Updated May 10
Let’s leave the essay form behind
For just a beat or two.
(Go easy, please. The Bard I’m not!
But only a poem will do.)
Form must follow function,
And this form, although demanding,
Gives us access to a different
Kind of understanding.
Things that are worth saying need
To say more than they say.
By this I mean that sound and rhythm
Have a role to play. Read more…
When a piece I’m writing needs a little more … something, I call to mind these three powerful words: explore and heighten. I owe this incantation to playwright Alan Gross, who practically chanted it during a workshop that I attended one summer during my college years. Whatever I’m writing, this phrase invariably nudges the content that oh-so-helpful extra bit further.
For example, while working on a project for Nike, I find out that my desk phone is made of material from recycled NFL helmets. Too perfect. Got to tell friends about this. I draft a message:
Check it out—my Nike phone is made of old football helmets.
Then those magic words come to me as if the playwright himself is whispering them in my ear. Explore and heighten.
Black on yellow. Text doesn’t get any bolder. Think road signs — YIELD, for example. When you want your message in people’s faces, you put it in black letters on a screaming yellow sign.
The cover of Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style yanks on your eyes in just this way. Dare to hope; this is one cover you can judge the book by. Plotnik rewards readers with page after stimulating page of bold writing about bold writing.
The book, published in 2007, begins with a section delightfully entitled “E.B. Whitewashed.” Plotnik admonishes Strunk and White — whose names he has so deliciously twisted in his title — for failing to inspire writers to greatness with their venerated but “vulnerable” Elements of Style. While he admits that this “diminutive book” is helpful as far as it goes, he calls it “as pokable as the Pillsbury doughboy for determined critics.” He clarifies: “What powers the little work as much as anything is its strict formulation of ‘correctness’ in English.”
Plotnik sets himself a higher mission. For him, correctness is a mere starting point. “Jarring this sense of correctness… if done artfully can rocket words off the page. It can jolt readers awake. It can set them dancing.”
Plotnik wants his readers’ readers to boogie.
This inventive writer acknowledges the difficulty of being inventive. “Reaching for extremes, nonwriters (or lazy writers) fall back on the vocabulary of disbelief: ‘It was just … incredible. I mean, unbelievable. Absolutely mind-boggling.'” How do you escape the lameness of such “used-up modifiers”? Plotnik suggests using what he calls megaphors and miniphors. A megaphor is a metaphor that “uses images of imposing size, force, or notoriety to augment a subject in an attention-getting way. Make it novel and clever and it’s doubly hot — as hot as these megaphors were in their day: killer abs; avalanche selling; Dow Jones meltdown; smash-mouth football.” Similarly, to impress smallness on your audience, you could say tiny or microscopic (yawwwn), or you could use a miniphor: a gnat’s-breath attention span, or a tennis player who stands the size of hotel soap.
The table of contents alone entertains and instructs, piques and cajoles. Here are a few of my favorite chapter titles:
- The Pleasures of Surprise
- Upgrading Your Colors
- Joltingly Fresh Adverbs
- Words with Music and Sploosh
- Words with Foreign Umami
- Enallage: A Fun Grammatical Get
- Intensifiers for the Feeble
- Opening Words: The Glorious Portal
- Closings: The Three-Point Landing
- A License. To Fragment. Sentences.
- Edge: Writing at the Nervy Limits
No matter how much you know about writing, this book will blast some of your assumptions and inspire you to think bigger. For example, Plotnik has reopened my mind to the power and pleasure of an adeptly wielded adverb. He knows why writers avoid this word form — raced is better than ran speedily, and glittered doesn’t need brightly. But he also knows that “certain adverbial forms are among the hottest locutions in contemporary prose.” And he tells you exactly what to do: “Take a forceful adjective (say, withering), add -ly to make it an adverb, combine it with the target word (say, cute), and voilà — witheringly cute, a burst of wry wit, a ministatement.” He had to be smiling when he noted, “Perhaps those who are ‘follicularly challenged,’ such as this writer, are partial to the form.”
Here’s a sampling of other passages that I found both satisfying and edifying:
“Perceived correctness can be comforting to the reader, like a tidy house. But what distinguishes a piece of writing is the ambiance — the environmental mood — that language can create. That’s why locution, locution, locution is so important to us realtors of words. In its broad sense, locution refers to a particular mode of speech — the use of a word, the turning of a phrase in some stylistic manner. It doesn’t have to be fancy. ‘If a thing can be done, why do it?’ was one of poet Gertrude Stein’s typical locutions.”
“Consider these two efforts in a New York Times article about the Windows XP operating system. The first [comparison doesn’t work]: ‘When it comes to obsessive, clean-freak tendencies, Windows XP makes Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets look like a slob.’ The image here is labored and arcane — intelligible only to those who have watched the movie, and even then, too ponderous to allow for surprise. But the second [comparison], even with its technical jargon [works beautifully]: ‘You may have to update its BIOS… before installing XP, a procedure about as user-friendly as a wet cat.’ Bingo! Dry tech-talk, and suddenly I’m smelling damp fur and feeling the scratches.”
“Whatever the base (main) tense of a story, earlier and later action must be expressed in other tenses. Knowing the grammatical names of these tenses is less important for writers than mastering the sounds of them. The models that follow should help you to leap from a base tense into past or future actions. ESCAPING THE PRESENT BASE TENSE — ‘She fires the shotgun. She has loaded it just minutes before. Tomorrow she will remember nothing. She will have lost all sense of time.’ ESCAPING THE PAST BASE TENSE — ‘He fell wounded. He had never expected her to shoot. Tomorrow they would ask him what had happened. He would have already asked himself a hundred times.'”
“Imagine legions of writers setting off on the marathon run to success. Among them are thousands who have mastered the basic skills of composition. Should you need to catch up, scores of worthy grammar/style books are standing by to help. But if your goal is to break away from the pack, some über force, some jack-rabbit anima has to inhabit your writing.”
A bestselling author and former publishing executive, Plotnik has filled his book with “sparkling examples from our best writers.” Even if you read nothing but the quotes, you get your money’s worth. My must-read list now includes several of the books he cites, books like John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats, Alexander Theroux ‘s The Primary Colors, and Annie Proulx’s The Bunchgrass Edge of the World.
Don’t worry, though, if your aspirations are less literary than Steinbeck’s or Theroux’s or Proulx’s. Spunk & Bite is for novelists, sure, but it’s also for journalists and copywriters and corporate communicators: writers of articles, business reports, blogs, and emails.
If you want your writing — any writing — to have spunk and bite, this book is for you.
My only quibble is that Plotnik’s creativity occasionally overreaches. For example, he compares “the inertia that sits on a reader’s mind” to a lump of clay. Suddenly, we picture a brain topped with a clammy, hard substance. As if this metaphor didn’t already suffer from “too much image” (the author’s own phrase), he adds, “Be original, and watch that lump of clay melt away.” Uck. The brain is now dripping with hot, grey goo. Bold, yes. Effective, not so much. You might call this a meh-aphor. This is one of the rare places where Plotnik misses his own mark. “Aptness,” he says,”is paramount. Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”
So yeah, sometimes his unexpected falls short of perfect. But whose doesn’t? The miracle is, Plotnik hits perfect again and again.
Wish you could attain the unexpectedly perfect yourself? Want your writing to go places it has never gone before? Take Spunk and Bite for a spin. Open the yellow cover, climb in, strap on your seat belt, and put ’er in gear. Get ready to join the rush of passionate opinions and side-swiping examples. Get ready to find yourself in a new state where the familiar laws no longer apply. Get ready to discover that sometimes, to get ahead, you have to yield.