EASY FIXES FOR FLABBY PROSE

(It’s not flabby; it’s fluffy!)

By flabby prose, I mean prose that includes unnecessary words. Besides improving the quality of one’s prose, cutting out excess words can help keep the word count down when there are page or word limits.

Stop Mentioning the POV Character’s Senses 

“The flavors of carrots and mulch mingled on his tongue.”

Yes, sensory images are rich and desirable. What’s unnecessary is citing the character’s senses. 

~She heard squirrels scampering up her tree.
~He smelled the tantalizing scent of acorns.
~They saw flying squirrels swooping overhead.

~Squirrels scampered up the tree outside.
~The scent of acorns filled the breeze.
~Flying squirrels swooped among branches overhead.

“The banana thief twitched his tail to remain steady for his heist, upside-down and backwards.”
(Proprioception or equilibrioception)

If the character describes a squirrel stealing a banana, the reader knows that character sees it and needn’t be told that he sees it. Ditto for other sensory systems. If they are mentioned, make it a conscious decision for a writerly reason.

Don’t forget the other senses! In addition to the five we all learned about in school, scientists classify up to 21 neurological senses. The body’s awareness of its place in relation to surroundings (proprioception) is invaluable to any character in tight spaces or moving quickly. Feelings of hunger or lack of air are classified as chemical senses, very useful to characters undergoing any kind of physical deprivation.

Consider also balance, gravity, pain, temperature, air pressure, the passage of time, itching, muscle tension, or even the perception of magnetic fields. There is an entirely separate set of nerves to detect stretching in the lungs, stomach, bladder, and blood vessels. Just think what a character could do when paying attention to that!

Stop Telling What a Character Notices, Remembers, Etc.

“The seed-stealer gyrated and spun, his prize always just out of reach.”

If a character recounts something from the past, it’s clear s/he remembers it. When a squirrel was a hairless kit, his mother taught him how to steal from bird feeders. He doesn’t have to tell his friends that he remembers being a kit.

Your reader doesn’t have to be told that the POV character noticed the squirrel hanging off the bird feeder again. It’s probably an event that happens every time the bird feeder is filled.

This is similar to how one handles what a character sees, hears, feels, smells, or tastes: it’s typically obvious in the rest of the sentence.

Beware Is, Are, Was, and Were

“Gravity worked overtime, and her limbs refused to work at all.”

By and large, these verbs should be replaced by something stronger and less passive.  “Fatigue weighs her down” is much stronger than “She is fatigued.”

Reconsider -ing Verbs

Is, are, was, and were often precede an -ing verb. For example, ”is walking” or “was walking” might better be replaced with “walks” or “walked.”

Question Every Adverb and Adjective

“The graceful, red-furred, majestic, enormous, flying squirrel soars gracefully and majestically, proudly displaying its enormous, red-furred wing flaps in its graceful, majestic flight.”

Some writing teacher or other once told me that an adverb modifying a verb is often hiding a stronger verb. For example, consider replacing “walked fast” with “rushed” or “hurried” or “scurried” or whatever fits the context. 

“This pale, white, albino squirrel displays the very odd and unique trait of striking, brilliantly blue, nearly cobalt eyes.”

Saying something is very tall or very beautiful is vague, triggering different images for different readers. Specify “over seven feet tall,” for example, or say what is beautiful about the person, object, scenery, etc.

And for goodness sake, don’t modify things that shouldn’t be modified, that are already specific. There is no such thing as ”very unique.” Unique means one-of-a-kind. If it isn’t truly unique, switch to “very rare”—and then consider whether the “very” is really needed! A second and a glance are, by definition fast/brief. Enough said.

Examine Attributions 

“You’re eating too fast,” he said.
“I’m hungry!” he said.
“You’re hogging all the jackfruit,” he said.
“This fruit outweighs both of us combined. Calm down,” he said.
“You’ll make yourself sick,” he said.
“Stop worrying,” he said.
“My stomach hurts just watching you,” he said.
“Krjxqkkkk…. Ahem….. Choked on a seed,” he said.
“Told you so!” he said.

Probably everyone knows that the most frequent, useful, and unobtrusive attribution is “s/he said.” True, when multiple people interact in a scene, the writer needs to identify whether it’s Joan, John, Susan, or Sam speaking.  But when there are only two people in a scene, identifying/attributing every change of speaker gets clunky. Use sparingly.

If you’re unsure about whether it sounds clunky, try reading it aloud.

Bottom line: Go forth and tighten your prose!

THE UPSIDE OF BAD HABITS

I’ve long maintained that people always do things for a reason—or more than one. Even habits are not “just habits.” There are reasons people repeatedly do something—often non-consciously—and this includes bad habits. At this point, most writing on the topic of bad habits would veer off into a discussion of ways to break them. But this blog is about what people get out of their habits that might not be immediately obvious.

bad habit is that action which causes problems for our health, income, career, or relationships.  Something that is bad is unpleasant, harmful, or undesirable.

Note: Some of the behaviors listed here might not be considered bad habits by everyone.  Anything done to excess can become harmful, after all. Drinking too much water can lead to hyponatremia. Spending too much of your time helping others can lead to ignoring self-care.

Here, in no particular order: 

Smoking

“Smoke Like a Captain”
  • Create an image  
    • Sophisticate with a cigarette holder
    • High roller with an expensive cigar
    • Macho man
  • Pausing to think before responding without obviously pausing
  • Get an energy hit
  • Creates situations for social connections that might not otherwise happen
  • Provides a brief break from work or stressful situations

Drinking 

  • Relax in a socially tense situation
  • Create an image of sophistication, wealth, etc., depending on the drink
  • Regularly drinking heavily increases tolerance, making it less likely the drinker will make a drunken misstep
  • Moderate drinking reduces likelihood of a heart attack by about a third
  • Alcoholic beverages are sure to be free of water parasites in places where other beverages are chancy

Negative Thinking

  • When things go bad, “I told you so”
  • When things go well, pleasant surprises

Eating Junk or Fast Food

  • It’s handy, so no effort
  • It’s relatively inexpensive, so easy on the wallet
  • Service is fast, so it’s an efficient choice
  • Higher levels of fat, salt, and sugar provide temporary dopamine surges
  • Can become family ritual, if eaten infrequently
  • Create positive associations with otherwise negative experiences (lollipop at the doctor’s office)

Anger Outbursts

  • Intimidates more timid people
  • Creates the impression of passion or strong feelings
  • Less likely to bottle anger and turn it inward, resulting in ulcers, high blood pressure, etc.

Indulging a Greedy Nature

  • Gets one more of the good stuff (sometimes)
  • Incite envy/ jealousy in others

Telling Lies

  • “Little white lies” ease socially awkward situations
    • E.g., “Of course your new haircut is flattering…”
  • Avoid punishment
  • Shift blame
  • Keep positive secrets, such as a surprise party

Excessive Screen Time

  • Keep up with news and fads
  • Have the topics for conversation 
  • Avoid boredom
  • Improve hand-eye coordination (video games)

Always Criticizing

  • Builds one’s self-esteem by comparison
  • Intimidate potential critics
  • Temporarily look like a subject expert

Nail-Biting

  • Makes paying for manicures unnecessary
  • Shows intense feelings
  • Is less destructive than other bad habits
  • Occupies hands to prevent other, worse habits, such as smoking

Gobbling Food 

Eating quickly is fairly common in some circumstances. Gulping down a meal within a few minutes is a bit less common.

