Writing Excuses 15.06: Prose and Cons, with Patrick Rothfuss
Key points: Delicious, tasty writing with flavorful words? Good word do! How do you write beautiful prose? Go over it again and again, tweak and tweak and tweak, like tumbling a rock in a tumbler. Watch for repetitions and ambiguities. Beware lazy writing. Focus on the sound of language. Listen to good word doers. Read good word do! Read your own work before writing more. How do you add density to your sentences without going purple? Don’t add things to it, take out the unnecessary parts. Trim, and trim, and trim again. Ask yourself, what is the emotional output of this paragraph supposed to be, and what order of information is most effective in getting there? Words go through the brain, but sounds can strike you in the heart. Lyricism can put your hand around somebody’s heart in a way that the best analogy in the world never could.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Six.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Prose and Cons, with Patrick Rothfuss.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Pat] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Pat] And I’m Pat.
[Dan] We have Patrick Rothfuss with us again. We’re going to talk about prose. This is specifically about writing itself. Word for word, how do you make your prose delicious? How do you make your writing as wonderful as it can be?
[Howard] Tasty, tasty sentences with flavorful words and syllables and… And…
[Mary Robinette] Things.
[Howard] You know, it’s a lot easier to do when I write it.
[Pat] We all good word do. We make you do word good too.
[Dan] Now I’m super excited to have Pat on for this episode. This is… You have such a reputation for fantastic word-for-word writing in your work.
[Pat] Do I actually?
[Mary Robinette] Yes, you do.
[Dan] You absolutely do. That’s always…
[Mary Robinette] You didn’t know that?
[Pat] I mean, I know I work on it, but… Usually, that’s not what people s… I mean, it’s rarely what people say when they come up to me.
[Mary Robinette] Huh. That’s what people talk about all the… I’m…
[Howard] It’s what we say behind your back.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. Yeah.
[Dan] But I know that people do ask you how do you get… How do you write beautiful prose? What do you say when people ask you that?
[Pat] What I said just today was, “Boy, I don’t know how I would teach that.” Because it comes very intuitively to me. So for it to get better and better, I just sort of go over it again and again. Each time, I tweak and I tweak and I tweak. It’s like tumbling a rock in a tumbler. It gets smoother and smoother and smoother until it’s done. But that’s not advice that can be followed.
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I have found, because it’s… I come at it from theater, and similarly, I run into this issue when people ask me about dialogue.
[Mary Robinette] Like, how do you do dialogue, which is… Dialogue is one of those places where the words are… Like, the words… You’re telling a story, so the words are always important, but dialogue specifically, because it’s often carrying even more, you have to be very concise with it. But similarly, it came super easy to me. It took me forever to figure out how to teach it. I wound up having to reverse engineer what I do as a narrator. Because my job as a narrator is to take the words that are on the page and make them into sounds. Writing developed to convey the spoken language. Right? So what I’m looking for with that, what it taught me, are the things that sound good, the things that play smoothly, the… It’s a lot about repetitions. What I find is that if you use repetition with intention, it will draw attention to something and it will point it at the thing you want people to look at. But when you don’t use it with intention, when it’s an accidental repetition, the repetition is always going to catch the reader’s attention, and it will drag them in the wrong direction. That’s the thing where you… It’s not quite having a piece of déjà vu with the thing, but it’ll pop you out of the story just a little bit. Sometimes that repetition is a word, and those are easy to spot. Sometimes it’s a collection of sounds. Sometimes it’s a concept. But often that’s the thing that I’m looking for. Making sure that those repetitions are where I want them to be. One of the other things that I look for our ambiguities. Words or phrases or concepts that could go either way and aren’t doing so on purpose. Like, one of the examples that I use sometimes when I’m talking to people about it is this thing… There’s a compilation video of… In movies, people saying, “You just don’t get it, do you?”
[Pat] [snort] Oh, that.
[Mary Robinette] I know. There’s a compilation video of person after person after person in completely different films saying, “You just don’t get it, do you?” That’s lazy writing. It’s ambiguous, because what don’t you get? Why don’t you get it? But then you look at Blade Runner and Rutger Hauer’s famous speech, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” That is “You just don’t get it, do you?” But it’s getting… It’s making it specific, it’s removing the ambiguity, and the repetitions there are all very deliberate. This beautiful rhythmic flow.
[Pat] That’s really interesting, because you’re coming at this from a conceptual… As soon this topic got brought up, I immediately thought of the sound of language. Because I focus that way a lot. But what you’re talking about is something that I also do. I love the term lazy writing. That’s something that I find increasingly galling as I watch more TV. I actually hear it reflected in my son’s speech, now that he gets to watch more TV, is he is emulating the lazy writing that he has heard.
