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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
And it hit me: I hadn’t written a blog! Where did the days go since Friday?
Well, I spent a lot of time birdwatching, and was rewarded with titmice, chickadees, bluebirds, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, grackles, bluejays, cardinals, red bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves, white throat sparrows, wrens, brown thrashers, and—of course—robins.
Today for the first time ever, I saw a pair of Eastern towhees! They’re usually very shy, but the males sing and show off their tails in flashy displays to attract mates in the spring. Remind you of any characters or real people you may have encountered?
I had a chance to enjoy the acrobatics of Stanley and Ollie at the bird feeder. They’re better than a professional circus troupe, but without the spandex and sequins! (For more about their antics, check out an earlier blog I wrote about the behaviors and habits of squirrels in my yard and elsewhere.)
And a couple of days ago I spotted a five-foot long black racer coiled in a pussywillow tree behind my house. (Black racers are very common in the southern US, but they are not venomous or dangerous. Random fact — these snakes can vibrate their tails, making a sound very similar to a rattlesnake.)
Visiting yard plants is always interesting this time of year (sometimes a bit confusing). I found that a purple baptisia planted by the front door has migrated to a side garden near the back—clearly the work of fairies.
I have a single rose bud opening (although my neighbors’ roses are hanging heavy).
The rhododendron has its first bloom, and azaleas are going wild. Irises are so heavy-headed that they are resting on nearby azaleas. My peonies aren’t as far along as they were three years ago, but they’re showing lots of buds for the future.
The patio pots have flourishing mint, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, and—surprisingly—dill and parsley that wintered over.
I’ve walked in the park and along nature trails, finding wild rhododendron, a.k.a. early azaleas. Also spotted were Virginia bluebells, wood ferns, phlox, pink lady slippers, cinquefoil, dandelions, and creeping buttercup.
Then, too, there were writing tasks. COG Literary Magazine is preparing to print “Pawpaw” and I had to approve the page proof. “Running on About My Mother’s Body” received a second acceptance, so I needed to respond to that and offer a replacement piece. I even wrote the first draft of “Pandemic.”
And I’m involved with two critique groups on zoom and Google hang-out, both new to me.
All of that doesn’t even touch on communications with family and friends.
Squirrel habitat. Gray squirrels are tree-dweller. They build nests (called dreys) in the forks of tree branches. They use twigs and leaves, sometimes take over bird’s nests, or inhabit a permanent den hollowed out in the trunk or large branch of a tree. Wherever the nest, it is likely lined with moss, thistledown, dry grass, and feather insulation.
When access can be gained, they will take up residence in the walls or attics of houses—the scrabbling around driving the human inhabitants nuts, resulting in extreme (and often expensive) efforts to get rid of the invaders and block future access. But it’s worth it, because among other things, squirrels gnaw on electrical cords creating a fire hazard.
Consider the factors shaping your character’s habitat.
Squirrel diet. Squirrels are predominantly vegetarian, eating tree buds, berries, many types of seeds and acorns, nuts (walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, and others) and some types of woods fungi. They can damage trees by tearing the bark and eating the soft tissue underneath. They raid gardens for tomatoes, corn, strawberries, and other garden crops. They cannot digest cellulose.
What I find especially frustrating, they often don’t actually eat what they damage, merely taking a bite or two and leaving the rest. Sometimes they eat tomato seeds and leave the pulp. They’ve been known to nibble my decorative pumpkins, taking a few bites and returning over time to take a few more bites, each time nibbling in a fresh spot.
If driven to it by hunger or other conditions, they prey upon insects, frogs, small rodents (including other squirrels), small birds, birds’ eggs. They will gnaw on bones, antlers, and turtle shells, possibly as a source of minerals scarce in their normal diet.
When opportunity arises, they will raid bird feeders for millet, corn, sunflower seeds, etc. Hanging out around bird feeders means opportunistic squirrels are perfectly situated in the middle of a relatively high bird population, increasing their ability to raid nests, eggs, and nestlings.
