tonight, one french horn destroyed an entire symphony, and not just any symphony: tchaikovsky 5. first movement was fine. i was pleasantly impressed. second movement: disaster. if you know the piece, it starts with this lovely melody given to the french horn. she played it like it was half-time in notre dame stadium: short, blasting, breathless. wrong all wrong!
maybe i’m being unduly harsh, but i’m a hard critic to please, whether it’s art, literature, music, etc.
earlier this week, my house-mate invited me & a friend to see the notre dame orchestra. she knows i like my tchaikovsky. when she said they’d be playing his 5th symphony, i was hesitantly elated. they were also playing gershwin & mahler. the gershwin piece was unnoteworthy, except to say that harmonics are hard to pull off, esp. if just one person is out of tune. with mahler, i began to get worried. during intermission, i told a friend: that poor french horn! but i hoped for the best. first movement of tchaik 5 went better than expected, as i’d said before. sure, a little fast for my taste, but that’s the conductor’s call. then, the second movement. oh the second movement! that’s where they lost me. redeeming qualities: 2nd chair flute thought he was jacqueline du pre. he felt it, yeah? 3rd chair cello, the only musician up there with spirit. 4th movement was also painful. they seemed to understand the concept of crescendo, but they failed at enacting fortissimo without the aid of crescendo.
but what does this have to do with writing? in the same way a single french horn can kill an entire symphony, a single word can demolish a short story. my students of late, for some reason, have turned in a number of stories with sex scenes. i try to explain: sex scenes are hard. one word, and the whole things falters. and still, words like “throb,” “pulse,” “enters,” etc. keep appearing. on the same note, any appearance of words like “soul” and “heart” make me cringe, much like that french horn.
what words do you avoid? what words “kill” stories, poems, novels etc for you? understand: each of these words can be made fresh, but it’s rare. or rather, can you give examples where words like these work?
1 thought on “a single *blank* that kills”
you should make your students read Steve Almonds essay about writing sex scenes. it’s awesome, funny, and helpful.
i try to cut “that” out of as much of a story as possible. it’s a pretty rudimentary one, but is always one of the focuses of first draft revision for me.