8 Examples of Writing Kryptonite

Just as Kryptonite renders Superman powerless, certain words, phrases, or techniques can weaken our writing. The examples below are culled from the last few manuscripts I’ve edited:

1) “His gaze followed me as I walked away.”

Does the narrator have eyes in the back of her head? This is a POV (point of view) error, in which the character through whose eyes we’re viewing the story tells us something she can’t possibly know.

2) I’ve been guilty of allowing this kind of Kryptonite into my work: “She found herself staring at the lake.”

How does one properly greet oneself? Is there an exchange of names, or does the conversation go straight to the weather?

I’m a fan of writing that doesn’t get in the way of story. Be straightforward and simple: “She stared at the lake.”

3) “She removed her eyes from the road… .”

With what? A spatula?

“His face fell,” but we don’t know where it landed.

Beware “wandering body parts” syndrome. Be aware of what you are actually writing.

His gaze can capture hers, but if his eyes do, then that’s just nasty.

4) “She suddenly realized (fill in the blank).”

Really? That fast?

Most sentences are stronger without “suddenly” — just let the action happen, let it be abrupt, and readers will know that it was sudden. As for realizations, they can be plainly communicated on the page, and don’t need to be announced.

5) “He heard” or “she saw”, or any variation thereof, can add distance between the story and the reader.

Make the action seem close, immediate, engaging by simply describing whatever it is that the character saw, heard, etc.

“He watched his neighbor dig up her roses” becomes “He glanced over the hedge. Mrs. Mason dug a trowel into the soil, still dark after the rain.”

6) “Judging from her expression/his tone/their actions, (fill in the blank).”

Who is making that judgment? Why do they come to that conclusion?

Show the expression, describe the tone, reveal the actions. Rather than doing all the thinking for them, allow readers to infer the intent or the thoughts behind expressions, actions, or vocal inflections.

7) “He began to plow the field,” or “They started pushing the car.”

Are characters always beginning but rarely finishing?

If readers are being guided through a process, then “started” is necessary i.e. “At daybreak, he began plowing the field, but was interrupted when the blade broke against a rock.”

However, most action needs simple treatment: “They pushed the car up the hill.”

Akin to began and started are before, after, while, during, etc. These words are necessary for certain situations, but should be used sparingly. Describe the action in sequence, be straightforward, and readers will “see” the story.

8) “He pulled the key from the ignition, unlocked his safety belt, pulled the door latch… .”

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

It’s good to help readers visualize the action, but avoid tedious play-by-play descriptions. Skip to the relevant material.

“Joe parked on the street then jogged to the backyard. Football teams were already forming.”

Readers will assume he must have also parked the car, stepped out of it, locked it, etc.

 

In the future, I’ll post more examples of writing Kryptonite. Meantime, it’s not in the abundance of words that a story is told, but in the right words.

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A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

Today’s post is the result of a question asked of me last week when I gave an abbreviated presentation on editing. The group I addressed was composed of Christian writers, some of whom are striding into edgier territory than is comfortable to many of the traditional Christian publishers.

This question probably would not have been asked, or even considered worthwhile, had I spoken to a group of writers of no particular faith, but it did stretch me to present a cogent response, and is worth discussion, especially since it brings up the notion that every word we write must have a purpose:

In writing the conflict between good and evil—what words are acceptable? Damn, hell—how graphic can a Christian writer be?

My immediate response: as graphic as your conscience allows and the story requires.

My modified response: what is allowed depends on your publisher.

But what about a Biblical response? I’m so glad you asked.

A) What about offending a “weaker brother”?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Romans 14:1-3

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (NLT

“Receive him that is weak in faith, but not for passing judgment. For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him who eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.” (KJ2000)

Although we need to be mindful of others, don’t let the possibility of offending someone keep you from telling the truth. Don’t let weaker readers weaken a strong story.

Evil exists. Bad things happen—even to good people.

Consider the oppressed, tragic lives of many persecuted believers around the world. Try telling them a squeaky-clean, neatly-packaged, everyone-is-saved-and-happy-at-the-end kind of story.

That may be our ideal, but is it reality?

Use discernment.
Is evil glorified in the story?
Is it present in order to reveal truth?
Prove a point?
Provide a comparison between darkness and light?

There can be, and often are, redemptive elements in harsh stories. Context is everything. Consider your audience, and your reason for including the foul language, the violence, etc.

