejects the cheville no less emphatically than the laws of verse; and the cheville, I should perhaps explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound. Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we judge the strength and fitness of the first.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson (found here, quoted from here)

I’m very much in the minority on this, I know

I don’t quite like the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, Viking, 1959). It feels melodramatic to me. The rest of the book is so much more subtle and so damn good.

So many people have written praise for this paragraph. Benjamin Dreyer has written some wonderful commentary on it. But I don’t like the talk about sanity and insanity; I don’t like the doors being “sensibly shut” (why shouldn’t they be? I don’t like that sensibly, somehow); I’m not sure I like the image of silence lying steadily against anything (how could it, being immaterial?); I don’t like that dramatic “whatever walked there, walked alone” (although I agree with Dreyer that the comma makes for a good rhythm). I don’t even like the use of semicolons—too dramatic for me—although I adore semicolons generally.

I do like “larks and katydids,” and the idea that they dream.

In defense of semicolons

“Any number of celebrated writers who ought to know better—I’ll name no names—have said any number of foolish, disparaging things about semicolons. [Shirley] Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together. Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.”

—Benjamin Dreyer (x)

Short story: “Mr. Try Again”

“Mr. Try Again,” by A. Merc Rustad

Appeared in Nightmare Magazine, March 2018, issue 66 (read or listen)

4,338 words, though it feels more substantial than that

The prose is dizzying. I feel like this story is about survivor’s guilt? Though there’s a sense of quasi-complicity that goes beyond everyday survivor’s guilt.

On prose quality

“Sometimes [what draws me into a story is] a matter of style, but not always, since a compelling world can survive clumsy or awkward writing, as in Poe or David Foster Wallace (in Wallace’s case the awkwardness is deliberate, of course). “

—Iain Higgins, member of The Malahat Review‘s fiction board