Monday, November 21, 2011

On Naive Prose

Photo by Pauline Eccles
"What did you think of (self-published first novel)?" I asked my husband, fellow writer Dave Trowbridge.

He paused for a moment. "The ideas were interesting, and the sentences grammatically correct..."

I waited, since he was so clearly trying to identify what bothered him. Finally, he added, "but the prose was naive."

Now that's a description you don't often hear. I'd read the first few pages out of curiosity after I was on a panel with the author. My initial reaction had been that I understood why the book hadn't sold to a traditional publisher. I wouldn't say the prose was awful or unintelligent, only that it didn't feel professional. And yet even in those few pages, I was able to discern enough of a "hook" to suggest an actual story. You know the phrase, "You can't get there from here"? This was a case of, "You can't get there by this method."

Naive prose, as much as I understand the nebulous concept, is not just overwritten or heavy-handed, although it might be. It's badly timed.

Certainly, we are going to lose readers by overwhelming them with details at the beginning, new words, a host of strange characters, alien settings, supernatural world-building, romantic tension, backstory, etc., all at once. We want to carefully select what we put into those opening scenes, enough to evoke the setting, generate interest in the character and her problem (or some other way of connecting with the reader). We can also foreshadow what will be important later.

It's crucial that we not give the reader too little or too much... and that we introduce all those vital pieces of information at the right time. What's the right time? Not right before or -- even worse -- right after the critical incident for which we needed that information. Not all glumped together so the reader can't tell what's important and what's not, and can't absorb or integrate all that material at one time anyway. Not in random order. I think all these are earmarks of naive prose.

We want our readers to feel secure and competent -- trusting that they have everything they need to follow along with the flow of the story (or, even more fun, anticipating how characters will react or what simmering problems will become active or who done it -- even if the readers' expectations don't come true, it's fun to have that sense of active reading). They should feel that we've played fair with them -- no rabbits out of hats in a world that has neither rabbits nor hats! -- and that they have been able to notice effortlessly everything of importance.

After the first few toe holds of orientation, we can fill in, flesh out, make connections, foreshadow, build tension, set the stage. Even if what comes next is unexpected, it need not and should not be wholely out of possibility for what we've established for the world and its characters. But the reader should not have to agonize over every detail, trying to figure out where it fits and if it will matter later.

Naive prose may not necessarily convey too many details or the wrong ones, but presents them in the wrong order and at the wrong time and in the wrong tempo. That's something to think about.


  1. Not enough info, Deborah. Feel like writing something longer and with more detail? Sort of a How-to summary?

    I'm more than likely very guilty of this subject, but then, when I'm writing, I feel as though I'm part of an audience so that's how I want the story to look.

    I don't necessarily want to be 'professional', I just want it to be as fun to read as well as it was to write.

  2. @ Michele, I didn't want to give a specific example from this book, but your request for more info is well taken. How about I do a follow-on post when I get back from LosCon?

  3. Works for me! I may not always leave a comment, but I greatly enjoy your posts. Have fun at the con.

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  5. That's really interesting. Thanks for posting all the great information! Had never thought of it all that way before.