“Tight Prose” vs Imagination and Personality

800px-Storiform_pattern_-_intermed_magCreating tight prose is something you’ll get patted on the back for. (<dangling participle!) But honesty and imagination draw fiction readers.

To write anything in tight prose, I have to edit like a madman: avoiding dangling participles, eliminating pawns, rephrasing weak passages, swapping verbs, getting out the thesaurus but not overusing it, cutting viciously and ignoring sanity.

When polished to the bone, tight prose, or I should say, my hack assaults on it, sound pretentious, stripped of personhood, snippy, and a little unimaginative. Rarely does it resemble anything you’d call a unique writing voice.

But if you’re a genius with words, and you always have something novel to say, in a few years or decades someone’s going to tell somebody that you’ve got a unique writing voice. They may say it’s strong. Oh my!

Of course if you don’t have anything new to say, all the tight prose in the world won’t draw accolades.

On the other hand, if you focus on new and interesting ideas, feelings, personalities, plots and places, readers may discover you, especially if you let your honest personality come through, cherishing your own natural speech pattern a little, and not leaning too heavily on the thesaurus.

Here’s a snippet of my “tight prose” that’s beyond dead…

The dermatofibrosarcoma protubrans (DFSP) displays a storiform pattern on routine hematoxylin and eosin stains. Most DFSP’s express CD34, however, a minority lack this typical immunohistochemical phenotype. DFSP’s may recur if incompletely excised. Five percent metastasize.

“Data to Enterprise.”

Incidentally, I spent too much fearful time on that, knowing that a non-hack could point out where I screwed the pooch. Is it “a minority lack” or “a minority lacks”? Logic says that a minority is a singular thing, despite its many components, so it “lacks.” But to me “a minority lack” sounds better. At least it did before I thought about it.

Who cares, right? It doesn’t matter to the friendly, non-judgmental person I care about – my one reader.

I try to think of my one reader as someone who’s on my side before I start, pulling for me to come up with something worthy. Ignoring typos and saying, I know this is going to be good, come on!

Critics? Professors? Callous sophisticates? No. They despise doctors.

I’m not paranoid, that’s just silly. You’re jealous because the voices only talk to me.

(Is that from MASH?) Ha! I love that line.

Here’s the exact same DFSP snippet, except with something interesting thrown down, and not much concern for tightness:

I wanted a great name for a website. Clever and maybe just tangential to the topic – which I figured would be the final word on writing fiction. Sweeeeet! For awhile though, I wanted to dive into something else, like those weird rocks in Puma Punku. You know, Peru – or is it Bolivia? – twelve thousand feet high? Giant stones that weigh, what, twenty tons? Some architecturally designed by a genius and cut from cliffs with a technology that re-writes ancient history. They’ve got these huge smooth flat granite surfaces, modular H-designs, there’s this perfectly straight, uniform groove a few millimeters across running down the side of one! You’d have to see it to believe it. But they tell us that it was all cut with soft metal and chips of stone. Something like that. And also carried for miles up steep slops by primitive people who had no wheels and no written language? I, for one, don’t buy it. I may be stupid, but… Google Puma Punku for yourself and click on the “images” thing. I guarantee you, you won’t come back to this blog any time soon because, unfortunately, I decided not to write about impossible rock-work. That’s all you’ll be thinking about for weeks now. Hey, I just found this site, check it out: http://www.world-mysteries.com/mpl_PumaPunku.htm  No, it’s not my site, don’t worry. Anyway, instead of Puma Punku, I went with fiction writing and came up with, “Storiform.com,” because it’s a pathology term (for the dermatofibrosarcoma protubrans) and it sounds like “StoryForm,” which is what I really wanted. Oh well, “Storiform” is probably better… in some vague way that hasn’t occurred to me quite yet.

See, the two paragraphs are exactly the same… except that they’re entirely different.

I focused on novelty the second time, and went overboard with the grammar, normal words, and the dim-witted “voice” that comes so naturally to me. Also I set aside caution, letting my ignorant arrogance fly in the faces of established archaeologists who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about.

So here’s your hack’s infallible opinion on tight prose: Be careful of it because it can become an end in itself and a viral preoccupation, stripping your work of personality and taking away the freedom that honesty gives the imagination.

True, a writer needs economy. My second rendition proves it. Too much flab. Tough to get to the end. Efficiency is easier for the reader, true. And an unholy excess of fluffy words causes readers to reach for something easy to strangle. True.

