Monday Motivation: Emma Törzs and a question of lucidity
However grand your story idea, however vivacious your characters, the success of any writing project always boils down to the sentences you write, and the words you use to do so. This is, of course, a trite observation.
So part of your job as a writer is to observe, either in life, or in the shadowed halls of your imagination, specific and particular behaviours.
If your protagonist is confronted by a mugger who growls: “Give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you,” and appears to be holding in his jacket pocket a gun the barrel of which is aimed ominously at her midriff, you have to imagine how, in precise and specific detail, she would react.
That’s just step one, and it’s difficult enough, I’ll concede. First you have to know your character: is she likely to call the mugger’s bluff (he’s pointing his finger at her, right?) or does she turn into a quivering wreck and hand over her wallet without protest? Or any one of a thousand other possible alternatives?
And even more difficult, perhaps, you have to imagine what her visceral reaction is: does her heart race, does she feel that what’s happening can’t possibly be true, does she notice something inconsequential about the mugger (a mole next to his nose, a missed stitch in his beanie)? Is she terrified or numb? Does she feel strangely removed from the action?
And so on and so forth.
Step two is just as difficult: you have to find the words that most precisely and accurately communicate her response.
And for complex interactions, this can be very tricky indeed.
You strive to avoid cliché, obviously. I suggested in the paragraph above, a whole string of clichéd responses, couched in clichéd phrases (quivering wreck, a racing heart, a sense of unreality). So the first phrases that spring to mind are not necessarily the best ones.
This is true even of the simplest lines of description.
Imagine a character stepping out of her house buried somewhere in the country. It’s night. There’s no moon. Clouds cover much of the sky.
Class: write a sentence that captures this nondescript scene as vividly as you possibly can. I’ll give you a few minutes to execute this simple task.
Now let me reveal a sentence written by a woman called Emma Törzs in a book I’m reading called Ink Blood Sister Scribe. It’s a kind of supernatural thriller, a genre that I occasionally dip into for what I’m sure are questionable reasons which one day I might ask a psychoanalyst to help me with, but which occasionally yields quite marvellous stories and compelling characters.
Here’s the sentence:
It was full night now, no moon to light the sky, but the cloud cover sent down a distilled, silvery gleam that caught in the finger-bone branches of the birch trees lining her cleared yard.
Nothing special here, you say? Oh, but wait, allow me to point out two wonderful phrases: that “distilled, silvery gleam” – and then, more obviously, “the finger-bone branches of the birch trees”.
If you achieved anything approaching the clarity, the particularity and the originality of these two phrases, I hereby award you the medal of the Grand Order of Specificity.
I’ll leave you with another sentence from the book, which employs an equally striking and memorable image:
Not that she wore skirts, but the closet of her sexual subconscious was full of petticoats.
P.S. Publication date for Ms Törzs’ book is July 6 in the UK – but is already available on Kindle. Nudge nudge.