When Valerie Tripp, author of the American Girl series, said that excess description in children’s books borders on “self-indulgent,” I swear I heard my Muse crack open a beer in salute. I attended Tripp’s session on the differences between writing for boys and girls at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville yesterday. Fred Bowen, the session co-presenter and author of two series of sports books for kids, agreed. Both said that metaphors had better explode to “earn real estate on the page.” Hallelujah, pass me the verbs!
As I traveled through various presentations from authors, editors, and agents yesterday in Charlottesville, the same theme followed me. During a session entitled “Dancing with the Manuscripts,” writers could submit the first 100 words of their manuscript ahead of time. The moderator read each submission aloud during the forum. Four representatives from the Moseley Writers’ Group served on the critique panel at the front of the room and held up a green card if they wanted to read more or a red card if the writing had problems. They consistently “green-carded” submissions that dropped readers right in the middle of the action with vivid language that moved. Those stories that launched into a description of the setting or some other story element generally ended up with a red card. The Moseley Writers also requested that authors use fewer “be” verbs and completely annihilate the word “it.” By this part of the day, the Muse had finished a case of beer and had a good buzz going.
I’ve always hated books with long descriptions like that Proustian crap where it takes two pages for some guy to walk across a room or three pages for the same guy to eat his eggs in the morning. I tend to put down books replete with metaphors and similes and devour plot-driven novels. William Zinsser refers to all these excess words as “verbal camouflage” in his book On Writing Well. Even though he gears his manual toward the creative non-fiction writer, I think his statement applies to any genre. But then, maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. I’m a twelve year old trapped in a late-thirties body: I still think farts are funny.
I believe the passive tense completely shits all over a good piece of writing as well. The sentence “From its pink shutters to its cute little door and hanging wisteria, the sweet little house was lovingly built with hand hewn boards and guarded carefully by enormous trees, standing sentry-like on both sides of the driveway” pisses me of. It makes me want to write a rebuttal like this, “The tornado ripped through the neighborhood, sucked the roof off the pink-shuttered house, snapped the guardian trees in half, and deposited giant logs atop the splintered hand-hewn boards.” Call me an asshole, but still! Let’s just pile some passivity on the roof of the poor house, power-wash it with adjectives, then hurl some adverbs through its windows until it collapses with a guttural moan and dies.
Given my preoccupation with flatulence, I must again remind you that I may not hold the qualifications to judge good writing. I will point out that some successful writers agree with me, though. My favorite author is Rita Mae Brown—I particularly love her earlier works like Southern Discomfort, Rubyfruit Jungle, Bingo, High Hearts, etc. I also like Cathy Lamb, Sarah Addison Allen, William Kotzwinkle, and Glenn Murray. All these fiction writers have VERY different styles, but their stories all move. Brown’s characters pepper the stories with colorful dialogue and bad behavior. Lamb creates a grandmother who thinks she is Amelia Earhart and flies around the room, while another character lights her thongs on fire after every one-night-stand she procures. Allen makes trees throw apples at villains. Kotzwinkle and Murray created the Walter the Farting Dog series for kids. Walter’s flatulence leads him on many exciting adventures that caused me to weep and snort with laughter one afternoon in a local bookstore.
All those books are short on passive verbs and long on action. Even the forays into the characters’ emotional lives literally shove the plot along. The authors tell us very little about their characters—they just turn them loose on the page and let them bump up against each other or fart repeatedly, as the case may be. Their crazy behaviors reflect their emotional lives, relegating all the “to be” verbs to the obsolete hole of darkness where they belong.
In her book, Starting from Scratch: a Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Rita Mae Brown says, “If you want to get your black belt in boredom, load your sentences with variations of the verb to be.” (p. 67). I read this book during my first year in college and loved it! Ignore the chapter about “Computers and Other Expensive Knicknacks” that advises writers to buy an “IBM Correcting Selectric III” rather than a computer. Brown says, “You’re better off with expensive lighting than a computer. Those damn computers hurt your eyes, too” (p. 53). So what if she published the book in 1988? The writing advice is still relevant and reads like one of her novels.
Yesterday’s sessions at the Virginia Festival of the Book taught me that I need to tighten up my writing, make the first words of my books scream with excitement, and stay true to the type of writing that I have always loved. While Oprah may never endorse my books, plot driven writing sells, too. Hello, Hunger Games! Fred Bowen quoted Mark Twain and said something like “If you don’t write for money, you’re a blockhead!” Damn straight. Once the Muse recovers from her hangover this morning, the two of us will get to work. Liven up those verbs, and have a creative day!