"Beautiful" Prose

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"Beautiful" Prose

Postby Strycher » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:36 am

I keep hearing discussions about how some successful authors (who I've read) don't write "beautiful" prose. Also keep catching discussions about people who wrote stunning prose . . . And I've never read them.

I'm making a read-list of writers who produced this amazingly beautiful, breath-taking prose. Who would you recommend?

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby s_c_baker » Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:44 am

Kij Johnson.

Also, nebula winners (in my experience) tend to come closer to this than other writers. Nebula privileges craft more than some other awards, which are more fan- and reader-derived. Not saying anything against fans and readers, of course, but craftsmen/craftswomen they ain't. wotf011

edit: and I just found out Kij Johnson writes haiku and haibun! Now I idolize her even more. wotf001

edit2:

Also, Samuel R Delany. (Another Nebula winner...)
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby izanobu » Wed Jan 25, 2012 8:20 am

Grendel by John Gardner will always stand out in my mind as one of the most beautifully written books ever.

Catherynne M. Valente also is known for her beautiful prose. Margaret Atwood. Hmm. Who else who writes spec fic? Robin Mckinley does in novels like Deerskin and Sunshine, for sure. Guy Gavriel Kay is another (Tigana is the book to start with, imho).

The thing to remember about beautiful prose is that it only a block in the building. If all you have is lovely prose, you won't sell many stories, especially in genre fiction. I look at it as more of a bonus than anything else. Of course, I'm probably also bitter because I have many, many rejections telling me that my prose is lovely/beautiful/amazing, but that the story doesn't work.

If you want to write beautiful prose, I suggest you write hundreds of poems, as well as reading thousands of poems. It doesn't hurt to develop a poetic ear for language, definitely.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby vanaaron » Wed Jan 25, 2012 8:33 am

I'm going to list some short stories that I think are great examples of beautiful prose. I'm hoping this gives you a more manageable reading list than if I listed novels, but let me know if you want me to name some novels (or just find novels by any of the authors below, and chances are it's going to be beautifully written).

10 classics of beautiful prose:
Ed Bryant, "The Thermals of August"
Octavia E. Butler, "Speech Sounds"
Orson Scott Card, "Unaccompanied Sonata"
Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star"
Daniel Keyes, "Flowers for Algernon"
Ursula K. LeGuin, "Nine Lives"
Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
Bob Shaw, "Light of Other Days"
James Tiptree, Jr., "The Women Men Don't See"
Connie Willis, "Chance"

20 beautifully written stories published since 2001:
Paolo Bacigalupi, "The Gambler"
Ted Chiang, "Hell Is the Absence of God"
Aliette de Bodard, "Blighted Heart"
Jeffrey Ford, "The Empire of Ice Cream"
Eugie Foster, "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast"
Nancy Fulda, "Movement"
Neil Gaiman, "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"
Neil Gaiman, "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains"
Samantha Henderson, "Deutoroi"
Kij Johnson, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist"
Stephen King, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away"
Kelly Link, "Magic for Beginners"
China Miéville, "The Tain"
Nnedi Okorafor, "Spider the Artist"
Susan Palwick, "Sorrel's Heart"
Cat Rambo, "Magnificent Pigs"
Geoff Ryman, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter"
Rachel Swirsky, "Eros, Philia, Agape"
James Van Pelt, "The Radio Magician"
Catherynne M. Valente, "The Harpooner at the Bottom of the World"

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby kyle » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:08 am

Lev Grossman's prose always impresses me. His stories leave me wanting. The Magicians is better written than The Magician King, though the latter is less likely to cure insomnia.

I was particularly impressed this past year with a debut novel by Genevieve Valentine called Mechanique, though it's quite literary and isn't recommended for light reading.

If you're interested in writers who know how to style clean, clear prose, pick up anything by Jack McDevitt.

For an example of excellent prose in a pulp style, John Scalzi's more recent work is a good choice.

Although I think he's lost it in recent years, Orson Scott Card should obviously be on any such list.

China Mieville is very good at making hopelessly complex worlds clear, and Embassytown is a good example of that. (I ended up not being as excited by the story as some of my friends were, but I was impressed that by the end of the book I was clinging to linguistic nuances.)

And I'll second vanaaron's entire list, even without having read a couple of them myself...

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby izanobu » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:11 am

Also, for dense, lovely prose, Elizabeth Bear is a good one. Her stuff is very rich and makes for pretty slow reading though. I think some of her short stories are available various places online.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby vanaaron » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:19 am

I'm just reading an advance copy of Elizabeth Bear's forthcoming novel Range of Ghosts, and the writing is wonderful.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby kyle » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:42 am

Oh, and I should add this:

It's very true that there's no real separation between the story and how it's told. If you gave the exact same characters and the exact same plot to two different writers, you'd end up with two different stories, because each writer would write it very differently.

But that said, please, for the love of whatever you hold sacred, don't fall into the trap of writing beautiful prose at the expense of your story.

Something that is well-plotted and well-paced will keep me reading even if the prose stylings are so awful it feels like fingernails on a blackboard (whatever a blackboard might be). Something that is gorgeously written but where nothing is happening will get set aside very, very quickly.

I don't care how gorgeous the prose is. If it's not moving the story forward, cut it!

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby MJNL » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:44 am

I think this thread is a good example of the subjectivity of "lovely prose." What some people find beautiful makes me want to gag--but that doesn't make them wrong and me right or vise versa.

A few of these recommended books I would suggest running away from as fast as possible, others I completely agree with.

But for some reason I don't think it's fair of me to point out which is which.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Strycher » Wed Jan 25, 2012 9:59 am

izanobu wrote: Hmm. Who else who writes spec fic?


It doesn't have to be spec fic.

If you want to write beautiful prose,


I don't know that I want to learn how to write it, so much as I am trying to find some way to qualify it. I'm thinking that since "beautiful" is subjective, beautiful prose can't be quantified. But I never read something and go "Wow that's pretty prose." Ever. I might admire how cleverly a writer has stacked the words together, but I never notice if it is beautiful.

So, I'm trying to figure out if I'm reading the wrong stuff, or if I just completely lack taste. wotf007

kyle wrote:Something that is well-plotted and well-paced will keep me reading even if the prose stylings are so awful it feels like fingernails on a blackboard


Yeah, that's kinda what I have to bank on. wotf019

vanaaron - I am most interested in short stories because of time constraints. Thanks.

Thanks everybody! Keep 'em coming. I'll get around to them all eventually.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Rebecca Birch » Wed Jan 25, 2012 10:09 am

I got a comment recently that's making me take a close look at what I write. It was something like, "I liked the writing better than the story." Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the commenter. My prose works fine. It's the underlying stories that need improvement, and that's a lot harder to fix. Nothing to do but keep working at it--both writing and reading to get a feel for story rather than lyrical prose.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby izanobu » Wed Jan 25, 2012 10:27 am

Rebecca- I have the same issue. Books on screenwriting (like "Save the Cat" and Mckee's "Substance, Structure, and Style") helped a lot with learning how to plot.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Grayson Morris » Wed Jan 25, 2012 11:14 am

The authors I love the most and whose books I will reread are the ones where I forget I'm reading someone's writing. Both clumsy writing and "beautiful" writing make me aware of the author, which I think is a bad thing.

A little beauty in one's phrasing can be a good thing, but I don't want to be pulled out of every page thinking "Wow, what a beautiful way to describe that." I want to be immersed in the story.

Story trumps beauty-of-words every time. As Kyle said, writing I don't like won't keep me from reading on if the story is good--incredible story is what got me all the way through The DaVinci Code. (Note I am not saying Dan Brown is a poor writer; I'm saying I, personally, didn't like his style.) Gorgeous writing that doesn't take me somewhere interesting will be abandoned.

That makes people like Genevieve Valentine (so great to see Kyle mentioned her!) such a treat to read: lovely prose that goes somewhere fascinating.

Story fail, by the way, is what I think really drives the anger about Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books. I didn't see any "bad writing" in the "look inside" preview I read of the first book. I think the outrage is not that she "writes poorly," even though that's what folks sputter and spew, but that she told a story a lot of people couldn't buy at all, a flimsy story, and they are incensed that a lot of OTHER people could buy it. But I haven't read the books, so I can't say for sure.