[Dan] That is depressing.
[Pat] Oh, it’s super depressing, which is one of the reasons I’ve tried to keep him away from bad media, is it homogenizes his beautifully original speech. That’s what it does to everyone. So, I first off say, if you want to do good word do, then listen to good word doers. Like, absorb it in a meaningful way that like it sticks to you. Sometimes, that’s just like… For me, I read Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Like… Or I read Shakespeare. Like, ooh, some Shakespeare. The problem is, I am so sticky, I’m such a mimic, that if I read a Shakespeare play, I will have to fight to not write and speak in iambic pentameter. Especially if I get a couple of drinks in me.
[Howard] So good word do sticks to you.
[Pat] Sometimes, yes. So, like, that is a trick that I would recommend, is, like, if you read enough of something, it kind of gets in you.
[Mary Robinette] That’s exactly the way I wrote The Glamorous Histories is that I would read a chapter of Jane Austen, and then I would write a chapter.
[Mary Robinette] Because that… Because I was using it as a conscious upload of her language.
[Pat] Actually, that’s a trick that I use in my own stuff if I’ve been away a while, or even just to maintain consistency, is I read the previous chapter before I start writing or drafting a new chapter.
[Mary Robinette] You do that, don’t you, Dan?
[Dan] Yes. I will always start each day’s work by reading what I wrote yesterday to kind of get myself up to speed before I step out of the moving car, so I can…
[Pat] By the time you get to the end, I’m usually already tweaking and fiddling, so I’m already writing by the time I hit the end.
[Pat] Then I’ve got momentum.
[Dan] That also makes the first draft a little cleaner, because it’s kind of been cleaned up as you go.
[Pat] Exactly. And the tone is easier to match, because you’ve kind of… Or at least I tend to have my head in it.
[Dan] I would like to pause here if we can for our thing of the week. It is not a book this time. It is a podcast. What are you going to recommend for us?
[Pat] I would really love to recommend to you the One-Shot Podcast Network. Now, it’s a group of podcasts, and they all deal with gaming in some way. But what I have really come to love over the last year is listening to a lot of comedians and actors and game players get together. Effectively, what they’re doing is collaborative improvisational storytelling. They have an ongoing series called Campaign. There was 100 episodes of like a Star Trek theme podcast. The current one that they’re doing, where I think they’re about 30 episodes in, is unoriginal world called Sky Jacks that is inspired by the Decemberists’ music. Oh, it’s so good, guys, it’s so good. But also, the One-Shop Podcast Network itself, they do a bunch of one-shot games. Like, I came in and I played a game called Kids on Bikes.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, that’s…
[Dan] That’s a good game.
[Pat] Oh, it’s amazing. It’s based off like the 80s, like ET and Goonies and The System. James D’Amato runs it, and he runs a lot of these games. You can go in and see like what they’re doing. This year is especially interesting, because they… James has decided to feature only games designed by not-white dudes. He is an amazing guy, an incredible storyteller. I’ve learned a lot about gaming and narrative just by listening to the podcast.
[Dan] Cool. That is called One-Shot?
[Pat] The One-Shot Podcast Network. Which contains many shows, including Neo-Scum, One-Shot, Campaign, and some others that I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember off the top of my head.
[Dan] Awesome. So go listen to that. We will link to it in the liner notes as well.
[Dan] Now, I’ve got a great listener question that I’m going to throw out, and then immediately provide my own answer for.
[Dan] Because I’ve got a really good answer to this one. Someone asks, “How do you add density to your sentences without going purple?” Purple prose is something that we want to avoid that… If you’ve ever read an AP English essay, you’ve se… They’re just trying to cram so much brilliance into their… My solution to this is actually you add density to something not by adding things to it, but by taking out the unnecessary things. Think of this as you are cooking your writing on low heat so that it reduces down, and what you’re left with has just as much flavor as possible. Earlier, Pat was telling a story about how he revises by trimming something and then leaving it and coming back and then trimming it down until… What was it you said, that one day you’ll be left with just 12 words that are so intense they can kill a person.
[Dan] What I loved about that story is that that’s exactly what the poet, Ezra Pound, did. He had an experience where he was… He went into the Metro in Paris, and, just for whatever reason, had this profound experience looking at faces in there. He wrote this giant thing, it was this multipage essay, trying to re-create that emotion that he had. He was like, “No, this is too much.” He kept cutting it down. He ended up with a poem called Faces in the Metro, which I’m going to tell you right now.
