My Prose Comb

Was poring through some story or novel the other day, to submit it, and realized, now that the story was more or less in place, at least until somebody else jammed their hands into it, that all I was looking at were the words, the sentences. Which is nice, yeah, makes a piece feel ‘done.’ Like Carver’s supposed to have said, he knew it was time to step away from a piece when all he was doing anymore was changing commas (but yeah, look at the differences in his “The Bath” and “A Small, Good Thing,” which “The Bath” became).

This isn’t to say I just pretty the prose up afterwards either, though, or even that it’s pretty ever. I’ve only ever encountered one or two people who try to do that — get the story down ugly, then go back in, shape the sentences. For me, it’s hard to tease the two apart, just because voice and story are just so inextricable. Which isn’t a word I would allow to stand, were this fiction.

Anyway, in descending order of important, the teeth of the comb I use — what I question hardest on that last go-through:

  1. Commas. If I can take one out of a sentence and that sentence still reads the same, then, so long as it doesn’t fry the rhythm of the paragraph or something, I cut that comma.
  2. As-constructions. And I can do this with the search function, pretty much: every “as,” I zero in on it, see if that sentence doesn’t work better as two sentences, with no “as.” If it has to be there, though, I usually try to wedge a “just” in front of it, or otherwise ‘point’ it, give it an edge, so it doesn’t just clunk there on the page, pull everything down with it.
  3. Redundancies. I mean, there’s the small ones, like ending a question in dialogue with a question mark and then tagging it with an “ask” (“Where are we?” she asked ), but those don’t clang around as much as using the same term, be it “waiting” or “frolicked” or whatever, too close to the last instance of that term. And, I mean, we’re trained enough with pronouns and antecedents that we should have an ear for this kind of rhythmless repitition, yeah. But it happens. Usually in rewrite, too, when you’re just sniping in, think, Yeah, “hinder” would really get at what I’m trying to do here. Trick is, though, you maybe thought that last time through as well.
  4. Adverbs. Just question each of them. It’s fun to sing that “Lolly lolly lolly get your adverbs here” Conjunction Junction song while killing them, too. But then of course you have to pack them into the verb somehow, without getting too fancy (see below).
  5. Italics. What italics tend to do in prose fiction is what character direction tries to do in a screenplay, I think: absolutely control how this is going to get intoned. Which you should be able to do with syntax. But yeah, sometimes they’re good for emphasis. Just can’t let yourself get carried away, or else you’ll be italicizing whole prologues, all thoughts, etc.
  6. Long dashes. The em-kind specifically. They’re too easy — you use them when you can’t decide between a comma, a semicolon, a period, or what? They’re best for self-interruptions or clarifications, I think. And when used sparingly, lest your prose starts to look like Ms. Dickinson with no line breaks.
  7. Ellipses. Same as with the long dash: ellipses are easy to abuse, especially in dialogue. Of everything, they’re maybe what I spend the most time jacking with.
  8. Colons and semi-colons. Just because you know how to use them doesn’t compel you to use them. But it’s so easy, and tempting, to show off, right? I know, I know. And they really and truly are just so elegant. But still, read a book without them, then one with, and you realize that the one without’s got the stronger prose.
  9. Though/too/but. I’m getting better, but still, man. Good grief. I could use twenty of each of these in five hundred words, easy, without even trying. It’s just the way I think, I mean, in this running argument. But then I read some Walker Percy, say, and he doesn’t have any, I don’t think (maybe in dialogue), and what that says to me, mostly, is that I suck. And of course, in a concentrated effort not to suck, I allow myself as few of these as humanly possible. Which always ends up being more than anybody else allows.
  10. Just. I abuse the hell out of this, usually as an intensifier, though often to ‘hone’ or ‘point,’ too. Like that last sentence: was so hard to keep it from reading “I abuse the hell out of this, usually just as an intensifier.” Maybe I’m the only one who does this, I don’t know. But it’s not at all uncommon for me to find two or three justs in a single sentence. Which I’d expect in, say, a third-grader.
  11. Fancy words. Ones that show off how smart or well-read I evidently think I am. ‘Deliquescent,’ say. I mean, that’s just a beautiful word. But it draws too much attention to itself, too, I think. Same with trying to revive some archaic word. ‘Flinders,’ say. They can occasionally sound right through the smoke of some old codger’s cigar, but in the narration usually function as some kind of . . . I don’t know: prose politics? Like you’re, through use, trying to argue for the re-instatement of this antique term, which, for better or worse, has been left behind.
  12. Profanity. It’s usually pretty easy to find, too. And so easy for your (my) characters to always be using. And, not saying reconsider it just because of the readers’ virgin ears, or for that PG-13 rating, anything responsible like that. Just that it too can be too easy. Like with the long dash in place of some hard-to-make punctuation call, it’s easy to use profanity when a character can’t articulate what he or she’s wanting to say. Which, yeah, I know, sometimes we do do cuss specifically for that reason. Just be sparing, I say. Check out, say, Mona Simpson’s story “Lawns” : it’s got one, maybe two instances of profanity. And they’re just so much more potent because of that.
  13. Which/that. To be honest, I’ve never understood the real difference in these two, except that most people who hammer on my words prefer ‘that’ to ‘which,’ though of course the real preference is to have neither. So I page through, look at each one, wonder what’s going on, if I even speak English or what, and then I usually flop it back and forth a bit — that, which; which, that — and move on, still confused.
  14. Dialogue tags. Every single one, I’ll almost always delete it, then run through that scene at normal, unfixing speed, see if the thing works without the tag. And, if it doesn’t, then what about this tag? And on into the night.
  15. Exclamation points. This is low on the list because I think I only have about six swirling around in me anyway, so am not that nervous about spilling them all out in prose. But just in case.
  16. Passive constructions. And I wish I had a handle on them like Craig Clevenger does, yeah. Or could just write ‘active’ as naturally, say, as Tobias Wolff. And, though I don’t really have a problem ever falling into passive constructions, except for emphasis or for jokey reasons, still, it’s a good thing to be just totally paranoid about. So I am.

And no, obviously, I don’t worry about ending sentences with prepositions or with varying the ‘said’ verb or ducking ‘to be’ verbs (read what Craig said), any of that, and I don’t really have to check my sentence structure variation to be sure I’m not just droning at the same volume, and spelling’s easy to take care of if you’ve got the time, and the eventual proofreaders and editors, man, what they don’t catch becomes, in the course of time and printing, endearing, maybe even your ‘voice.’ And of course there’s just a whole host of things I have to watch alongside all this, at the story level, but, A), that’s probably only helpful to anybody who’s afflicted with the same unhealthy thoughts I am, and B) we’re no longer in the land of combs. More of a brush, really, just to account for all the teeth necessary to keep a story in line.

©Stephen Graham Jones, 2007