And remember: Everyone has to grow up sometime. One cannot always cater to the weaker believers, else they’ll never have a reason to “man up” and grow stronger. Disciple them. Show them how to be strong.

B) What about the admonition to avoid unclean speech?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Colossians 3:6-9

“Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.” (NLT)

“For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience: In which you also once walked, when you lived in them. But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth. Lie not to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (KJ2000)

Not all unclean speech consists of four-letter words.

There’s gossip, slander, blasphemy, lies, name-calling, belittling, boasting, abusive speech, anything that’s meant to tear someone down. An insidious form of foul speech is the backhanded compliment, or the well-spoken but ill-meant piece of advice.

Again, context: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. And how you mean it.

Do characters lie or gossip or use sarcasm in a story? Do children on a playground call names? Or is everyone in your story a perfect specimen of civility?

Remember: A major storytelling necessity is character arc, the term for the changes a character undergoes during the course of the story. The main character may begin as a foul-mouthed, brawling drunkard. By the end, however, he may have cleaned up his speech, overcome alcohol, and be working on his temper. That character’s arc/change is essential to the story.

As stated earlier, we don’t have to glorify the evil—in this case, the foul language—but we do need to tell the truth. It’s an unfortunate fact that we humans have difficulty controlling our tongues (James 3:8). If the characters in our stories act like saints in all things, they lose believability, and we lose credibility with our readers.

C) And, finally, ahem, what about avoiding unclean thoughts?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Philippians 4:8

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (NLT)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJ2000)

You may not dwell in evil thoughts, but there are people who do, and therefore there are characters who do.

Those thoughts can range from wishing someone would die to actually planning a murder; from thinking oneself superior to actively working to keep others down; from thinking someone other than one’s spouse is attractive to lusting after that person; from harboring anger to plotting revenge; and so on.

Realism and character arc require room for characters to begin in a place of weakness, trouble, misguidedness, even outright evil, and then progress toward strength, peace, wisdom, goodness.

(Not all change is improvement, by the way. Some characters regress, or begin from a place of goodness or strength, and end in weakness or villainy.)

“Holier than thou” syndrome is a turn-off to believers and non-believers alike. If a non-believer reads the work, will they be offended at the presence of God in the story, or at the too-perfect falseness of the characters (Christian or otherwise)? If they’re offended by God, then tough luck. They’ll just have to remain offended. However, if the author hasn’t done his job as a storyteller, and created believable, flawed characters, then he needs to rewrite them.

Just as we living, breathing humans have shortcomings, so too should our storybook humans. Lives transform as they turn from darkness to light, and therein lies powerful storytelling. The light would not be so bright without the darkness in which it shines. A happy ending is not quite so powerful without all the struggle that came before it.

Something to consider: Perhaps the story doesn’t belong with a traditional Christian publishing house, or with a Christian publisher at all. Perhaps the work requires a secular publisher—and there are many Christians who do publish in secular rather than religious venues, simply because their work is not in keeping with the expectations of a Christian publisher or of a Christian audience.

Is the intended audience the Church, with readers who want their beliefs affirmed and don’t necessarily want to be confronted with certain words or ideas? Or is it the world at large, everyone who wants to be given hope or shown a different way?

Final thoughts

A friend read this on Facebook Monday afternoon; it was posted by E. Stephen Burnett (whose excellent post on spiritual villains can be read at Speculative Faith), who was quoting another writer:

From fantasy author Kat Heckenbach: “I was thinking about the continuing war among Christian writers. The whole, ‘Christian fiction needs to be this,’ vs. ‘No, Christian fiction needs to be this,’ war. Clean vs. gritty. Righteous vs. real. Hide in the light vs. plunge into the dark. What I think is being missed in this whole situation is this: When we say Christian fiction needs to be of a certain type, we are really saying Christians need to be of a certain type. […] God is able to meet all of those needs, and fortunately He is willing to stoop to our levels to meet them. He stoops.” So should stories.

Update (12/1/14): Another good article about foul language in Christian fiction can be found at Randy Streu’s blog, An Unfinished Life.

Update (1/20/15): An excellent piece discussing how one actually takes the Lord’s name in vain, and how profanity has nothing to do with it, can be read at Mike Duran’s blog, Decompose — “On Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain“.

Fiction Calisthenics

Today’s entry is borrowed from Keanan Brand’s blog, Adventures in Fiction, and contains an idea for a short, fun exercise in creativity.
Enjoy!

