clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


The photo at left is courtesy of Mr. George Gastin and an uncredited ewe.

I've been reading a great deal lately. I think it helps with perspective.

I was at a writing group last night (no post as a result) and was able to hear a dozen or so writers much like myself read works created at the meeting. Some were funny. Some touching. None polished and all representing our first efforts at various prompts. It's a fun group.

What stuck me most in the writing last night was the concept of habituation.

We're wired from birth to be good at pattern recognition and pattern completion. We're very much pathetic sheep following the crowd. We are accustomed to "bitter" and "cold" and seldom think it out of place.

What struck me last night was how we as writers without deep publishing credits fall not so much to cliche but to habituation. No one put up "It was a dark and stormy night."  We did however have our share of "black nights" and "bitter cold" and "rummaging in a purse." There is nothing really wrong with this until you reflect that we're trying to write prose that captures and immerses the reader in a journey. Using tired phrases out of habituation doesn't do much to help us.

They too easily become invisible to us in editing and our stories become ill-remembered by our readers.

Adverbs, adjectives and overly colorful metaphors are unhelpful. They jar the reader out of immersion and scream "look at my florid prose."  Use of phrases that we expect to hear, that we pass by unnoticed, and that we habituate aren't helpful. These scream "ignore my prose."

What is it then that we need ? We need language that adequately describes the actions of our characters and accentuates their dialogue which should reveal their conflict, turmoil, emotional state and humanity.

Habituated:  He looked right past her with a cool, icy stare.

Unexpected: He looked past her with all the regard of a college kid working a drive-through window.

I'd say we've all read the habituated version a hundred times (sometimes in our writers' groups). It is a cliche but I'm using it as a habituated phrase here for illustration. If you're crafting anything like a crime story, why would you use it again ? It's part of the lexicon ? Sure. But we're writing a story here and not a pastiche of the genre.

The unexpected version is better - I'd argue - though still a bit florid. I'm working here without a net, rough draft and all. It sounds a little tainted itself.

I'd say the unexpected language version gives the reader an understanding of the causal air of minimum regard better than the first. It isn't perfect and won't make it through the final edit. It's better though.  You recognize immediately the image the writer wanted you to understand.

At the least, you won't read it and think it was written by a sheep habituated to the language by the raw urge to merely get to 100,000 words and a submission. There's a great deal of that floating around these days. [ not however in my writers' group ]

I wish I could do a better job with the illustration here. <Insert worn immemorable phrase here.>

My point is to tell the story without the language of sheep. Don't fall prey to the habituation of patterns, language, behavior, events. Immersive writing doesn't do it. Neither should ours.


I love the introductory subordinate clause. I'm on medication for it and with professional help I may be cured. I realized after writing this post that what I dislike most about my introductory clauses is that they are omnipresent and thus invisible. They help make the rest of my writing invisible, too. I don't need that kind of assistance 

No comments: