Monday, March 8, 2010

K.I.S.S.

Isn’t it funny how the oddest memories stick in your mind?

When I think about books and writing, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Cessna will always take center stage. Back in the olden days when I was in elementary school, you were assigned a homeroom and you stayed there for all your classes. Teachers will always be my heros, but when I think back to one teacher being responsible for all our subjects, except PE, I shudder to think of the genius.

At Douglas Elementary, sixth grade, Mrs. Cessna was the teacher everyone wanted.

She was legend not because she was the coolest or easiest teacher. Everyone wanted Mrs. Cessna because she read to her class. I don’t mean story time in the pillow circle or once a week if our desks and room were neat – she read to us ALL THE TIME! If we were working on art projects, science projects, English lessons, sometimes even math, she’d stand in the front of the class and use her calm, yet animated, voice and read from whatever book she’d chosen. The effect she had on her classes totally blows the theory of you can’t do homework and watch TV/listen to music/have any noise in the background out the window. Not only did we learn our lessons, on a whole, our class hardly ever had take home work and we excelled in standardized tests.

She chose books that appealed to boys and girls alike, titles I never would have chosen for myself. Little Britches, A Long Way To Go, Brighty of the Grand Canyon stand out in my mind. Not until years later did I realize what all the books had in common – simplicity. These books held 32 sixth graders enthralled because they embraced the basic elements of writing: a good plot, colorful characters, straightforward language.

It’s that straightforward language that often throws writers for a loop.

I once read that most fiction is written at a fourth grade level. This isn’t to talk down to anyone, it’s to offer enjoyment and entertainment. Leave the long-winded, analytical papers and 10+ syllable word tombs to those who profess their passion for reading the scholarly classics. In today’s hurry up and stressed out world, most common folks want a book to sweep them away for a few hours, not make them reach for Webster’s Collegiate Edition every other page.

Writing simple could also be the key to writing fast. Get the story out and embellish later…but not too much. Just enough to perk up your setting and ignite your senses. Rumor has it that C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in only three months. Wow! Talk about being taken away…tossing away the dictionary…enthralling his audience.

First published in CS Lewis’ Letters To Children (1956), his 5 Tips for Writers is still valid today:

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the clean direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose.”

4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Are you starting a new manuscript? Have that outline all done and ready to flesh it out? Dust off the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Silly) and let your mind wander. No way can anyone tell me writing Narnia wasn’t an adventure!! Put the fun back in writing!!

Blessings to all!!

7 comments:

Theresa said...

Audra,
Great reminder to keep it simple--one I very much need as I seem to have a penchant for overwriting. Thank God for revision opportunities!

I'm critiquing a pal's book right now, and this post is key 'cause my friend has a strong tendency to overwrite the dialogue --and narrative-- now that I think about it, with repetitive and witty repartee--which is amusing for a few chapters, but by the middle of the book gets . . . annoying and tiresome--to this reader at least.

Less is more.
Thanks, Audra!

Theresa said...

Audra,
Great reminder to keep it simple--one I very much need as I seem to have a penchant for overwriting. Thank God for revision opportunities!

I'm critiquing a pal's book right now, and this post is key 'cause my friend has a strong tendency to overwrite the dialogue --and narrative-- now that I think about it, with repetitive and witty repartee--which is amusing for a few chapters, but by the middle of the book gets . . . annoying and tiresome--to this reader at least.

Less is more.
Thanks, Audra!

Audra Harders said...

Wow, T! Guess you really wanted to make your point, LOL!

I'm so guilty of overwriting, too. I get to thinking about the best word to describe the situaton and end up with something pulled out of the dictionary.

So not a good way to go.

Instead of KISS (Keep It Simple), maybe I should have called it JSIO (Just Spit It Out) Gets the point across, but acronym isn't anywhere near as cool.

So, still snowing in CB??

Donnell said...

Hi, Audra: Everyone needs a teacher like Mrs. Cessna. I bet she'd be touched to know how fondly you remember her. You've brought up a great topic. I sometimes observe workshops where a writer will have a perfect sentence. Simple in its construction, it gets the point across. Then he or she will busy it up, over-complicate things and dilute it by adjectives or unnecessary additions. There's a time for description, dialogue, internal narrative and prose. But like you say, it's a fine line and KISS is definitely the best method.

Great post! Nice to cyber-see you!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Audra,
Nice post. I'm impressed that you remembered your teacher and her name. I remember the one (but not her name) from 8th grade that told me I'd never be a writer because I didn't want to learn the "rules" of writing, that I just wanted to write the story. Oh, the bad bad girl I was then. Ooops, still want to do that, write the story, have people enjoy it. Still a bad, bad girl, I guess.

KISS is great. I learned it was Keep It Simple-Stupid, but I like yours much, much better.

xo
~LA

Audra Harders said...

Hi Donnell,

I guess with contest season upon us, I'm reading entries that just need to say what they mean. Some writers get so engrossed in creating the mood with their every sentence, they forget they need to make a point, too : )

Speaking of contests, how's the Daphne coming along?

Audra Harders said...

LOL, Leslie. Yes, I learned KISS you way, too, but I didn't want to offend anyone : )

Mrs. Cessna was a gem. The kind of teacher everyone needed for at least one year of their early education. She absolutely loved what she did and you could tell. I learned a lot from her.

And too, speaking of contests, how's the Scriptscene contest coming along?

C'mon, Leslie, Donnell, give us a promo for contests!!