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Teach Yourself to Write

If you want to write better, keep reading. If you’re happy writing Armored Prose, ride your computer mouse somewhere else. Writing is sacred ground. Don’t mess around.

To write better, you must practice. Push yourself, write every day, using a timer, pen, paper, pencil, laptop, desktop, or PDA. If you want to write better faster, focus on your verbs.

Did you learn about verbs in First Grade? Did you hate Parts of Speech? Do you remember zoning out on Ablative Absolutes and Clausal Conditionals? Shove that experience to the side. Today, this moment, you’re a grown-up humanoid aching to be a writer, so you write every day and while you read, you focus on verbs in well-written novels. Here’s an example, read this aloud:

“He steps into the gray mirror of the pit and his pure white feet glide over it like an angel walking on water….”

In this fragment of a sentence, two strong verbs – step and glide – mesh with four concrete nouns (mirror, pit, feet, water), and one abstract noun, angel, that feels more concrete than abstract. Concrete nouns are visible. They make noise, they smell, they taste. We apprehend them through the five senses. And when you drop in an abstract noun, you follow the lesson here, locking it down with concrete nouns and strong verbs.

The words picture Squeaky, the cellmate of Mitch, gliding along, avoiding a fall. The image smacks of religion, sanctity, and cleanness, which the author poses as an ironic foil to the setting – a dank cell in a no-name prison in California. The sentence-fragment comes from Blood (2011), Jack Remick’s powerful novel about corporate corruption and the decay of man.

Once you grab onto strong verbs, see how far you can run without sagging. Here’s a three part-scene from Jack’s novel:

1. Waking Up

He steps onto the gray mirror of the pit and his pure white feet glide over it like an angel walking on water and I catch my breath as he pulls on his white sneakers, now stained black, the dirt and crusted trash of life sticking to the once pure canvas and his feet disappear into the holes. I let out my breath, he is still alive, still clean, still wearing the necklace of dried ears, trophies of his ordeal I delivered to him and I stand, realize that for the first time in days I haven’t watched the skins in Block D rise out of their black dreams, haven’t watched the snakes and skulls and tormented trees twist in their morning light and for a moment I’m afraid I might have crossed some river of hope or been born into the same matutinal purity that Squeaky awakens to but then I hear the voices of the guards, hear wood on steel clanging the killers out of their coffins and I know that nothing has changed and the bleak and black truth still holds me in thrall.      

2. Light

In the Spring, the light slices in at an angle, a blade carving away the edge of darkness leaking like blood from a wound. The dawn light turns from pale pink to Chinese crimson as the sun shifts itself, tipping into the cell where I lie on my side tracking the shaft of light through the thick dust-gray glass, through the webbing where invisible spiders, trapped by their hunger, feed on the scum of night, wings caught in the webs decaying into slender threads, shattered by wind and time. Light cuts through the dust, through the putrid air of the cell filled with the sweaty stench of bodies trapped in steel and concrete, animals in a cage unfit for life beyond in full sun, unfit for anything but the driving ritual of rise and eat, eat and shit, shit and sweat, sweat and sleep and light bridges the abyss between Squeaky’s bunk and mine and the light spreads on his face, clearing away the crust of night clinging to his skin and he sits up, swings his feet to the floor and in the beam of light I see him pure and clean and true and he grins and he says,     

            Hey Mitch, you sleep okay?

            No, I had bad dreams again.

            He yawns, stretches. The white T shirt tightens over his pathetic pecs. I look away as the rumble of morning ratchets up to full speed. The guards rattle their night sticks on the steel bars, spout their cruel grunts of Assholes, grub in five, hit the deck you fucking perverts.

3. Intruder

Martin is working his way down C Block, his club clanging on cages. At our bars he stops, presses his face to the blue steel and he grins, his yellowed teeth gaping in the center as if some absent-minded dentist has pried open the space turning him into a clown, but Martin is no clown and he doesn’t shout his morning greeting of Hey Assholes, grub in five, instead he leers at me and he whispers,

            Mitchell, you got a visitor already.

            Martin, I haven’t had my oatmeal and toast yet.

            He rattles the bars and he says,

            If I have to come in there and roust you out, I’ll shove this nightstick so far up your ass your tongue will shake hands with your nuts.

            Now, Marty, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, anatomically, you know.

            What’re you talking about?

            Aw, Marty, loving you is so much fun.

            He stiffens, raps the night stick in the palm of his left hand and he says,

            Let’s go, Mitchell.

            I swing off my bunk, look at Squeaky, his face lined with worry and I say,

            Don’t go to chow without me, Squeaks.