But you really need words that are not essential to anything but the whims of your own personality if you’re going to sound unique, if you’re going to be confidently imaginative.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Note: The picture up top is a high-power shot of a storiform pattern from a DFSP on a light microscope. Click on it and the image becomes sharper. Woohooo!

Cliche Purging, Forget About It

Clichés, like just about any other biological thing, can be placed on a nearly bell-shaped curve. With clichés, there are a few outliers on the left tail that are essential to basic communication, and a few on the right that actually deserve a speck of a writer’s attention.

Some from the left tail we don’t even call clichés: IMG_2260

“In other words…”

“If only I could have…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

“Of course.”

“I love you.”

Here’s a cliché of sorts from the right tail of their bell curve:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

You probably recognize this from a political speech by FDR. If you use it in a story, your editor (I wish I had one) may balk and write, “cliché” beside it with three exclamation points to grind your limbic system into eternal shame.

FDR’s words are relevant to writers who are afraid of clichés.

I was in high school when I first felt the dark power of cliché purging. I didn’t know what the teacher meant by the word, but pretended to get it because her body language was telling me to feel sheepish, and I didn’t want to add to that by admitting I was an illiterate slug.

Years later, the many books I read on writing fiction stressed the “poisonous” nature of clichés and their power to kill anything living for pages around.

The books needed only to warn me once.

The fear of fear itself  can be strong, but the fear of humiliation is stronger.

One time I literally put my life in danger just to avoid humiliating myself in front of an unseen hunter who had fired his shotgun into the fog at birds that must have been near me. I was too worried about embarrassment to shout, “Don’t shoot!” I didn’t say a word. And now I’m too ashamed to tell you all the details.

Needless to say, some fearful people will kill the flow of their writing to avoid clichés and that peculiar flavor of humiliation.

Forget cliché purging, already. Writing spell-binding stories requires every neuron in your head. If you keep some neurons busy hunting self-consciously for clichés, you’re diminishing the quality of your work. Your focus has to shift back and forth from creativity to self-defense.

The more  you focus on the words, the more you ignore the magic.

Of course, there are those who have read so much fiction that “the story” is no longer where magic lies for them.

My former brother-in-law, a well-read man, used to find a transcendent euphoria in an ethereal quality of the words themselves. Their rhythm, their flow.

It’s not that I can’t relate. I love some of Robert Zimmerman’s (Dylan’s) lyrics for similar reasons (feelings) that I can’t put my fingers on. This passage, for example, is magic to me – from One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

“and I told you as you clawed out my eyes that I never really meant to do you any harm.”

And this, from Visions of Johanna

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.”

To me, the magic of words is found primarily in poetry, while the magic of a story lies almost entirely in its characters and the grip of the plot on their lives.

I can imagine that a cliché might poison a poem.

I doubt that a cliché could give a sniffle to a page-turning novel. Maybe an army of clichés could.

But I know from personal experience that cliché purging produces a concrete, word-conscious and timid writing session where nothing comes to life.

Be brave.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Plot versus People, a Humble Perspective

young star

My former brother-in-law who “unfriended” me on Facebook (and also in real life) a year or two ago because my emails were getting too angry, told me once of a famous author of Westerns who sent his characters out one day on horseback in terrible weather intending to have the gang do something amazing, but – and this is the interesting part – the characters didn’t like the weather so they rode their horses back to the ranch.

What does that tell you?

The relationship between some writers and their characters is, in my minuscule mind, analogous to the relationship between God and the beings of free will that he has created.  Don’t worry, this isn’t getting religious…

Imagine God feeling alone. We’ve all been there. Imagine he creates some “characters” to keep him company. He’s got a choice in this. He can either write an outline of a plot and place robot-like people into it, or he can do something entirely different. Something dangerous.

He can create real people.

Robots can’t keep you from being alone. So God wouldn’t go that route.

The difference between robots and people is simple. People have freedom to: 1. make up their own minds, 2. act on their decisions and 3. enjoy (or suffer) the consequences of their actions.

If you take away any of the three, you’ve created robots, not people. Think about it. Even number 3 is essential to creating real people.

An entity capable of  driving loneliness away from God must be able to enjoy or suffer the natural consequences of his decisions and actions, otherwise he’s just a robot that can’t provide company to a lonely soul.

You don’t see it? Yeah, of course not, I just repeated the same thing. Jeez, what’s wrong with me…

OK. There was a Twilight Zone episode where a broken gambler died and woke up in gambler’s heaven. Every bet he made was a winner. He was elated. Win after win. But when the newness wore off, he decided to make a dumb bet. He still won. So he made a downright stupid bet – still won. No matter what he did, he couldn’t lose. Suddenly, in horror, he realized he was in hell.

Without being able to enjoy or suffer the consequences of his decisions and actions, the decisions and actions were not real. He was no longer a person. Just a robot-like thing with the illusion of consciousness.

You’ll recall that James T. Kirk suffered a similar, but temporary fate in Star Trek Generations where his euphoria on the Nexus (robot heaven) turned to emptiness. No matter what he did, everything turned out just grand. He remembered what life had been like in the real world where his actions had consequences. At some level he must have realized he’d become a robot… as if he’d become a character in the hands of an over-controlling hack writer.

Now you see it.

To be real people, we need all three: 1. free decisions, 2. free actions 3. real, natural consequences.

So, as a writer, you might be able to learn something from the way God, in my current humble view of things, creates his characters.

I apologize to folk who believe that God directs most every move we make, changes outcomes, and causes every detail of everything that happens – at least the good stuff. You guys have a long history of being right about a great many things. I’m just a hack writer. Infallible, yes, but… Please just humor me, umkay?

My point is somewhere in this: I’ve got a plot outlined. It’s full of conflict. I sit down to write the plot and Johanna and the “evil” Queen meet. This happened yesterday, in fact. These two characters were “predestined”  to clash and fight to the death. But when they actually met?

They talked calmly and with respect for one another. The Queen asks Johanna to call her by her childhood nick name which nobody alive has ever heard. She explains ancient history as it truly happened. Johanna was coached by other characters to act meek, so as to avoid the Queen’s horrid temper, but my girl speaks her mind fearlessly as she’s always done.

As I’m writing, it’s as if these two characters are real and have free wills of their own.

For some reason, I never feel alone when I’m writing this novel.

But there seems to be a problem.

I can’t write a page-turner if there is no conflict. My goal is to have a zillion readers. Plus I want to say something meaningful to my grandkids who won’t read it unless they can’t possibly put it down.

But my characters refuse to fight. I keep putting them in situations where they ought to clash with the kidnappers, with the evil Queen, with the guy who tried to blow up Maxwell in his office….

But like me, they usually avoid conflict and tension. (Except in emails?)

What should I do?

If I were a creative writing professor, perhaps I would take a total hands-off approach and let the characters write a boring plotless story. If I were a control freak with a ton of self-control, I might follow my outline to the letter and ignore anything organic that happens on the fly with the characters.

But I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t take either approach. Neither should any writer who wants to unveil part of her soul to fifteen bazillion readers.

So I pivot between a predestined world of robots (my plot outline) and my respect for personhood – the characters’ freedom to decide, act, and experience the fate they’ve created; their ability to keep me company and give me this feeling of love that I have for some of them.

Personally, this is how I believe God interacts with people. Not all hands-on, not all hands-off.

As I write, it’s a balancing act. I want my characters to be as much like real people as I can make them, but I also want them to have interesting, novel lives.

After all, I’m writing a novel, not creating the Universe.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Writing in First Person Totally Kicks Ass


Best selling stories are impossible to put down after ten pages or so. What hooks me is the bond I feel with the main character. I have to sense that she should be a friend of mine.

As my son the psychologist-in-training tells me, so far the only scientifically documented difference between people with friends and people without friends is their ability to share feelings.

If you want your reader to love your hero, that protagonist has to share her feelings with the reader, but not necessarily with the other characters.

The single most effective way to nudge your work in this direction is to write in first person. (“I” instead of “he” or “she”.) This makes it seem like your hero is divulging secret emotions to the reader in a way that she wouldn’t do with anyone else in the world.

Here’s an example from The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins:

“I want to tell him that he’s not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena. That I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do really have feelings for him it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children. And how can he? How can he after what we’ve just been through?

“I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.”

You might say there’s not much dialogue in The Hunger Games. That’s true, except for the fact that it’s all dialogue.

The whole story is Katniss talking to me. Occasionally she looks over into my eyes while I’m reading to see if I really get what she’s just said. You know?

It’s possible for the hero to talk fairly directly to the reader in a second-person story, too, but it’s more difficult, sometimes awkward and less intimate.

See if I’m right. Here’s part of the same passage of Hunger Games with one small change, it’s now re-written (ruined by me, please forgive) in second person:

“She wants to tell him that he’s not being fair. That the two of them were strangers. That she did what it took to stay alive, to keep them both alive in the arena. That she can’t explain how things are with Gale because she doesn’t know herself…”

To me this sounds relatively clinical, removed from the raw emotion.

Now I know what you’re thinking… you were wondering what I did on Dec. 27, 2012.

Here’s the true story. I’ve written it in first person.

