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Turn of Phrase

May 4th, 2009

Nancy Kress had an interesting blog post the other day about her actual moment-by-moment process of constructing a paragraph: hashing out a couple of sentences, then shoving off the ones that come out of chronological order, cutting the excess words, fixing the sentence structure so it feels natural/fresh, fixing the language so it feels appropriate to the character and setting. A lot of what she says is pretty universal—which I think is one of the things that makes her such a great teacher of writing. She can point out the nose on your face, and somehow it comes across as a revelation, because you’ve never looked at it in quite that way.

Another of Nancy Kress’s great strengths is her economy of language, how she can build a subtle, complex story out of so little.

Thinking about this as I go along with my own writing, it occurs to me there’s one element of this sort of in-the-trenches prose styling that she hasn’t touched upon—possibly because there just is no way to codify it. It can be a painful thing to think about for those of us aspiring writers reading every how-to book we can get our hands on, hoping to someday write as well as Nancy Kress, but there’s always going to be a part of the writing process that’s ineffable, that can’t be fully grasped by rational means. There are too many words and too many subjects, too many unplumbable depths for the mere mind to fathom. Call it the unconscious, the minor deity of inspiration, or pure, dumb randomization, but at some point, you’re going to be hammering away at a sentence, and out will come something astonishing. Call that thing “turn of phrase”.

It’s hard to identify that thing in other people’s work, just because no matter how effortless and flawless a phrase or sentence seems, there’s no way to know the author didn’t agonize over it for hours, going through dozens of word choice options until they found the perfect one. The feeling I get when I come across such a phrasing, however, is unmistakable. And at that point, it doesn’t matter to me whether it came to the author in a flash of divine comprehension or not. Because even if I can’t pinpoint and identify the processes by which such a flash can occur (and if I could, I contend that the writing of fiction would cease to be art and become something soulless and mechanical), I can still train myself, by identifying that flash in the work of others, to recognize it when it comes forth from my own hands. And then, through everything I have managed to learn about the craft of fiction by studying the work and the teachings of masters, I can nudge and tweak and twist the rest of the sentence and paragraph and page to fit around it, carve away and slough off surplus until it stands out like it should.

This is why I keep seeking out great prose stylists in spite of the frustrating fact that whatever powers they possess may never be mine.

“A good strategist concentrates on what he can change,” says the divinely-touched sculptress to the brooding, crippled, chess-playing boy in Vandana Singh’s “The Room on the Roof”, which I happened to be reading over breakfast when this notion came upon me. That’s a wonderful line, and one of those truths of the human condition that are, for me, what writing is all about. But it’s not the line that stopped me in my tracks.

But sometimes a hopeless melancholy possessed her, and she thought the rain would never end, and that she and her brother and parents would never be happy or free, that beyond one wall there were others, an infinite concentricity of walls. Up in Aparna’s room every evening, she felt joy and yearning like a fever. and underneath it the fear that all she had gained was temporary, that one day the sculptress would leave them and the magic would go out of their lives. Sometimes she caught herself holding her breath, waiting for the change.

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