In terms of things to read to get a feel, I'd say the stories that Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons publish have a higher "beautiful prose" quotient than stories published by the big 3. That doesn't make them better, just different, targeting a slightly different audience.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Strycher » Wed Jan 25, 2012 12:02 pm

vanaaron wrote:Orson Scott Card, "Unaccompanied Sonata"


Gaaaahhhh. Cried at work. What is OSC's obsession with taking small boys from their families and then breaking them to bits?

Grayson - I tend to agree with you. There's at least one book in recent memory that I couldn't finish because it took so much effort to decode the intricate sentences. But it didn't win any awards, so I'm not sure that it's one people think is "beautiful."

wotf017

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby WriteToLive » Wed Jan 25, 2012 12:36 pm

I would recommend Scott Lynch's "Lies of Locke Lamora" and "Red Seas Under Red Skies." I call them Fantasy crack. You just don't want to put it down.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby gower21 » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:37 pm

What an awesome thread! I'm looking into some of these recommendations. I don't think my writing will ever be considered "beautiful" but I can always try. It's one of those things when you read someone who has a good handle on the words I think "GAHHH! I'm so jealous!!"

I've noticed a pattern in some of the HM's and higher being definitely in the category of "beautifully written" -- and a skill that can so easily go the other way...I really have to applauded the people who can do it.

One past forum member that sticks out in my mind is Gwen Clair--her story I think that was either in Clarksworld or Daily about the artist using her/his (can't remember) own blood to paint pictures with more emotion...it was incredibly beautifully written and a great story too. (And Annie and Rebecca-- I have to say both of your writing is absolutely beautiful how well each word flows into the next--I would recommend anyone interested in reading well written story to buy either of their stories on Amazon/Nook/Smashwords/ect).

I tend on the side of immediate gratification for my own reading and it is really hard to find beautiful writers who deliver, but when I do it is sooooo nice.

I'm with you Strycher, I always wonder if it is just that my taste is skewed, that makes me admire the wrong kind of writing and therefore will never get me anywhere in literary circles.

On recommendations of books on story or structure. For the Farland Workshop he has us reading Story by Robert McKee. Also studying OSC's MICE quotient on different structure types in his book Character and Viewpoint -- In my own reading I've become a fan of Martha Alderson's Plot Whisperer -- She has a book and a series on You Tube that is really easy to follow and figure out. It says a lot of the same stuff the screenwriting books on structure talk about too.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Rebecca Birch » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:48 pm

I've read McKee's "Story." It's big, dense, and I've never used a highlighter so much in my entire life. It was stuffed with useful information, but I think it will take me a few times through to really wrap my head around it all. Brain overload. wotf004

I've heard good things also about "Save the Cat" from another writer friend. I will have to check that one out.

I do find that beautiful prose can be difficult to get through. An example for me would be "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigallupi (sp?). Amazingly detailed, lyrical prose and I had a heck of a time plowing through it, even though the book is an award winner. I did get there eventually, but it's pretty easy to lose me. I guess I'm a lazy reader. wotf017

I feel like there's a lesson for me in there somewhere, but I'm not sure where it is!
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby gower21 » Wed Jan 25, 2012 2:55 pm

Rebecca Birch wrote:I've read McKee's "Story." It's big, dense, and I've never used a highlighter so much in my entire life. It was stuffed with useful information, but I think it will take me a few times through to really wrap my head around it all. Brain overload. wotf004


That pretty much describes my experience with it! It is a library copy so I couldn't highlight it, but I am in the process of pulling out the very best points and typing them into a file on my computer. Just in the areas I'm working on, that way I don't get too overwhelmed (I did read the whole book though). When I move on to the next stage I'll have to check it out again and re-read some sections.

I'll have to check out Save the Cat too.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Juliana » Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:59 pm

These are a bit "out there" perhaps, but two of my favorite authors with serious literary skillz are Ray Bradbury and Markus Zusak ("The Book Thief").

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby izanobu » Thu Jan 26, 2012 12:00 am

I'd also recommend later Stephen King. "After the Sunset" and "Full Dark, No Stars" are brilliantly written. The man has an amazing mastery of his craft. He does things that I can barely recognize as deliberate (and some I didn't until I'd taken a bunch of craft workshops and had the techniques pointed out to me).