  • Saves time for other things
  • Demonstrates that food is not important
  • Potential future in speed-eating competitions

Not Maintaining Hygiene and Cleanliness

  • Saves time and energy
  • Saves money on grooming products
  • Allows focus on things other than personal appearance

Procrastination

  • You never have to feel like a failure  because “I could have aced it ill I’d spent more time on it”
  • If you procrastinate but succeed or excel anyway, you’ve saved time to do more/other things
  • If a procrastinator is successful, it’s a big boost to one’s self-perceived capability

Keeping Late Hours

  • Fewer people around to interrupt
  • Hours when no one is criticizing what one is doing
  • Easier to conduct a clandestine affair
  • Boosts one’s self-concept as a non-conformist
  • Minimize hours spent with unpleasant spouse or other family
  • Night shift workers are often paid more
  • Facilitates communication with people in other time zones

Swearing

  • Substitutes for more physically violent anger outburst
    • (E.g., throwing things, punching the wall)
  • If conducted at great volume, it’s good for one’s lungs 
  • Can encourage verbal creativity
  • Is typically a sign of honesty

Fidgeting

Tapping toes, drumming fingers, or other incidental movements

  • Relatively safe way to release nervous energy and creativity
  • Makes it easier to maintain weight, heart and lung health
  • Unconscious form of drilling for musicians and dancers

Avoiding Exercise

  • It saves energy
  • It allows more time for other things
  • If conscious decision, can save money on exercise clothes/ equipment/ memberships 

Humming or Talking to Oneself

  • Self-soothing when anxious
  • Clarify thinking when facing a difficult decision
  • Relieves the silence for those living alone
  • May be the only way to have an intelligent conversation

Interrupting

  • Express more of one’s own opinions
  • Stop an opponent from making points
  • Shows enthusiasm for topic
  • Can prevent someone else accidentally divulging sensitive information

BOTTOM LINE: The downsides of bad habits have been well-documented. But everyone gets something out of every act, especially repetitive acts.

MENTIONING THE UNMENTIONABLE

People—and by extension, characters—regularly do things that they don’t mention, or even admit to, even though they aren’t illegal, immoral or physically harmful.  Writers can make their characters more realistic when said characters engage in unmentionable behaviors.  What follows is an extensive but not exhaustive list of possibilities.

 

Photo by Nancy Rivera of Splash News

Nose Picking is a prime example of a virtually universal unmentionable behavior.  It has its own Wikipedia entry, complete with a technical definition (extracting nasal mucus with one’s finger) and formal label of rhinotillexis.  Psychiatrists at the Dean Foundation for Health, Research, and Education in Wisconsin conducted a study revealing that 91% of people said they were currently nose pickers (though only 75% believed everyone did it).

 

So, how and where does your character nose pick?  Always the same digit?  Always the same place?  Always the same time of day?

 

And then what? Is the residue flicked off? Wiped on a tissue?  Wiped on the underside of an article of clothing?  Wiped off on a rug?  On furniture?  Added to a booger wall?  Or maybe the residue is eaten.

 

Everybody Does It!

Mucophagy is the technical term for eating nose pickings.  Most societies condemn it, but some scientists claim there are health benefits.  Dr. Friedrich Bischinger, a leading Austrian lung specialist, says that eating one’s mucus gives “a natural boost to their immune system” because the mucus contains a “cocktail of antiseptic enzymes that kill or weaken bacteria that become entangled in it.”  Reintroducing weakened bacteria may allow the immune system to safely produce antibodies.

 

Time considerations for nose picking.  How often?  A few times a day—however unmentionable—isn’t odd.  But one-to-two hours daily?  When it becomes an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s called Rhinotillexomania.

 

Wiping your nose on anything available.

Enough said.

 Urination is another universal. How about peeing in the shower? Or the bathtub? The ocean—or the swimming pool? Is your female character comfortable urinating outside?

 

Recently, there have been a number of devices developed and put on the market to allow women the same ease of urination as men.  They come in very handy on long car trips or when getting to the bathroom requires a trek through an unheated house, up a snowy mountain, and behind a tree to squat over an unsettlingly drafty hole in the ground.

I once spent two weeks on a whitewater rafting drip on the Colorado River. People were required to pee in the river. (Recall that urine is sterile.) In camp men simply walked to the edge of the water. Women often waded out and pulled down their pants. On the water, men stood at the stern. Women pulled down their clothes, hung onto the cargo straps, and cantilevered out over the water.

In all of these circumstances, the other people politely looked the other way. But then how did it happen that the last night out I was voted the person most improved in peeing off the side of the raft? So if your character is urinating in unmentionable ways, consider both culture and circumstances.

