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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Somewhere a Dog Barked

This Slate article is one of the most awesome I have ever read: Somewhere a Dog Barked: Pick up just about any novel and you'll find a throwaway reference to a dog, barking in the distance.

I don't think I've seen anyone pick apart a go-to cliche this well, ever. The writer reports correctly:
Most authors, however, employ the trope as a narrative rest stop, an innocuous way to fill space and time; since the bark is hollow, a reader can read anything into it, or nothing at all. 

 I think that's true, and though I've read a lot about the use of cliches that draw a lot of attention to themselves (like opening a book with a dream, a daring trick nowadays), I loved that this article spent time on cliches that are almost parts of speech.

Think of it: let's say you're writing a book that will be 300 pages long. Speaking from experience, my upper limit is about 8-10 pages a day, about 2000 words. Sometimes I can really stretch, but generally not; 2000 words is about as good as it gets. 10 pages in 3 hours, meaning one page is taking about twenty minutes on average. One page. As you write your way down, you're working in prose, following the characters, telling the tiny sliver of the story that is this one page. The page is made up of words, phrases, all the crazy tools you use. At this speed it can even be hard to remember what you did multiple pages-- hours-- ago.

And I, like a lot of writers, have a bad habit of leaning on stock phrases to get me from one thought to the next. Most of I catch time you catch them on the re-write, but they're just noise, usually ways of breaking up a thought.

"That's interesting." Bond tilted his head. "That wasn't there before."
What on earth is meant by "tilted his head?" I suppose it means the character is thinking and uses a physical movement to pantomime thinking. But really it's just rhythm. Same thing with the barking dog in the distance. See also arched an eyebrow. And smiled slightly. People in my books also fiddle with props a lot in dialog scenes. Otherwise the dialog would read like a play. All of this is okay as long as it doesn't get irritating, and then it's not anymore.

There are a thousand ways to race to the bottom of the page, and the rough draft will be filled with some awful ones. We have to accept this as writers or else we would not reach the next page.

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