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby E.CaimanSands » Thu Jan 26, 2012 5:15 am

Rebecca Birch wrote:I got a comment recently that's making me take a close look at what I write. It was something like, "I liked the writing better than the story." Unfortunately, I tend to agree with the commenter. My prose works fine. It's the underlying stories that need improvement, and that's a lot harder to fix. Nothing to do but keep working at it--both writing and reading to get a feel for story rather than lyrical prose.


Ditto.

After all, as I've repeated on many occasions, the critique KD sent me on my semi-finalist story was this "really has no plot".

I'm working on it. Hopefully all (or most) of my stories have some plot these days, even if they're not very good ones. wotf001
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Alex Kane » Thu Jan 26, 2012 8:09 am

izanobu wrote:I'd also recommend later Stephen King. "After the Sunset" and "Full Dark, No Stars" are brilliantly written. The man has an amazing mastery of his craft. He does things that I can barely recognize as deliberate (and some I didn't until I'd taken a bunch of craft workshops and had the techniques pointed out to me).

Yeah, these are two of my all-time favorite books. Just phenomenal. I'll be rereading them forever.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Strycher » Thu Jan 26, 2012 8:33 am

gower21 wrote:Gwen Clair--her story I think that was either in Clarksworld or Daily about the artist using her/his (can't remember) own blood to paint pictures with more emotion...


"Iron Oxide Red" was in Daily Science Fiction. I loved that story. Maybe I should read it again. I don't remember thinking the prose was beautiful, but the story certainly was.

(As I work my way through these suggestions I'm finding that the problem seems to be that I lack taste. Many (maybe all) of them are lovely/brilliant/beautiful stories, but I can't put my finger on a line of prose I'd call pretty. wotf017 Well, I guess if Resnick can set record award wins with unpretty prose, I should be able to sell a story or two with merely functional language.)

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Grayson Morris » Thu Jan 26, 2012 8:54 am

FWIW, I wouldn't say LeGuin, Card, or Butler write "beautiful prose"; it's never occurred to me as a way to describe their writing. But they write damned compelling prose. Every time I open one of their books to study how they do what they do, I forget what I'm doing within two pages and read on, absorbed.

That's what I aspire to: compelling prose. Prose that makes readers fall into my stories and read on, forgetting time and space while they're reading. And, based on my "big 3" favorites (those 3 above), that's usually "simple" prose that serves its storytelling function rather than impressing with its intricacy or beauty.
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby vanaaron » Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:25 am

Strycher wrote:As I work my way through these suggestions I'm finding that the problem seems to be that I lack taste. Many (maybe all) of them are lovely/brilliant/beautiful stories, but I can't put my finger on a line of prose I'd call pretty.
You may just be focused on story rather than wordsmithing. I agree with the commenters above that story is essential -- I have no interest in fancy language without a story (which is why I generally don't read much poetry). But for me, if you have a good story, beautifully composed language can help pull me even deeper into the story. Not everyone feels that way, and even if they do, people have different views of what makes for beautiful writing.

I'm thinking of posting excerpts of what strikes me as elegant writing in some of the stories I suggested. That might help us figure out if we all mean something similar or something completely different when we speak of "beautiful prose."

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby Strycher » Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:47 am

vanaaron wrote:I'm thinking of posting excerpts of what strikes me as elegant writing in some of the stories I suggested. That might help us figure out if we all mean something similar or something completely different when we speak of "beautiful prose."


I doubt we'll come to a consensus, but I would be very interested to see what everyone would post as examples.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby vanaaron » Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:12 am

OK, my Example #1, from "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin.

By the way, I agree with Grayson that Orson Scott Card usually goes for clarity rather than beautiful language (although there are exceptions where he writes in a more elaborate style, including "Unaccompanied Sonata"). But I really disagree as to LeGuin, who I think is one of the most lyrical writers we've ever had in the genre.