Step One – Scene Analysis

Jack Remick’s Blood is a literary novel with lots of action: fighting, killing, maiming, burying. But I chose a passage that doesn’t do any of those things. I chose a passage about waking up, taking stock of the day, bits of dialogue. I chose a two-person scene – Mitch the narrator and his cellmate, Squeaky – with an intruder named Martin, a prison guard who penetrates the private space of the cell. Before we analyze the language, we use the Scene Template to analyze the structure:

Setting: The place is a prison cell. The time is early morning. The season is spring, the temperature, dank. There are smells of semen, dirt, unwashed bodies, and fear. Sounds of waking from the neighboring cells.

Characters: Mitch is the narrator, Squeaky is the cellmate. Mitch is tough, a veteran of killing. Squeaky is small, weak, wizened, and whiny. He is the archetypal victim.

Intruder and Closed Circle: Martin the arrogant guard penetrates the closed circle of the cell. He has the power to separate Mitch from Squeaky.

Dialogue: Mitch and Squeaky are buddy-lovers and their talk is familiar and everyday – “You sleep okay?” When Martin intrudes, the dialogue ratchets up and Mitch baits Martin the guard about his sexual identity with lines like: ”Aw, Marty, loving you is so much fun.”

Action: Mitch describes Squeaky, turning him into a Jesus-figure. Squeaky yawns and stretches. Martin the guard rattles his nightstick on the bars. No one gets killed. Martin extracts Mitch from the cell.

Climax: Prodded by Martin, Mitch exits the cell, leaving Squeaky alone and unprotected.

Curtain Line: Mitch warns Squeaky: “Don’t go to chow without me, Squeaks.” The warning is not idle talk because Mitch is on the verge of being sprung from prison. Powerful men on the outside want Mitch to resume his job, killing native peoples whose tribal lands perch atop giant reserves of oil. Because he has dedicated his life in prison to protecting Squeaky, Mitch resists the outside. This curtain line is a harbinger, a foreboding of the first climax.

Symbol, Archetype, Core Story:

The ears on Squeaky’s necklace once belonged to two of Squeaky’s rapists. Mitch killed them, strung their ears to make a necklace. The ear-necklace works like a religious talisman, a badge that reminds the Tattoos and other cons that Squeaky is under Mitch’s protection.

Squeaky’s white feet represent purity; his black sneakers, once white, have been tainted by prison hell.

Mitch’s archetype is Avenging Angel. His core story is Revenge Quest.

Squeaky’s archetype is Beautiful Boy or Miles Gloriosus from classical times. As long as Mitch stays to protect him, Squeaky’s core story is Coming of Age. When Mitch leaves, the core story changes to Scapegoat Sacrifice. 

Step Two – Stylistic Analysis

Advice: when you analyze your work with an eye to getting better, look at story and structure first, before you dig into your words. When you analyze your style, follow the path laid down by your structural analysis. We start with repetition in section one, Waking Up.

1. Waking Up, section one, opens with an image of purity, Squeaky and his white feet. and closes with the word thrall. Thrall tells us that the narrator is educated; he chooses his words with care. The center of the passage is an observation about Squeaky:

He is

  • still alive,
  • still clean,
  • still wearing the necklace of dried ears.

The repetition device (still-still-still) comes from Greek rhetoric. It’s called anaphora, the repetition of a word or group of words at the start of clauses, phrases, or sentences. Anaphora is easy to use; it tightens your prose; try it the next time you write. 

2. Light, section two, gets its powerful focus from seven repetitions of the word, light.

  • the light slices in at an angle
  • the dawn light turns from pale pink
  • tracking the shaft of light through the thick
  • Light cuts through the dust
  • the driving ritual of light bridges the abyss
  • the light spreads on his face
  • in the beam of light I see him

If you had one of those English teachers who, while harassing you to use lots of words, forgot to teach you the power of repetition, then you leave that teacher in the dust and motor down your own writing road.

With a solid passage like this, you are free to cough up better word-pictures: “scum of night,” “crust of night,” and “darkness leaking like blood from a wound.”

With a solid passage, you are free to spin an elaborate spider-web-wing-hunger metaphor like this one: “through the webbing where invisible spiders, trapped by their hunger, feed on the scum of night, wings caught in the webs” – made poetic by the alliteration of webbing-where-wings-webs.

With a solid passage, you can experiment with rhetorical devices, making them your own. Watch how Remick develops his anadiplosis

rise and eat, eat and shit, shit and sweat, sweat and sleep

3. Intruder, section three, brings Martin the Guard, puffy with false confidence, armed with a nightstick, weak despite his tough talk. To glue section 3 together, Remick repeats the words Martin-Marty 5 times. Marty, the diminutive shrinks Martin the guard in both physical size and prison stature. In the dialogue below, Mitch uses his homosexuality as a weapon against Martin’s manhood. Fearing the word loving, the guard gets tough with an imperative verb, Let’s:

Martin: What’re you talking about?

Mitch: Aw, Marty, loving you is so much fun.