 

Defecation is always fertile ground. It seems whole herds of people get completely naked to poop—every time.  Imagine trying to use a public toilet!

Consider a character who wipes his/her anus and looks at it.  Or smells his/her fingers afterward.  One justification for frequently smelling one’s anus or genitals (via finger swipes) is being familiar with one’s usual smell so that changes that might signal a change in health status would be recognizable.

Not washing hands after using the bathroom.  Or even turning on water so others in the public toilet will think you washed when you didn’t.  And it raises the question of why not wash?
 
Burping, a cousin to the more offensive Passing GasThese things happen.
I remember a joke from grade school. “What did the stomach say to the burp?” “Be quiet, and I’ll let you out the back door.”
But what about someone who burps and/or farts on purpose, on demand, or as loudly as possible?

 

What about someone who intentionally farts in elevators, subway cars, on trains or busses and casts a blaming glare at those nearby?

What about intentionally expelling loud farts and/or burps but only when alone?

Or sniffing farts to try to figure out which food made it smell that way.

For truly obnoxious characters (and spouses), there is the dreaded Dutch Oven: farting in bed and then pulling the blanket over your bed partner’s head, trapping them in the stench.

The other Dutch Oven, unfortunately

And consider whether your character has an extreme reaction to other people’s flatulence. I know of a woman who became furious if someone passed gas in her presence: smell is a molecular sense, so smelling a fart means taking in fecal molecules.
 

Eating is fraught with unmentionable behaviors. For example, eating food off the floor after 5 seconds have passed.

 

Eating from the cooking pot.  Eating/drinking directly from the container.  (In this case, whether your character lives alone is relevant. )

Eating your big sister’s foot is photographable but not mentionable

Eating food other than snacks or sandwiches (for example, tossed salad) with fingers.  Eating the unthinkable as a regular thing: chalk, insects, dirt, tissue paper, etc.

Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taiwan has very interesting serving dishes

Nakedness is sometimes necessary, of course.  But what if your naked character regularly sits on the sofa and reads?  Cooks dinner?  Sits on the deck or patio—and if so, at what time, and how private is the space?

 

Or gets naked and runs the Boston Marathon?

What about taking naked selfies for no particular reason?  Saying you deleted the naked pictures sent to you but you didn’t?

 

Sucking Blood From a Cut.

He would be happy to help …

Having sexual thoughts about an inappropriate target.  Think relative, someone else’s spouse or partner, subordinate—whoever is beyond the pale because of relationship or other taboo.

 


Self Absorption.is almost always unmentionable!  Narrating thoughts aloud—while driving, planning, etc.   Closely related to talking to oneself.

Consider cracking up at one’s own jokes, even when alone. Practicing pick-up lines in the mirror, ditto facial expressions. How about making weird faces at yourself? Or googling oneself?

 

 

Women Only Unmentionables. Shaving—where and how often.   Plucking or shaving facial hair from eyebrows to chin and jowls.  Obsessing about changes in body odor during menstruation.  Collecting “fuck me” shoes in colors to match every outfit.
Men Only Unmentionables: measuring his dick, jerking off to fantasies of his friend’s girlfriend, windmilling/ helicoptering his penis, frequently resettling his junk in his banana hammock.

 

Miscellaneous unmentionables could be almost anything.

  • Dancing like no one with the authority to commit you is watching
  • Running up the stairs on all fours
  • Eavesdropping or otherwise spying on people—including reading another person’s mail, email, or texts
  • Squeezing pimples or blackheads
  • Climbing on furniture
  • Bouncing on the bed
  • Making weird noises
  • Breath syncing to someone else, music, in the extreme known as sensorimotor obsession
  • Arithmomania, a strong need to have one’s life governed by odd, even, or certain numbers, brushing teeth to setting the thermostat, etc.
  • Blow-drying “down there”
Overview for writers: Make your character more human by giving her/him a characteristic unmentionable behavior or two.  Don’t go overboard unless your character is totally neurotic and/ or you are going for humor.  And remember that such behaviors are even more revealing if the characters do such things in the presence of others.  Have fun!