Monday, April 26, 2010

Ensconced Scudded Across My Fancies

When I had only been writing seriously for about a year, mainly in the short story form, my work was indeed very serious: seriously awful.

My fiction contained all the attributes of the work of a neophyte. Despite my youth, the ideas were tired, the style was petrified, and the plots ancient. Like the work of almost everyone else who first turn their hands to fiction, my prose totally sucked stinking chimpanzee ass.

After I'd been at it for some time I decided to send a story directly to Karl Edward Wagner. The story that I sent to him had never been published, so there was really no reason for him to see it. After all, the main public work for the late Dr. Wagner was as the editor of his excellent YEAR'S BEST HORROR that he produced annually for DAW Books. I can't even recall the title of the story that I sent to Karl Wagner, but I do remember that it was a ghost story. He responded in short order, telling me that I showed some talent but that I needed to weed out some of the worst pulp fiction elements of my work. I'd apparently been reading too much Robert Ervin Howard at the time and tended to utilize words like "thews".

"Fuck that", Karl told me. Just say 'muscles'.

Later on, I sent him another story. Like the first one, it had never been published, so I was way the hell out of line sending it to him. (Oh. I got his address because an editor at Warner Books forwarded a fan letter I'd sent to him in their care and he replied by post--with his return address intact. Thus my rude self felt welcome to send lousy stories for him to read.) The second story is also one that is mercifully lost to history. I'm not even sure there's a copy left in the stacks of boxes of papers from those days. It's possible, I suspect, but I have no reason to dig it out. I'm not that cruel.

With the second story Karl Wagner was once more his friendly, helpful self. He told me yet again that I showed talent, that I knew how to tell an effective story. But in the case of this second one--a ghost story--well...I'll quote him. I've not forgotten it and I get a lot of laughs when I tell about it.

"Well, Bob. Not bad story-telling. But the idea here has been done.

To death.

By many other authors.

Long, long, long, long before you wrote this version."

Even then I got a chuckle out of his response. When it comes to criticism of my work, I have always had a very thick skin. I don't mind criticism and I don't worry about editors having me retool my fiction. I generally appreciate the help and accept it as such.

Recently I was reading a novel by a mystery writer who is far less famous than he deserves to be. Toward the end of the book he was describing a thunderstorm and mentioned that "the clouds scudded across the sky". Now, I know what "scudded" means. Everyone I know generally recognizes the term when they see it. The trouble is, the only time I ever see this word is when it sits precisely in the same order this author used it: "The clouds scudded across the sky". That's the only way anyone seems to use the word "scudded". I never use it in conversation and I don't know anyone who does use it. It's apparently an Old English word that just lingered, mainly in books where someone wanted to describe clouds fucking scudding across the fucking sky.

Truth to be told, I've used it in just the same way. Every freaking writer I know has done it. It's even older than fiction from the 20s and 30s pulp era. But it's the kind of thing that we need to shed when delivering a novel or short story.

A second such word that my writer friends (and I) have used to extreme is "ensconced". Again, I don't know anyone who says that in day to day conversation. I suppose there are some folk who might blurt it out as they babble on, but I don't know anyone who does. Some years back I used that very word in one of my critically praised short stories ("NUMHED"). Describing a fellow sitting in a McDonald's Restaurant I wrote that his "ass was ensconced in plastic". It seemed clever at the time, but I regretted it almost as soon as I saw it in print. I've never, to my knowledge, used the word in conversation and it wasn't right to use it that way in a work of fiction.

Basically, using tired words and terms like "scudded" and "ensconced" is dishonest. There's no truth to them. One breaks the illusion of the fiction when such terms are included within a story or novel. I don't like encountering that kind of thing from other writers, and I work hard to try to keep these things from popping up in my own fiction.

In fiction, in criticism, and in life, honesty seems to always be the best policy.


Edward Forrest Frank said...


This was a particularly interesting column. I imagine that Karl Wagner is right about the use antiquated words like ensconced, scudded and thews. He was a professional editor and dealt with stories by the hundreds, likely most of them were pretty badly written. But there is always some lingering disagreement with almost any stricture. You are a writer of fiction, and in these instances short story horror fiction. I wonder about the use of these terms in writing in general. They are commonly seen in poetry, much too often in bad poetry, but still they are present even in the great.

The use of words not common in our vocabulary forces you to think about the meaning of the word and the meaning the poet is trying to portray. In some ways the reader is detached from the mundane and can better envision the scenes painted by the poet. It is like a game between the writer and the reader. I see their usage in the writings of many of the famous essayists. I see it scattered among the paragraphs of Edward Abbey, which I am rereading right now. I am somehow drawn to these words and the sounds they make in my mind, much in the same way I a repelled by the drabness of Dickens and pointlessness of Fitzgerald.

I see the usage of antique terms in fantasy literature. They are I beleive designed to create a mood of ancient magic and a world different from our own. H. P. Lovecraft used these obscure words and included much purple prose in his tales, yet he is cited by some as the father of modern horror writers. Somehow these overblown descriptions simply added to the mood of the story and under his pen they felt right.

Purple prose should not be the goal of course. It easily becomes overdone, heavy, and wearying very quickly, but I don't believe that an occasional ensconced thrown into a story is always a bad thing. It might be exactly the word that is needed at that point. Throw in a crepuscular light here and there if you want also.

Ed Frank

HemlockMan said...

I'm glad you brought up HPL. I have always been willing to forgive Lovecraft's use of antiquated terminology for the very reason that he used them intentionally as tools to create an atmosphere. Many people lose track of (or aren't aware of) the fact that Lovecraft's work was, in fact, high art. He was always trying to evoke a particular emotion and a specific sense of dread. In his case, the otherwise purple prose was an effective method to do this. In addition, you have to understand that HPL was the quintessential atheist (he referred to himself as a "realist"). He didn't believe in any god, and he need proof, evidence (science, if you will). And supernatural fiction was kind of like a guilty pleasure for him. So he set about creating a kind of horror fiction that had, at its base, a twisted science that would make the seemingly supernatural happenings in his work in a kind of logic.

My main point is that when you are writing modern stories for modern readers, you need to use modern language in a modern context.

I would also forgive (to a certain extent) poets to tend to the purple for the very reason that most poetry is art (well, I guess all of it is). So I will cut some poets some slack there, too.

But my favorite poet these days in Charles Bukowski, and he certainly was not excessive in his use of older, tired, faded terms.