Narrator: He stiffens, raps the nightstick in the palm of left hand, and he says: Let’s go, Mitchell.

Mitch has a visitor. Squeaky is worried about being left alone. Mitch’s parting words ring down the curtain on this scene: “Don’t go to chow without me, Squeaks.”

Going Deep

Once you feel the power of repetition, your writing will improve. Check out a website or this book on Greek rhetoric: Writing with Clarity and Style .  When you are secure with steps one and two – scene structure based on the template and using repetition as syntactic glue – then your brain is ready for counting and word-ratios.

Step Three – Counting Nouns and Verbs

The language of fiction is word-pictures. If you’re a poet, you know this truth in your bones. Poems are image and rhythm. So study the mantra below. Say it ten times before you sleep. Repeat the mantra when you wake up:

Strong verbs + concrete nouns = word-pictures.

So write your word-pictures, and make them good and sharp, then line them up to tell a story, Rags to Riches or Grail Quest or King Replacement. (for more on core story, see The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel) Write your novel, turn it into a film-script, get rich and famous. The world at your feet, right?

The problem: making word-pictures is hard, sweaty work. Making them every day is mind-boggling. If you start now, and if you write every day, and if you count your nouns and verbs, circling on the page, caging the words, pulling them out of the passage, locking them down in a power grid, staying objective in a supremely subjective moment (these are your words, this is your lingo, this is you!) – if you do all that, you’ll write better in a mere 30 days.

You count words because you must train your brain to think like a writer.

If you’re in a bookstore and you read the first page of a novel and it feels dead – that’s Armored Prose.  If you buy that novel, analyze the language. Work the words until you discover, through a blinding insight, the noun-verb ratios that create armored prose. Armored prose is safe. It takes no chances. It aims to make you comfy. It’s puffy with abstract nouns and weak verbs. Famous writers get away with it because they are famous. It’s hard on writers to be direct, hard to choose a strong verb when there are weak verbs calling like sirens.

It’s easier to swathe your writing in Armored Prose,. Because for every strong verb, there are four kinds of weak verbs lying in wait. Check your prose for weak verbs:

  • Interiors: know, think, understand, realize, consider, wonder, agree, acquiesce, assume, feel, need, figure, etc. Interior verbs destroy word-pictures: “The guard thinks about rapping the bars….”
  • Infinitives: the verb preceded by TO:  “To think about rapping the bars, the guard seems to hesitate.”
  • Passives: verbs that reverse the order of things: “The bars were rapped by the nightstick of the guard.”
  • Subjunctives: any verb preceded by may-might-must-could-should-would. “If the guard would just stop and consider whether or not the actual rapping of the bars would have actualized the effect that should have been sought….” 

The Lesson: Take those two prose passages from Blood. Print out two copies of the passage (it’s near page 240 in the book) to give yourself two working documents. In document one you circle the verbs. In document two you circle the nouns. Because verb-choice is the key to style, sort the verbs first.

When you sort, be merciless. Apply the four categories. Don’t be overjoyed when you locate a strong verb. Stay objective. If you can be cool and impersonal about Jack Remick’s verbs, then you can be pure and impersonal about your own verbs.

When you have circled and sorted, test yourself with the power grid. Here’s the grid for Blood.

Strong Strong Strong Generic Weak  
steps shifts look see realize  
glide lie rattle is haven’t watched (2)  
pulls feed spout   am afraid  
disappears cuts stops   might have crossed  
stand filled presses   (might have)been born  
delivered bridges leers   know  
awakens spreads whispers   has changed  
hear sits rattles   is working  
holds swings spout      
slices yawns tightens      
turns stretches shifts      
           
11 11 11 2 8  

 

Summary: There are 33 strong verbs versus 8 verbs that are weak. The 33:8 converts to 4:1. Since you haven’t counted verbs before, you won’t know how good 4:1 is until you do some work on your own.

Comments: You can’t avoid generic verbs (see, is, etc.) but you need to keep their numbers down. Jack knows the power of strong verbs, so he’s careful to repeat the phrase haven’t watched – a good idea when you are forced by rhythm to press the soft pedal. Your goal is not to write 100% strong, but rather to ratchet up the ratio of strong to weak.

The same kind of implied repetition locks the two passive subjunctives together:

  • might have crossed
  • (might have) been born

The two interiors (know and realize) are tools for the interior monologue, where Mitch keeps retaking the purity of Squeaky. Because Jack is a poet, the weak verbs are steps to the two key words (matutinal and thrall) that cap off the Waking Up passage.

Final tip: strong verbs can come from strong nouns, which operate with human sense perception – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, sensing shape and form and temperature – nouns like lob and slide and hammer and leer.

End of Lesson

Get back to writing. And when you create your first power grid, ship it to the blog.
Good hunting, writer.

© 2011 Robert Ray. All Rights Reserved.

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