There were three of us. The white water sucked us downstream toward a giant log that had fallen across Washington’s Elochoman River, blocking the whole thing.

Just before aluminum hit pine, our guide, the only man in the drift boat with any experience shouted, “We’re going to lose the boat. We’re f~~ed!”

I didn’t say anything, but I wondered how badly f–ed we were exactly. Certainly he didn’t mean dead. Did he?

We hit the log and stopped instantly as the river rushed on around us. The guide and my son-in law crawled out to the left on the log, but I had to crawl out to the right because there wasn’t time to stand around waiting for the boat to flip. On my side, the log tapered to about the width of a telephone poll. It might have been slippery, I think. My left knee slid off and before I knew it, I was dangling with my legs downstream in the whitewater.

If I’d fallen to the right, on the upstream side of the log, I would have been dragged under and, hopefully, pushed out the other side. But people don’t generally make it all the way under logs in these circumstances. They get dragged under, and they drown. So I’m told.

Next thing, I hear the guide’s terrified voice, “Oh no, Talmage!” Too ignorant to be afraid, I said calmly, “I’m cool. I can hang here all day like this, no problem. Save your boat.”

I dangled there as the whitewater pulled my camo pants down over my ankles. It sounds pretty, but my jeans stayed up, so we’re good. My fingertips found bumps on the log, and I held on there for the longest time while the other two saved the boat.

When the big guy, my son-in-law, came over, he grabbed my right wrist and pulled like hell, but I must have weighed a lot more than usual with the wet coat and wet jeans, and boots full of water, so he finally had to give up. Actually, I had to convince him to give up, and then insist that he let me go.

“OK, let go!” I says. And he does.

The December rapids took me, and honestly, the water felt warm compared to the idea of drowning. Breathing water scares me a little.

With my outer pants around my feet like chains, I couldn’t swim much, but I finally found the bottom of the river with my feet and pushed off toward the edge, caught a small log that was hanging from the bank, jumped up and crawled onto it. It must have taken me fifteen minutes on that log to undo the velcro around my ankles and free myself from those camo pants. I felt old.

And lucky.

But let me tell you something that went through my head while I was hanging by my fingertips off that first log, waiting for my son-in-law to hopefully fish me out. It was a prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get religious on you. I just want you to hear what I said, verbatim:

“I hope you can get me out of this.”

That was it. There wasn’t any, “Dear God,” or “please” or anything else.

Obviously I’m not saying a miracle was involved, or that my mortal hide is worth God’s time in any way. I just think my prayer sort of shows where my head’s at with this divine intervention thing.

I’m not sure, but I think God’s hands are sometimes tied by the cause-and-effect web of our own free choices. Our free wills. Without natural consequences, there couldn’t be free choice. Therefore sh-t must happen if human beings are going to exist in a non-robotic state.

If the deacons will please rise for the morning offering. Sorry, was that too religious?

First person story telling, though. I like how it feels, don’t you?

Suppose someone told you that same story in second person. It wouldn’t feel like we got to know each other at all, would it?

Writing complex stories in first person is said to be difficult or impossible because a vp protagonist can’t be in more than one place at a time. That’s got to be true, I guess.

But what’s more important to you, touching millions of people with your soul, or writing a grand, complex story that only a few beyond your inner circle of brilliant writers will ever appreciate?

There are many reasons why writing in first person isn’t the default mode for most authors. I get it. I myself am not yet comfortable writing my female protagonist’s story in first person, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, and I doubt I could fake it in first person where everything is raw and totally exposed. And I’m too in love with my protagonist to start another story without her. Maybe this is the “sentimentalism” that some great authors say they hate.

So shoot me.

But a zillion readers, all hammering through your book to the end, telling people what a night they’ve had with your hero? If you write in first person you’ll get the emotions from your hero to your reader more powerfully and more naturally than you probably will in second person. Try it if you don’t believe me.

Check this out, now. It’s Katniss again…

“As the lights dim and the seal appears on the screen, I realize I’m not prepared for this. I do not want to watch my twenty-two tributes die. I saw enough of them die the first time. My heart starts pounding and I have a strong impulse to run. How have the other victors faced this alone? During the highlights they periodically show the winner’s reaction up on a box in the corner of the screen. I think back to earlier years… some are triumphant, pumping their fists in the air, beating their chests. Most just seem stunned. All I know is that the only thing keeping me on this love seat is Peta – his arm around my shoulder, his other hand claimed by both of mine. Of course the previous victors didn’t have the Capitol looking for a way to destroy them.”

Can you feel the draw of this special person, Katniss, telling you every detail of how she feels?