What characterizes your character’s diet—and why? Omnivore, herbivore, carnivore. Exploratory, picky. Eat to live, live to eat. Gray squirrels are scatter-hoarders. They hoard food in numerous small caches for later recovery. Each squirrel is estimated to make several thousand caches each season! Recent research indicates that squirrels can remember and recover up to 90% of the food they bury. This is probably a combination of excellent spatial memory and sense of smell.
The amount of food they have to hide no doubt explains why squirrels are constantly digging in my patio pots and flower beds! Even as I type they are uprooting pansies and breaking off the green stalks that would otherwise become daffodils.
Is your character a hoarder? Of what? Where? How? Squirrels are smart and devious. In order to keep other animals from digging up their food caches, they sometimes pretend to bury it. They prepare the spot as usual, pretend to put the food in while actually concealing it in their mouths, and then covering the hole as if the food were there. They also hide behind vegetation while burying food or hide it high up in trees. These behaviors appeared to be learned.
How does your character treat coworkers? Family? Friends?
Reproduction. Grey squirrels can breed twice a year when fully mature (if food is abundant), once in the spring for younger females. These squirrels are polygynous—i.e., competing males form a hierarchy of dominance and the female mates with multiple males depending on the hierarchy. Five days before a female enters estrus, she may attract up to 34 males from up to 500 meters away.
Communication. Squirrels use both sounds and body language to communicate. They squeak, utter a low-pitched noise, a chatter, a raspy “mehr mehr mehr” as well as “kuk” or “quaa” (vocals warning of predators). Biologists describe an affectionate coo-purring sound used between a mother and her kits and by males when they court a female during mating season.
Squirrels also communicate by tail-flicking, facial expressions, and other gestures. The relative reliance on vocal versus physical signals depends on ambient noise and sight-lines.
Human communication: verbal (the words said), paralanguage (how it’s said), and body language (posture, gesture, facial expression)
And one very special talent. Gray squirrels are one of very few mammalian species that can descend a tree head-first. It does this by rotating its back feet 180 degrees so the backward-facing claws can grip the tree bark. The benefit of this ability isn’t limited to trees. Squirrels are incredibly athletic, jumping among tree limbs or from trees to other object, and gasping with both front and back paws allows them to climb slim poles and hang both upside-down and right-side-up. In my back yard, and I presume other places, a tree branch bouncing and swinging in the morning sun is the signal that a squirrel is about to jump from the tree to the bird feeder—where it grasps whatever comes first to hand.
The beauty of gray squirrels. Gray squirrels have silky fur and bushy tails. They have predominantly gray fur with a white underside, but (like the gray wolf) can exhibit colors variations: brownish, black, and white. Squirrels that are almost entirely black predominant in certain geographic areas, specifically in the north, where it appears that their dark color is a survival adaptation to cold temperatures.
Albinos are present throughout nature, including among gray squirrels. Albinos squirrels have pure white fur with red eyes. White squirrels, on the other hand, are a genetic variation of the eastern gray squirrel, white but usually with a small patch of gray head patch and dorsal stripe. AND it has dark eyes.
In general, white squirrels are at a disadvantage, rejected by other squirrels and easily sighted by predators. However, in certain geographic areas, humans have taken a hand and allow white squirrels to thrive: Brevard, North Carolina; Marionville, Missouri, Olney, Illinois; Kenton, Tennessee; and Exeter, Ontario. The premier location seems to be Brevard, where one in three squirrels is white, the highest percentage white of any known squirrel colony. In 1986, Brevard passed an ordinance making the city a sanctuary for white squirrels, and now they celebrate a White Squirrel Festival.
I was fortunate enough to see a white squirrel in my back yard.—which makes me part of a (somewhat) elite club. Even though a white squirrel is still basically a talented tree rat, it has symbolism on its side. In folklore all-white animals have long been seen as portents of good luck, symbols of purity, and even visitors from the realms of gods and spirits.
This would naturally segue smoothly into a discussion of squirrel symbolism, but that turns out to be way too expansive for this blog. There are numerous online discussions of squirrels as totems, spirit animals, and animals of power. There is even an essay on the meaning of a squirrel appearing in dreams, depending on how and what it’s doing.
Writers: consider reading up a bit on squirrel symbolism because all of these articles describe the behaviors/characteristics of people with a squirrel connection.