Craft Topic: what is fiction's "prose style"?

This opening "author's note" is supposed to be a real author introducing their real, non-fictional account of a real band that existed in the world. 

However, while the novel is meant to be a rumination on and riff on Fleetwood Mac and the Rumors album, this opening note is actually completely fictional. Unless I am very mistaken, the narrator here is not actually Tara Jenkins Reid -- the band, too, is made up. 

So then the question becomes: how does Reid, the real author, try to "mark" this section as being real / non-fiction? How does she try to make this opening seem like it almost could be real -- to send the confused reader to Wikipedia to check what is really going on?

My answer is the prose style. This narrator doesn't write like an novelist who has sold a million books: instead, they write in a vague, cliche-rich reporting style. 

In other words - this is the real reason you should, as a novelist, avoid cliches in your writing. Not that it makes you look sloppy or uneducated -- who cares, in the end, about that? But rather that it makes your fiction look like non-fiction. It makes your story sound like someone talking about their life or their view of the world. 

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about -- for starters, look at the first sentence -- 

"This book is an attempt to piece together a clear portrait of how the renowned 1970s rock band Daisy Jones & The Six rose to fame—as well as what led to their abrupt and infamous split while on tour in Chicago on July 12, 1979."

This is not good novelistic writing (and I think that is deliberate). 

  • many words here could be omitted without harming the meaning, like "an attempt to" or "clear" or "renowned."
  • "renowned" is a particularly bad word in fiction, being both over-confident and vague. I don't believe in rules of writing but this is a pretty low word to include in a novel. 
  • notice, too, the reliance on prepositional phrases to string together ideas: "... of how... while... in... on..." Yes, you can write good fiction using this low-verb style, but it's not easy. 

The rest of the opening is equally bad. Look at: "However, it should also be noted that, on matters both big and small, sometimes accounts of the same event differ." We have to hike to the end of the sentence just to get the first interesting word -- "differ." It feels like a very long way to express a simple and familiar idea. 

Just to repeat myself: the badness of this opening gives me confidence for the rest of the novel, because it sounds exactly like a moderately talented reporter introducing a story they have researched. 

My craft point is rather: the more your novelistic writing sounds like someone talking like a normal person pontificating (abstract, vague, overly-wordy), the more it will seem like "not a novel." 

When I read, in a writer's manuscript, something like the narrator remarking of a female character: "... her cheap and nasty make up shone in the light of the..." -- I often find myself cringing

It's not that I don't believe that "cheap and nasty" lipstick and eye shadow exist. That's not the point. It's not about plausibility or even about being "PC." Rather, the line reads like non-fiction, and not in a good way. I suddenly feel like I've stepped out of the novel and into some personal bitterness of the author's. Perhaps the author dislikes a certain kind of woman and has ended up expressing it on the page. 

Does this make sense? Should I elaborate on this idea? 

The schedule for the rest of the novel is coming soon.

Discuss the pages below!

But before you do -- make sure to read this guidance on striking the right tone in this community:

https://danieldavidwallace.com/course/a-few-comments-on-mood/?_=822

An excerpt from that post:

I recommend reading each novel with a mood of curiosity and appreciation. Maybe this isn't exactly the kind of book you would normally read. Maybe there are weird choices that you don't really get. Maybe you find one character annoying, and not in a good way. But I strongly recommend not allowing those emotions to take over your reading experience and your responses, in this group, to the novel. After all, the goal is to learn. And reading with an intention, even an unconscious one, of unpacking why a novel is flawed or over-rated makes it hard to learn much from that novel.

Yours,

Daniel

  • It’s a mark of TJR’s success, talent, and confidence that she’s able to start a novel in this way – unknown writers would probably have a hard time getting an agent, much less readers, with such a dry, faux-historical beginning.

    What about the last sentence of these pages? “The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.” To me that feels less like the bombastic journalist who has been narrating so far and more like TJR’s own narrative voice.

    • Erica — yes, I don’t know if I would recommend this style to a non-famous writer — but I also believe that anything can work so the existence of this opening (and the success of this novel) suggests *maybe* readers are more willing to read fictional “authorial notes” than we might think…?

  • thehouseofullrich says:

    History is written by the victors…or their publicists. Does the fine line of truth/fiction lie in what the end purpose of the prose might be? It will be interesting to find out! (and perhaps on the side we should all pick another book by her to read…one she approaches as a novelist.) Onward!

  • Hi Daniel, I understand that the style of the opening spread is not one you would use for fiction. Could you elaborate on your point about the “cheap and nasty makeup”? Is the problem the tone of the narrator? What if it was something like “3 for $10 makeup” or “corner drugstore makeup”?

