Discussion – Lofty Writing
I’ve decided to take a break from hammering out flash stories to talk about writing, specifically the kind of writing I like and the kind I don’t like.
Merriam-Webster defines LOFTY as “showing the insulting attitude of people who think that they are better, smarter, or more important than other people.” I find that this often sums up a lot of fiction writing I come across these days, especially in the blogosphere. Writers often seem more concerned with showing how smart they are, than with telling a good and coherent story.
Don’t get me wrong, paying attention to and enhancing your prose is all good and proper. Raw writing that has never been edited, revised, or analyzed is just that: raw. Most of the stuff I post here is raw, and it’s not something I would send to a publisher without substantial revision. The stories I post here are more about developing characters and worlds, more practice than anything esle. There is also a lot to be gained from textual experimentation—kudos to those who try.
But there’s a difference between making sure your prose is creative and tight, and making it flowery and convoluted so that it looks superficially special. The former enhances the reader’s understanding of the story, the latter hinders it. I prefer prose that is straight-forward. I prefer prose that uses common language, not obscure words taken from a thesaurus that the author doesn’t even know the meaning of. With fiction, any time the reader has to pull away to look up a word, you’ve lost the momentum of the story, and momentum is everything.
Of course I write genre fantasy most of the time, which is especially aided by the clarity of its prose. There are enough plot and setting details that the reader must figure out, getting through the sentences should not be an added burden. Many renowned writers were able to craft beautiful stories without being too lofty in their execution.
Take Tolkien for example. The man wrote his books partially as a means of developing a history for the new language he created. He literally started with a focus on language. Take a look at this passage from The Return of the King:
But Shadowfax paused in his stride, slowing to a walk, and then he lifted up his head and neighed. And out of the darkness the answering neigh of other horses came; and presently the thudding of hoofs was heard, and three riders swept up and passed like flying ghosts in the moon and vanished into the West. Then Shadowfax gathered himself together and sprang away, and the night flowed over him like a roaring wind.
There are no archaic words or convoluted phrases in there, just clean action and good metaphors. I particularly like how the last sentence manages to convey the character, the setting, and the speed of the action all at once.
One of my favorite writers is the recently passed Terry Pratchett (Blind Io guard his soul), mostly because of how clear and direct his language is. And yet somehow he managed to be smart and humorous the whole time. Here’s a passage from Small Gods, one of my favorite Discworld novels:
Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.
The tortoise is a ground-living creature. It is impossible to live nearer the ground without being under it. Its horizons are a few inches away. It has about as good a turn of speed as you need to hunt down a lettuce. It has survived while the rest of evolution flowed past it by being, on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat.
And then there is the eagle. A creature of the air and high places, whose horizons go all the way to the edge of the world. Eyesight keen enough to spot the rustle of some small and squeaky creature half a mile away. All power, all control. Lightning death on wings. Talons and claws enough to make a meal of anything smaller than it is and at least take a hurried snack out of anything bigger.
And yet the eagle will sit for hours on the crag and survey the kingdoms of the world until it spots a distant movement and then it will focus, focus, focus on the small shell wobbling among the bushes down there on the desert. And it will leap . . .
And a minute later the tortoise finds the world dropping away from it. And it sees the world for the first time, no longer one inch from the ground but five hundred feet above it, and it thinks: what a great friend I have in the eagle.
And then the eagle lets go.
And almost always the tortoise plunges to its death. Everyone knows why the tortoise does this. Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off. No one knows why the eagle does this. There’s good eating on a tortoise but, considering the effort involved, there’s much better eating on practically anything else. It’s simply the delight of eagles to torment tortoises.
But of course, what the eagle does not realize is that it is participating in a very crude form of natural selection.
One day a tortoise will learn how to fly.
There isn’t a word in that long passage that someone with a seventh grade reading level couldn’t understand (except perhaps evolution—that really depends on the educational system). But Pratchett manages to create humor and meaning, to paint action and interaction with clarity. I doubt there is any better description of an eagle than lightning death on wings.
In searching for places to send my stories, I often find the submission pages to be filled with same kind of self-serving, convoluted text that turns me off of the fiction itself. It does, at least, show me where not to submit my work.
In the end, I think it comes down to whom a writer is serving. Is he genuinely thrilled with his own stories and trying wholeheartedly to pass them on to the reader, or is he simply trying to inflate his own reputation. What does he want the reader to take away when it is all done, the memory of the adventure or the memory of the author? At least for readers like myself, there is a danger to being lofty.
I fully welcome discussion and counterpoints. I’d like to know what other readers think.