Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (intro part one)
The Sword Decides!
Introduction: part one
A Different Kind of Translation
Or (to coin a term), a retro-edit
I’ve been looking into the public domain, finding a few of the 19th and early 20th century’s forgotten-but-worth-knowing authors; but also the hackworkers, the magazine serialists, the writers of train fiction, those frothers and potboilers that were the era’s airport novels. I have reason; I write stories set in history, and to create a time and place requires moving your characters through a world of categorical things.
About which guides who live in that world can teach us. Now that The Mirrors is fully posted, I’m running a new Tuesday series, a different kind of translation project, of English into (arguably) more compelling English.
The Sword Decides! by Marjorie Bowen (1908) turns out, sad to say, not as promising as the title implies. But while I tinker along with it, I’ll explain my decisions—a chance to go in depth, with immediate examples, on the way language functions in storytelling, and what decisions an editing writer makes.
First though, a few posts of overview: general observations and definitions.
The least useful advice for writers is of the do/don’t variety. Why? Because there are no dos, and there are no don’ts. There are stylebooks, and points, of tradition and modernity, that if you were taking a class you might get downgraded for. But writing isn’t talismanic. Writing is deep practice…not just case-by-case, but every sentence being its own case.
Maybe you’ve come across the silly story, sometimes (sillier) attributed to Michelangelo, about sculpting an elephant by cutting away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Yet a lot of how-tos on creativity are basically that: “Be right by not doing anything wrong.”
Or you may run across the philosophical approach, the burrowing inside for the authentic experience, the “go everywhere, observe everything” prodding of privileged glibness, and many other examples of inspo-speech, that don’t teach much more, as mood-setters or well-fillers, than those scoldings that crush you for using the scorned word of choice, or the “passive voice”. (And, unfortunately, some advisors pass on the damaging nugget that “There/It was…” is not a perfectly sound way to start a sentence. Briefly: John was tall. It was cloudy. The identical structure can’t be active in one case and passive in another. More on the idea of distancing language, later.)
Most, my theory is, who write on writing are teachers or editors, people who see a lot of papers and manuscripts… And get peeves about certain descriptives or set phrases…or adverbs, or the ever-popular “unnecessary words”. Ordinary readers don’t approach material in that judging frame of mind; but to be fair, ordinary readers haven’t gone through fifty visceral, umbrageous, bellicose, tintinnabulating works in a row, either.
All those words are in fact great, and you should use them. You should feel free to have as many serene auras cascading to succulent silhouettes of serenity as the gloaming glides into its susurration of sundown’s birdsong as you like. Because creativity begins with a loosening up and focusing process; reluctance, the false sense of time slipping away, of other things clamoring to be done…
Of inadequacy, insecurity…
All that has to go. The best way to boot it out is to suspend all ideas of rules.
My writing point is what you’ve just read. The italicized phrase is a collection of words chosen for satirical effect, the italics themselves indicating how to read this phrase in relation to the rest of the sentence. The repetition of you should is not necessary. I could exhort onwards, “Feel free…”
But, rhetorical devices are the language of persuasion. Writing is always persuasion, fiction most of all. Every word and mark of punctuation has a flavor that enhances the flavor of the sentence in which it falls. What’s the use, then, of saying never do this, always do that?
Writing—creativity—doesn’t require even grammar or spelling or syntax. Communication requires those things. Creativity invents endlessly for whatever purpose, as each purpose arises. Communication requires formulas that translate invention into comprehensibility.
(Note that making Creativity and Communication entities, is one of those devices.)
Melchior the Giant, at hearing the sound of the Warbatten, seized his coramel, struggling with it to exit the narrow pavil.
Let’s analyze: An opener like this implies fantasy. Because…? The character isn’t named John Smith, for one. His milieu is made familiar by the verbs, while the nouns are mostly unknown. Melchior is not just Melchior…he is Melchior the Giant. Experience with the genre has taught us, discriminatorily or not, that characters with such names are not heroes. We interpret this as a vignette; we expect that the one who carries the story, the relatable character (who will be a small person destined for great deeds), enters later.
Why “at hearing”, and not just “hearing”? Because hearing tells us he actively waited in some respect for the sound of the Warbatten—a chime, a whistle, a call, a horn—and at hearing tells us that while he knows his duty when he hears the Warbatten, he wasn’t expecting to, just now. Melchior is galvanized by some emergency, one not anticipated; he seizes a coramel, an object at hand. We don’t know what a coramel is, but an emergency in the fantasy world implies battle, so we can well suppose the coramel to be a weapon. It might also be a banner, a horn in its own right, an article of dress…
But we know it’s his and not the, a possession of the individual and not the office he holds; that in some way it is cumbersome, and prevents his smooth exit through (or along) the pavil…
A doorway, a tunnel…?
Meanwhile, struggling with it, because mind’s-eye-wise, this puts the object in his hands, the extra time it takes to read the words corresponding to Melchior’s difficulty. This is truth: even the sounds of syllables, even the pace of syllables, play their role in narrative. Writing asks for that much attention.
Despite the jargon, we have a pretty good picture of this scene. Which is why, if we’re going to have rules about removing “unnecessary” words, we first have to parse out, at this minute level, what the narrative function of each word is, not just whether there’s a shorter way of phrasing things.
But don’t panic. Most of this will come by instinct, things your ear knows already from a lifetime of reading. When you’re stuck, sit and visualize the scene. Or stand and act the scene. What is the character really doing?—is often the question that gets you out of a tight spot.
(more to come)
The Sword Decides!
(2020, Stephanie Foster)