LeGuin starts this story with straight descriptions of the beauty of the utopia of Omelas, e.g.:
In the silence of the broad green meadows one could hear the music winding through the city streets, farther and nearer and ever approaching, a cheerful faint sweetness of the air that from time to time trembled and gathered together and broke out into the great joyous clanging of the bells.
Then she ups the ante by criticizing her own story, saying she can't really do justice to Omelas, with a thought-provoking explanation of why:
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.
Usually I'm annoyed when authors go off on a tangent like this (Margaret Atwood does the same thing and I hate it), but LeGuin's tangents work for me, I believe because her word-choices resonate.

Then she tells us in uncomfortable detail about the one miserable child in Omelas, whose torment makes the rest of the utopia possible. In the last paragraph, we learn -- in simple, very carefully chosen words -- that some of the people who view this child then leave home:
These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, toward the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go toward is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
LeGuin does things you're not supposed to do, like repeating the words "walk" or "walking" six times and "alone" three times, but they work, and I don't really know why. Notice that the last sentence of the story is in iambic pentameter, which I think is part of the reason I've never forgotten that line since the day I first read it.

I'll be interested in anyone's thoughts about this example, or anyone else's examples.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby vanaaron » Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:39 am

Example #2, from "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman. Our first-person protagonist has hired Calum MacInnes to lead him to a fabled cave in the black mountains, on the Misty Isle, which MacInnes has been to once before. Here is a passage of beautifully written dialogue (to me, beautiful prose doesn't have to be description), which I think stands alone very well, but also foreshadows the rest of the story:
"The island. You asked if it would be there. Surely, an island is there, or it is not there."

Calum hesitated. He seemed to be weighing his words, and then he said, "The Misty Isle is not as other places. And the mist that surrounds it is not like other mists."

We walked down a path worn by hundreds of years of sheep and deer and few enough men.

He said, "They also call it the Winged Isle. Some say it is because the island, if seen from above, would look like butterfly wings. And I do not know the truth of it." Then, " 'And what is truth? ' said jesting Pilate."

It is harder coming down than it is going up.

I thought about it. "Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take."

Calum MacInnes looked down at me and said nothing. Then, "You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one only, and that way is treacherous and hard, and if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside."
You can say story is all that matters, but if Gaiman told the same story but without prose like this along the way, the reader would lose a lot.

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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby izanobu » Thu Jan 26, 2012 11:42 am

Only a few feet below balcony level the mists rolled, sending ghostly breakers to crash against the the stones of Sanders' castle. A thick white blanket extended from horizon to horizon, cloaking everything. We could see the summit of the Red Ghost, off to the north, a barbed dagger of scarlet rock jabbing into the sky. But that was all. The other mountains were still below mist level.

But we were above the mists. Sanders had built his hotel atop the tallest mountain in the chain. We were floating alone in a swirling white ocean, on a flying castle amid a sea of clouds.
-from "With Morning Comes Mistfall" by George RR Martin.

There ought to be a teardrop, painted and static, on her cheek. There ought to be a caption: Heartbreak.
(cutting for space here)
Ronette's face seems rounder, healthier, its angles smoothed out as if by a hand. She is less watchful, less diffident. She ought to have a caption too, thinks Joanne. Was I Too Easy?

There are rustlings from the darkness, small murmurings, breathing noises. It's like a movie theatre on a Saturday night. Group grope. The Young in one another's arms. Possibly, thinks Joanne, they will disturb a rattlesnake.

(...skipping more) Nor is it Darce she wants, not really. What she wants is what Ronette has: the power to give herself up, without reservation and without commentary. It's that languor, that leaning back. Voluptuous mindlessness. Everything Joanne herself does is surrounded by quotation marks.
-from "True Trash" by Margaret Atwood

I think lovely prose can pull in emotion and focus things better, depending. We learn a lot about the characters just from how the words flow on a page. Either of these examples could have been told a different way, but I don't think the imagery would be as poignant if they were.

I think style is subjective. In the end, one person's lovely prose is another's nightmare. A well-written story has to do so many things with language that in the end I think good prose just helps you to know as a reader that you are in good hands, that the person writing this has control of their story and that you can trust it. That's what it signals to me, anyway.

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E.CaimanSands
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Re: "Beautiful" Prose

Postby E.CaimanSands » Thu Jan 26, 2012 12:09 pm

Good prose just rolls you along with it, like a gator in a river. wotf002
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