Writing Vs. Blathering

I admit that I am a fan of more narrative styles of writing.  An example of this might be Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series, where the story is sewn through with little side stories and bits of information.  Adams was a genius at dry humor and witty insight.  Terry Pratchet is another, similar writer who achieves the same results.

What I’m not a fan of is blather, or those meandering passages that tell the reader nothing, but are thrown in because the author thinks he or she is being clever.  Case in point: I was reading something given to me several months ago.  In one paragraph I’m reading about a grown woman from Utah, but a few moments later we’ve flipped to a teenager from Michigan.  In the span of two pages we’ve gone from extra-marital affairs to junior high awkwardness, only the transition isn’t nearly that good.

In a decent narrative style, the interruptions and shifts in time seem smooth and interesting to a reader.  When not handled well, it’s like being jerked backwards through a knot hole in the fence.

In Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” the author will occasionally backtrack to some point in the past to clarify an aspect of the story, such as why a character is struggling with a particular point, or why the reader should pay attention to a given detail.  When the author is blathering, like the one I mentioned above, there is no point to the information other than the author is afraid the reader won’t get it any other way.  In other words, the author thinks the reader is stupid and can’t be trusted to understand.  Either that or the writer just doesn’t have a good enough technique to handle the presentation of information in a more complex writing style.

Blathering also occurs when a writer likes the sound of his or her own voice.  They think they are funny, entertaining, or somehow intellectually stimulating, and they want the reader to think so, too.  They want it so much that they will drive home this point by meandering endlessly on side information that contributes nothing to the actual story, but sure looks perty to them in writin’ and stuff.

Blather is a common problem to the beginning writer because they don’t trust the reader enough to let go and just write.  The reader may not “get it” or might misunderstand if the newbie doesn’t spell it out for them. Books like this are not only boring, they are painful to wade through.  Traditional publishers are usually smart enough to stay away from them, so the author resorts to either self-publishing, vanity presses, or presses that no one has ever heard of before.

Unfortunately, even big publishers are occasionally fooled.  Sometimes it’s a big name author who doesn’t get a proper dose of editing (check Alice Walker’s “Song of Solomon” for evidence of this); and sometimes an editor is asleep at the wheel (or keyboard, rather.  Check Jackie French Koller’s “A Place to Call Home”). In either case, a decent story is overwhelmed by self-conscious prose, too much evidence of the author, and unauthentic voice, and lots of blathering across the pages.

Unless you are writing a memoir, the author should be invisible to the reader.  The characters should sound real and alive, not like a mouthpiece for the person who created them.  The actions should ring true, motivated by the choices of the characters, not forced to perform like trained seals. Blathering is up to the author to eliminate, to prevent from happening in the first place, but most definitely to remove when discovered during revisions. To do otherwise, to fail to eliminate your presence from your story is an ego problem that borders on narcissism.  It’s a cardinal sin in writing.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Vs. Blathering

  1. Linda says:

    Kim, I am a writer as well (published poet, background in media – radio, TV reporter, print and online journalist – but no fiction to date – not disciplined enough, I guess) and I was intrigued by your post.

    Clearly you’re thoughtful and your words are carefully chosen – and you teach English as well – so please don’t take this the wrong way – a couple of grammatical errors caught my eye and I wondered about them – am I using language incorrectly?

    “Blather is a common problem to the beginning writer because they don’t trust the reader enough to let go and just write.”

    Shouldn’t it be “blather is a common problem FOR the…” or “blather is common TO the…” ? Also, writer is singular, and they is plural – wouldn’t it be better to use “he/she”?

    You reference Alice Sebold (IMHO, a gifted writer) and then write “When the author is blathering, like the one I mentioned above,” you don’t mean Sebold, do you? You *are* referring to the author who transitioned from the woman in Utah to the teen in Michigan, correct?

    I am actually not sure I’m in agreement with your concept that the author should be invisible to the reader. The reader is, in fact, looking at the world through the author’s lens, and each word choice, each metaphor, IS the visible evidence of the author at work. For a work to bear no obvious literary fingerprints courtesy of its author, it would have to be a straightforward statement of occurrences without inner monologue, speculation, foresight or scene setting – all elements that enrich and enliven a literary work.

    But I suspect you may feel that this comment is an example of blathering. It isn’t by my way of thinking; however, you bring up many good points and the analogy of being jerked backward through a knothole in the fence is gorgeous – worth the price of admission.

    Thanks for making me think this evening.

  2. kwjwrites says:

    Linda –

    Guilty as charged. I committed one of my own great sins and didn’t spend enough time editing my work. You busted me.

    “For” would have been the better prepositional choice, rather than “to” in that sentence. And indeed, I used “they” to refer to a singular noun of “writer” which is yet another of my cardinal sins.

    The placement of Alice Sebold’s name too closely to another writer to whom I was referring was another editing oversight. I agree, Sebold is amazingly talented, which is why I referenced her book.

    I agree with you to some extent that the reader is seeing the character through the author’s eyes, but specifically, the reader is seeing the story through the character’s eyes. To me, the author should disappear into the characters of the story. That’s what Sebold is so very good at. I might also reference Alison McGhee, specifically her book “Rainlight” as a further example. This book is told from a variety of characters’ points of view, and it shifts back and forth throughout the book.

    There is probably no way to completely eliminate the author from the voice of the character, but I have always been taught and I strive to achieve as much invisibility as I can. It isn’t my story I’m telling, it’s that of the characters. Their voices need to sound authentic, so if I’m writing from the POV of a 15-year-old boy (which I am not and never have been), then I need to sound like a 15-year-old boy and not a 40+ year-old woman.

    Even if I were to write in the voice of a 40+ year-old woman, if I’m not writing my own autobiography, then the character wouldn’t necessarily sound like me. I need to fade to the background and allow the character to speak in a clear and believable voice.

    I appreciate your comments! I look forward to more.
    Kim

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