“The apparition of these faces in a crowd,
Petals on a wet, black bough.”
[Pat] I remember that. [You said that before]
[Dan] Cutting out the extraneous stuff until he’s left with just this one powerful emotion adds so much density to it because you don’t have any filler.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the things that… I have a similar kind of a relationship with Ray Bradbury’s writing. Because it’s… What I love are his short stories, and the way he plays with language. There’s a piece that I use when I’m teaching narration, which was again one of those things where I’m like, “I know this works. Why does this work?” So I’m just going to read a little bit to you. This is from The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl.
“William Acton rose to his feet. The clock on the mantel ticked midnight. He looked at his fingers and he looked at the large room around him and he looked at the man lying on the floor. William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with the same ten whorled fingers.”
It’s like… It’s just… It’s so beautiful. But the thing about it, and we’ll put this in the liner notes so you can look at it, there’s… That repetition that I’m talking about. He uses “He looked at his fingers, he looked at the large room around him, and he looked at the man lying on the floor.” It’s like this is a normal thing, this is a normal thing, this is not a normal thing. One of the things that he’s doing there, when you look at it, is he’s adding modifiers, but he’s adding modifiers just to the things he wants you to pay attention to. The… First, it’s “he looks at his fingers,” and he doesn’t give you any modifiers, he doesn’t give you any modifiers to feet, to the mantel, none of that. “He looked at his fingers, then he looked at the large room.” Gives you a little bit more emphasis. “Then he looked at the man lying on the floor.” Like, lying on the floor, it’s not purple prose. It’s just… Just adding that little bit and it’s making it more specific and it’s pointing you at it, just by lingering on it. Then he comes back to the fingers again. Because those actually… It’s like these… This, I… These are the things that did that. Everything in that sentence, about stroking the typewriter keys and the ham… It’s all about these were normal, and I’ve done this other thing with them. I think it’s just beautiful, but it is… It’s that layering and that deliberate choice about what things am I going to emphasize. It’s not about let me add more adjectives, but it’s about pointing.
[Pat] It’s also… Bradbury is so good about this. He’s extraordinarily lean.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Pat] It’s just so clean. Robert Bly once said, he’s an American poet, he was on stage, I saw a recording of it, and he said, “I think a person could be an amazing poet, even if they…” He goes, “You don’t need more words. You don’t need fancy words.” He goes, “If you knew 25 words perfectly, you could be a poet.” That was really interesting to me. It’s the sort of… In some ways, this is kind of a wankery statement. But, I think, he’s pointing towards a truth. That is, like, you don’t need to get fancy. Now, I think there’s a space for fancy. Sometimes a perfect word is perfect. But a lot of times, the perfect word is the less perfect word that everyone knows.
[Howard] My approach to this is… The Bradbury piece. What is the reader to be left with? Well, the reader is supposed to be left with the horror of having committed a murder and staring down at one’s own hands and realizing that you are the murder weapon. Or at least that’s what I got out of it. Other readers may get other things, but that’s what I got. You can get that, sort of, by telling the reader exactly what they are supposed to feel. “He stared down at his hands, and was horrified that these were now murder weapons.” Okay? That is really, really lean. But I’ve been very literal and told you exactly what to feel. Purple prose is when you have words in there that are not working towards giving us that emotion. They are working towards demonstrating to us that you…
[Dan] Own a thesaurus.
[Howard] Have memorized the thesaurus.
[Howard] So, a great many times, I will sit back and look at a paragraph and ask myself, what is the emotional output of this paragraph supposed to be? How do I get there? How do I get there fastest? Well, I get there fastest by being very literal, and that’s actually not the most effective. How do I get there in an order in which it’s the most effective? What are the pieces of information that I want to give? That’s where I think the Bradbury piece becomes a tutorial.
[Howard] Where we’re looking at… We’re identifying the murder weapons, but not yet. We’re just looking at them. Then we’re describing that there has been a murder. Then we are con… We are recontextualizing the hands. By describing it in that way, it suddenly sounds very non-poetic and very mechanical and very soup can. But when you sit down to do this, when you sit down with this recipe if you will. I’m headed for this emotion, and these are the beats I want to hit, that’s the point at which, at least for me, I can no longer teach it, I can no longer describe it, because I have to have done it 200 times in order to have any sense of how this is going to work.