 The contrast between how openly and honestly she speaks of her feeling to the reader, and how much she hides from other characters creates a bond, too.

See if you can’t go back and rewrite one of your second-person babies in first person. Or start something new in first person.

I predict that you’ll get closer to a meaningful page-turner than ever before if you dare to write intimately in first person.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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My Dog, Cortana, is Gone Now

IMG_0948My Chocolate Lab, Cortana, the only dog anyone in my family has ever owned, or known, or loved, developed an extremely painful paralysis called “Cauda Equina Syndrome.” She had to be put to sleep by the vet.

I’m walking a line between denial and some version of “normal depressed feeling.”  If that makes sense.

I was looking out my window a few days ago, down at the grass in our back yard where Cortana had made a narrow trail of bald ground next to the fence, all the way around. I was just looking, not really feeling anything until I noticed that the grass is already starting to grow back over the trail. At that point, it felt overwhelmingly sad.

This may seem a little callous or inappropriate now, but I’ve got to share something that might help you – before I forget. This blog is about writing fiction, after all, so here goes…

If you’re trying to write a sad scene, a third-party of some sort, preferably an inanimate third-party that’s “looking on” like the grass in my backyard, makes the scene more powerfully sad. It’s not just true in real life.

Go read the poem, Little Boy Blue, by Eugene Field, and you’ll see what I mean. Second thought, here, I’ll get the poem and paste it below. If you don’t want to cry like a baby right now, don’t read it. I’m serious, this poem may make you feel depressed for a while, so be careful. Personally, I’m not going to read it now because I don’t want to cry. Yeah, I’m a guy. Shut up.

Little Boy Blue    by Eugene Field 

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.

“Now, don’t you go till I come,” he said,
“And don’t you make any noise!”
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamt of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue—
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!

Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place—
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.


Two months later… Today my wife was in the room where we used to keep Cortana’s collars. My wife was always trying new ways to get the smell out of those things. Detergents, vinegar, Clorox.  Nothing worked. Today she sniffed each collar carefully, one after the other, but none of them carried any scent. She said she wished she hadn’t washed them.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Real Life Lessons for Your Characters

IMG_1420My son is a psychologist, fresh out of school and still working for free to get his required hours.  He tells me that there are scientific studies that explore the differences between popular people with lots of friends and unpopular people with no friends. The only difference that achieves statistical significance is this:

People who wind up having many friends are those who share personal feelings. People who don’t share personal feelings can do everything else the popular people do and still have no friends.

It’s not how well you listen. It’s not how introverted or extroverted you are. It’s not whether you “get them talking about themselves.”

It’s whether or not you can share honest personal feelings.

Have you noticed how popular Katniss is (from Collin’s best seller, Hunger Games)?  Have you noticed that Katniss doesn’t let a paragraph slip by without telling you something about how she feels? Did you know that this is why you love her?

Another real-life lesson from my son…

Giving your respect, your admiration, your approval, your emotional kindness away for free (too easily) is not normal or healthy. It reduces your value in the eyes of the people to whom you’ve given it. They lose interest in you because there’s something about you that feels worthless to them. It’s as if the price tag sets the value. Stupid, but that’s the way it is.

Your religion, like the life-long fundamentalist Christianity I devoted most of my life to, may say otherwise. I hope not.

Your genetics and childhood environment may have forced you into giving away the things that make you seem valuable as a friend. I hope not.

And really, I agree that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, or simply because you’re afraid or have no choice.

Just realize, it truly is a sacrifice you’re making when you give yourself, your affection, your approval away indiscriminately and unconditionally to all comers. It’s not normal or healthy, but neither are many of the things people do for a higher cause.

This is true in fiction, too. Minor characters have to scurry about kissing the feet of the villains at times. Religious characters have to sometimes sacrifice their personalities and treat everyone impartially with that special sort of love.

But don’t do this to the character who is trying to drive your story… unless the story is designed specifically for an anti-hero of some sort.

Your hero needs to express doubt to the faces of all newcomers – doubt about their trustworthiness before she trusts them. She needs to share her feelings if she’s going to have friends, yes, but only with those who have first earned her trust. If she admires anyone, that person has done something extraordinary to earn her admiration. If she’s emotionally kind to someone, it has to be someone who’s proven himself to her, or someone who is weak and has nothing that could benefit her in any way. She mustn’t be sweet to someone in order to be liked. That will bring her dislike and disdain… from the other characters as well as your readers.

Remember this stuff, it will change your life and the lives of the characters in your stories.

M. Talmage Moorehead