Bob sez: Seven years ago, Vlado Vulovic enrolled in our memoir course. Vlado has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton. Back home in Belgrade, he was the nation’s whiz kid in math. He’s smart, funny, witty, charming, and driven to write well in English. He took my rewriting the novel course at Hugo House last spring. He got a piece accepted for publication in the Gettysburg Review.
As we launch Vlado onto our blog he’s enrolled in a poetry course, working on dactyls, trochees, and iambs. In the sample below, Vlado has deployed Operation Ratio to bring up the verbs in a short piece about Garov the dog chasing a big fat sow. Operation Ratio is a tool you can use to get an objective view of your style. Most writers want to write better. The quickest way to write better is to focus on word-pictures. The fast way to word pictures is to compute two ratios in your prose: the ratio of concrete nouns to abstract nouns; and the ratio of strong verbs to weak verbs. You need a grid – use the table function in MS Word – and two colored pencils. We’ve written about verbs on this blog. There’s a section on Operation Ratio in The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.
The example below has four parts.
Part 1 is Vlado’s original prose.
Part 2 is his analysis of nouns and verbs.
Part 3 is his rewrite. In the rewrite, notice how effortless the writing seems. Notice how much fun the writer is having.
Part 4 is Valdo’s analysis, followed by notes when he checked nouns and verbs in his native Serbian.
Part 5 is Jack’s response.
Blog note: We moved a chunk of Jack’s response to a section where we explore the Writer’s Art in Our Time – story, speed, image, power, mind, myth, vision, structure and style, the reader’s impatience, subtext, drama, entertainment, the screen vs. the page, and film as the art form of our age – that will appear soon on this blog.
Part 1: Vlado does a rewrite and learns something about rewrites and language of choice
A while ago I’ve rewritten a scene about a dog Garov chasing the big sow. Jack has reviewed that story and pointed out that there were too many weak verbs. Here is the original paragraph:
For awhile it seemed that Garov’s jaws were almost nipping at the sow’s tail. Garov was mad — the big sow was running away. Then, at some point, as they were running in a circle around the tree, I realized the sow was also mad and very enormous. I could no longer tell whether Garov was chasing or running away from the sow. With a shock I realized that Garov might not be the strongest animal in the world after all. And I feared intensely for his well being.
My grandfather must have shared my concern for Garov. With great difficulty we forced Garov to break out of the circle and stop the wild chase. We chained Garov to a distant post and gave the sow time to rest and calm down.
Part 2: Analysis of nouns and verbs in the original.
verbs: 8 strong, 2 weak-strong, 2 neutral, 5 weak (ratio 8/9 = 0.9)
nouns: 11 concrete, 1 abstract (ratio: 11/1 = 11)
Part 3: Vlado’s rewrite:
Nothing helped. At one point we set Garov on the big sow. Garov lunged for her, barking and growling. The big sow ran away but not toward the pig sty. Instead, it ran around the big mulberry tree between the pig sty and the smoke house. Garov ran after her, his jaws snapping inches behind her tail. Garov was mad. And the big sow was mad and enormous. They swirled around the tree. After a minute or two I could no longer tell if Garov was chasing the big sow or the sow was chasing Garov. Was Garov in danger? Was he not the most powerful being in the world?!
My grandpa was worried about Garov as well. He shouted at Garov to break out of the circle. He tied him to a distant post. There, Garov was still growling and straining the leash toward the sow. But the big sow ignored him. She snorted a few times and walked away toward the trough.
verbs: 12 strong, 1 weak-strong, 4 neutral, 4 weak (ratio 12/9 = 1.3)
nouns: 18 concrete, 3 abstract (ratio: 18/3 = 6)
Good to bad verb ratio is bigger in the rewritten scene. Good to bad noun ratio is smaller in the rewritten scene, but it is still OK: 6. Overall, I’d say that rewriting improved the scene here.
Part 4: Vlado analyzes nouns and verbs in Serbian.
Now, I did the same breakdown for the original scene written in Serbian. This scene was written before any English versions were written. It was never rewritten. (English version was written later but independently of Serbian version.) For a scene in Serbian I find:
verbs: 13 strong, 6 weak (ratio: 13/6 = 2)
nouns: 17 concrete, 3 abstract (ratio: 17/3 = 6)
1) My English is much inferior to my Serbian. (I knew this, but calculating good to bad ratio brings this to the fore.)
2) Because of point (1), I must write in English to learn skills that you teach me ONLY. I must do all real writing in Serbian (and use skills that you teach me there).
– (“I wish I were Nabokov”) Vlado
Part 5 – Jack writes to Vlado
Vlado: Keep working this deep and you will become the best writer in the Serbian language. Your rewrite of Garov is superior to the draft we read. The issue is not just with strong/weak verbs and concrete/abstract nouns but with the sentence itself. How is each sentence built? What does each sentence do? How does it work? How do the sentences work together to become story? What is the music of the sentence? The rhythm. In the rewrite, the sentence “Garov lunged for the sow” is superior in all the above ways to the same “story bit” in the first draft. The story in the rewrite comes faster.
When you go into strong verb/concrete noun/image writing your Serbian will also go tighter, stronger, faster. I don’t know the ethos of action writing in Serbian. Some of your language compatriots might say “too much this or too much that”. Don’t be dissuaded from the strong language path, however, because all art in the 21st Century will have to pay homage to film.
This rewrite of yours re-creates you as an imagist story teller who now understands the power of the strong verb/image relationship to the way readers perceive reality. Congratulations. The emotional depth is there is your work. We don’t expect your English to flower the way your Serbian does, but we do expect the techniques to be precise, pristine, and powerful. In any language good writing is good writing and good writing means: verb/noun/image–story.
Your mentors and friends,
Jack and Bob