    • Great question.

      It’s really hard to know where the line would be — a lot would depend on tone and the context. Obviously your examples are an improvement on what I wrote, but I think the question would be “Who is making this observation about her make up being “corner drugstore” quality?”

      Is it her own observation? Then perhaps it works – but only as long as it makes sense for her to think that in the moment. Likely she would have another problem that was more pressing, or a habitual way of thinking about her spending habits that would protect her from thinking it “3 for $10” unless someone else brought that up.

      Or is it an omniscient invisible narrator – if so, then… is this the most important thing to mention about her? What does such a remark reveal about this godly intelligence overseeing these characters — one could imagine Wharton or Austen making this point in a polite, quiet, roundabout way, preserving the character’s dignity.

      Or is the narrator another character? In which case — the same question presents itself — why is the main character noticing this about her? What does that reveal about the main character?

      For instance, this is how Wharton presents, in The Age of Innocence, her protagonist’s awareness that his friend, a journalist, is not financially successful:

      “… further down the dishevelled street Archer recognised a dilapidated wooden house, at the end of a paved path, in which a writer and journalist called Winsett, whom he used to come across now and then, had mentioned that he lived. Winsett did not invite people to his house; but he had once pointed it out to Archer in the course of a nocturnal stroll, and the latter had asked himself, with a little shiver, if the humanities were so meanly housed in other capitals.”

      The line “Winsett did not invite people to his house” is so great — it is the kind of thing that sticks with Archer — who, like the rest of the wealthy tier of the city, is obsessed with invitations and hosting. And the comment about other countries is a reference to Archer’s dream of leaving the US for somewhere more artistic.

      • Thanks, Daniel, that does make things clearer. It does sound strange coming from an omniscient narrator.

  • I must admit that I had to check whether or not this was a real life band who I hadn’t heard of! So, it that sense, the forward reads as if it is non fiction and even if the language is cliched and a little ‘corny’ it fits its purpose because it is convincing. Is this what you meant Daniel – that this prose style would be one to avoid when writing fiction?

  • joycecorey says:

    I like that the opening makes me think of the story to come and the person telling it. Like you said, David, ‘a moderately talented reporter.’ It also makes me wonder when the story and the person telling it will intersect.

  • I’m not in the novel-reading group, but I read the sample sent to me in email, and, although–or because–the prose is pretty mundane, I sensed that the novelist was intentionally using the register of mediocre reportage. While I don’t find the prose enchanting, the passage feels like it’s doing a fair amount of work for its length and paucity of elegance. It is, obviously, telling us something of what the book is about. It is also telling us that a very big story awaits. Lots of conflict, lots of drama. A rise to fame. An abrupt and infamous split. This, we are told, will be explored. So she’s hooking the reader while giving just enough information to orient the reader, even including a date where something bad will happen, a date that also serves to ground the reader in the historical context of the story. I am unpublished and would not dare submit something like this to an agent. The author is clearly in a very different situation. But Daniel has already explained this. As to the rest of the book, I read the whole sample and did not pay to read the rest. Just fact, not critique. I should explain that I knew nothing of the book, the author, or the miniseries until I read Daniel’s email. Had I read this entire sample as a draft from an unpublished, aspiring writer, I would still have had the sense of a story building toward something. The story does have characters with goals and yearnings that are clear. The characters have demons, but I found it a little difficult to digest the parental neglect, and this is mainly because neglect is experienced by both Billy and Daisy, which I found to be an odd coincidence–although maybe this will serve for meaningful connection between the two later in the book. The book does struggle, I think, to convincingly evoke the feel of the era it depicts. It’s almost like it’s trying too hard in certain places, while in other places the fictional band feels generic. When I was reading the sample, the characters felt, simultaneously, like imitations of the boomer generation and like millennials placing themselves in another era. Reading the sample, I kept wondering why the author chose this era. Why not a story of a pretentious indie band from Portland that formed in 2000, rose to fame–but only among hipsters of course–in 2005, and then split up during Occupy Wall Street? Or something like that. Again, I’m not criticizing the book. What I read was fun reading. But the characters feel in certain ways like the fictional journalist. I don’t feel, when reading this, that the fictional journalist is the only cliche here. I think that the cliche Daniel points out in fact extends to the characters but just not so glaringly, something that, at least for me, undermines the story. Why did the author write this, and why did she choose this era? While reading, I was also asking myself why I was wondering about this instead of wondering what would happen next.

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