[Pat] It’s a muscle memory thing, and I think… For some people, it’s easier, for some people, it’s harder. The same with plot and character and dialogue. I always come back to sound, as… Because, like, I love the plain… Rather, the simplicity of the concepts that Bradbury’s talking about there are great. Because, like, who knows ham? Everybody knows ham. I can… It’s good. Like, this isn’t fancy, it’s not elaborate. These are simple, solid, real things. He could get florid, he could get fancy, but… Honestly, I see that in a lot of like first-time books. Where they’re describing the breakfast somebody sits down to. But authors like Bradbury, it’s almost like everything he puts on the page is an icon with roots down to the heart of the world. Like, there’s just nobody like Bradbury. Nobody did what he does, or does what he did. But, like Robert Frost, not to bring up another white guy, but Frost, like… Seuss doesn’t get credit for his mastery of language. Because what most people know about Seuss is his kind of thumpy, heavy-handed, singsong-y kids’ books. Which, by the way, are extremely hard to pull off, and you could not do it even though you feel like you could. But he wrote a book called The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough. Which, it’s hard to understand how brilliant that title is, until you look at it in print, because all the words look the same, and they’re all pronounced differently. Dude was like deep in the paint in his understanding of how words do. But, like, same thing with Frost. Frost wrote consistent beautiful iambic language and you would never know. He would do it in dialogue. Some of his longer unknown… Like, never cited, never read poems are pages and pages long of people having a conversation. You don’t realize your reading iambic anything. It’s because it’s perfectly natural and perfectly flawless. Which means he sweat blood into it. I think Frost also wrote
“The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.”
It’s amazing because what he’s doing is playing with metrical feet. “The old dog barks backwards” is a series of words that you must say in stochee, in single metrical feet, because of just how… You can’t make those flip trippingly off your tongue. Then, I think, the second line are all dactyls. They go dada dah, dada dah. One two three, one two three. “And I can remember when he was a pup.” They’re frolicking. They sound like a ferret running. It’s things like that that I think of, and that I have a particular fondness for, because the words always have to go through the brain, but sounds will start… Will strike you straight in the heart. I get… I can get… If I can get past your brain to your heart, then I’ve won as a writer. It’s like way easier to short cut around the brain because our brains are really messy and complicated.
[Mary Robinette] And often not very bright.
[Pat] Right! So, like, poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who would write things so beautiful that I could not understand them. Like
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon…” [The Windhover https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44402/the-windhover]
You’re like, “What are you even doing? What are you talking…” That is beautiful. I don’t know what you just said.
[Pat] See, that’s… I don’t know if that’s purple? It’s close to purple, but, like, if you can figure out how he did that and do a piece of it… You get 15% of that in your prose, and you can have a lyricism that will put your hand around somebody’s heart in a way that the best analogy in the world never could.
[Dan] This is… Has been a wonderful discussion. I’m glad we ended on poetry, because that is our homework for you, is just to go out and read poetry. We’ve been reciting some of our favorites. We will put some of our recommendations in the liner notes, but go out and fi… Not just one poem, but multiples by several different people, and people of different backgrounds. Just read a lot of poetry, and see what they’re doing, and how you can put that kind of fluidity and grace…
[Howard] Read it until your mouth starts trying to poet…
[Mary Robinette] Actually, no, one of the things I’m going to suggest is that if you are having difficulty getting poetry, because it is a different language, it’s a different form, if you’ve been reading prose your entire life and you’re trying poetry. One of the things to try with it is to try to read it out loud as part of your homework assignment. Also, to listen to people. So I’m going to add a… We’re going to put some poems in the liner notes that we have mentioned or that we’re fond of. I’m going to give you one to start with. That is Gwendolyn Brooks We Real Cool.
[Pat] Oh, man.
[Mary Robinette] It’s so good.
[Pat] Read her off the page, but then… I’m sorry, go ahead.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Exactly. Because there is audio of her reading it. So, read it on the page, and then you can find the audio to listen to it. Then, also, if you’re still like this is difficult for me, there is a video by Manual Cinema which is, strangely, is a public company that I am very fond of.
[Mary Robinette] But they were commissioned by the Poetry Foundation to create a poem… A visual poem to go with and support the recording of Gwendolyn Brooks reading We Real Cool. It’s a great way to kind of get a sense of oh, this is what it can do, if it is new to you as a form.
[Pat] I heard her do it live.
[Mary Robinette] [gasp] I’m a little bit jealous of you.
[Mary Robinette] I’m a lot jealous of you.
[Dan] All right. So, go read some poetry. Read it to yourself, read it out loud. Just kind of see what you can do with it. That’s your homework. You are out of excuses, now go write.