Fiction Calisthenics

If you’re ever stuck, or you just need to warm up your writing muscles and flex those fingers before confronting your current project, be it poetry or a manuscript or a short story, then here’s an easy, fun exercise:

1) Choose a notebook or a loose-leaf binder that you will use only for these writing calisthenics. The reason? Just like hauling out the right exercise mat or choosing your favorite punching bag, you always know where to go when you need a workout. Also, every time you do this exercise, you will end up with something interesting you can use later; if you use the same notebook every time, you always know where to find the material.

2) Each time you start a fresh exercise, put the day’s date at the top of the page, then make a list — 1,2,3 — on the first three lines.

3) Pick a book, any book. Pick a magazine, if you want. Any printed material will do; I prefer thick books.

4) Flip through the book at random and, without looking, point to the page. Write down the word closest to (or underneath) your finger; feel free to try again if the word is “the” or “and” or something else bland. Multisyllabic words are best, but any word will do. Repeat this part of the exercise until you have at least three words listed beside the numbers at the top of your page.

5) Look at the clock — or set a timer — and, without stopping to think about what you’re going to compose, write for no less than 5 and no more than 15 minutes straight, incorporating those three words in your list. When the timer goes off or the second hand ticks past the 5-minute or the 15-minute point, stop writing, even if it’s in the middle of a sentence.

In my experience, the results are often a lot of fun and help provide some interesting openers for what can become longer stories. I’m surprised at the variety of topics, settings, and eras that I’ve written about whenever I’ve just let my mind wander free.

Below is one example from my apple-green spiral-bound notebook which bears the same title as this post — “Fiction Calisthenics” — and the three words in the list are in bold in the text:

7-16-07

1) school
2) arms
3) gloves

No.

No way.

Impossible.

He stared at the gleaming silver benches, the neatly bordered aisles with their shiny aluminum handrails. At least twenty rows of bleachers–and he was supposed to run up and down how many times?

First day of school in this backwater town, and he was already in trouble.

He glanced over his shoulder. Coach Winters stood with his arms crossed, whistle lanyard dangling from one meaty paw, stopwatch lanyard dangling from the other.

Jerk. Can’t take a joke.

Coach Winters spat on the track, and little puffs of dirt flew up around the wad of phlegm. “Two minutes added to your time. C’mon, boy. Twelve minutes and counting.”

He swung his arms, limbering up. A couple twists, a couple hamstring stretches, a few seconds of jogging in place as a warm-up–

“Thirteen minutes.”

What he wouldn’t give for three minutes, a boxing ring, and his favorite pair of gloves; flabby Coach Winters wouldn’t last one round. Guaranteed.

His tennis shoes banged on the first bleacher, the sound echoing in the stadium. Blowing out his breath, taking it in again, he started up.

And there ya go — you’ve warmed up your writing muscles, and you have material to use later, and (hopefully) you’ve had a little fun doing it.

used with permission — originally published February 14, 2008 — c. KB

Inspiration and Ego

I haven’t read “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin (I need to, though), but I have seen the film based on the short story: The Emperor’s Club. Excellent film. Anyone who works with young people over a period of years, especially in a teaching or mentoring fashion, will very much identify with the main character, Mr. Hundert, perfectly portrayed by Kevin Kline. However, it isn’t the story but the past that is my focus here.

There is a shadow character in the story, a long-dead king named Shutruk-Nahhunte whose braggadocious quote — all that is left of his empire — is inscribed on a plaque and hung over Mr. Hundert’s classroom door: I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Susa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shutruk Nahunte – 1158 B.C.

Shutruk-Nahhunte was a real king, but like many a past conqueror was himself conquered — by Nebuchadnezzar I.

As a writer, I’ve been inspired by crazy things that, at the time, may have appeared to have no connection with one another; and, on occasion, I’ve wondered where Canin may have received his inspiration to write a story involving disparate characters: a prep-school history teacher, a politician’s son, and an ancient king.

Perhaps (and I’m just guessing here), among other experiences that may have led to the story’s creation, he read this 1817 poem poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

OZYMANDIAS

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

As for the two kings — Shutruk-Nahhunte and Ozymandias (a/k/a Ramesses the Great) — there is a similarity to their pronouncements about themselves: “Look at me! Ain’t I great?”

Millennia later, no matter what they did, built, or said, there is no one left to remember them. What remains are fragments for archeologists to find, to speculate about what might have been.