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Author Topic: What's wrong with "wandering body parts"?  (Read 3867 times)
Nobilis
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« on: April 17, 2008, 07:13:23 PM »

One of the things editors seem to bash new writers for on a regular basis is something they call "wandering body parts."

Her eyes drilled into mine.

His hands searched my shoulders.

My ears caught the sound of a baby crying.


According to the "experts" (and I use the term loosely) these are wrong.

So tell me...

Why?
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Windup
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« Reply #1 on: April 17, 2008, 07:27:58 PM »

One of the things editors seem to bash new writers for on a regular basis is something they call "wandering body parts."

Her eyes drilled into mine.

His hands searched my shoulders.

My ears caught the sound of a baby crying.


According to the "experts" (and I use the term loosely) these are wrong.

So tell me...

Why?

Because editors don't like them, and they write the checks?  Just a guess...
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jrderego
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« Reply #2 on: April 17, 2008, 08:21:03 PM »

One of the things editors seem to bash new writers for on a regular basis is something they call "wandering body parts."

Her eyes drilled into mine.

His hands searched my shoulders.

My ears caught the sound of a baby crying.


According to the "experts" (and I use the term loosely) these are wrong.

So tell me...

Why?

In my opinion, it's sloppy, it takes the reader away from the motivations or actions of the character to whom the parts belong, (why add that next level of abstraction to a simple movement?) and they slow down sentences like a herd of runaway pronouns being chased by a hunting party of unnecessary adjectives.

Aren't the following examples more lively?

Our eyes met.

He massaged my shoulders.

I heard a baby crying.


and on a more practical level -

eyes don't drill, hands don't search, ears hear but can't do anything about what they hear.
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eytanz
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« Reply #3 on: April 17, 2008, 08:50:15 PM »

I'm neither an editor or a writer, but as a reader, this is one of the things I notice - in a negative way - more often than many other so-called "rules" of writing. It just feels overwraught, and takes me out of the story.

Of course, in literature rules are meant to be broken, and a skillful enough writer can use bodyparts as sentence subjects to create all sorts of effects. But I think the problem is that many beginning writers treat this as if it was a neutral, natural form of prose, and it isn't.
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DKT
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« Reply #4 on: April 17, 2008, 11:37:13 PM »

I think also, for  genre fiction, it can also be especially throwing.  If I'm reading a China Mieville story and we hit any one of those terms, there's a 50/50 chance I should take it literally. 

It throws me off in any kind of fiction, honestly.  The eyes especially.  Eyes blink and roll, but they don't wander.  A gaze might.  Wandering eyes immediately makes me think of eyeballs sprouting little legs and going off an adventure. 

The others don't bother me as much, but I do notice them and my instinctive reaction when I see it is "sloppy."

I think there probably are cases where an author can be good enough to break the rule, but I don't recall any examples of it working for me (yet).
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Thaurismunths
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« Reply #5 on: April 18, 2008, 09:11:23 AM »

I'll just say that I'm not a writer, but I think I understand where Nobilis is coming from.
He's known for his erotic podcast, and so I would think a good portion of his writing is about the more intimate physical situations. In the heat of them a lot of very small things happen and get noticed, and trying to capture the intricate footwork with out getting laboriously repetitive can be difficult. That's where Roman Hands and Russian Fingers come in with their "searching" and "drilling" to alleviate the monotony. Unfortunately I don't think it ever works out well.
For me the hottest literary scenes happen when the author leave plenty of room for imagination, which is of paramount importance in sex, and only paints the background, foreground, and margins of the action.
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Roney
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« Reply #6 on: April 22, 2008, 06:22:51 PM »

I used to read a lot of this kind of thing in stories written by a friend who was trying his hand at Horror at the time that I was writing appalling teenage SF.  He was a natural storyteller and, although he hadn't found his own voice, he had a knack for imitating Stephen King.*  But he had a couple of stylistic tics that consistently destroyed whatever mood he had created, and one of them was wandering body parts.  Usually the suspension of disbelief kicks in when I'm engaged in a story but a sufficiently implausible metaphor will knock me out of even the most tense scene.

His particular favourite was "spidering hands".  Had this been used once, very carefully, for specific effect, then it would have been great.  It is not workaday prose.  It is a surprising juxtaposition that forces the reader's attention onto it and challenges them to imagine what it means.  "Wandering body parts" is a poetic technique that needs to be used carefully, by authors who know what they're doing.  Otherwise it sounds silly.

And it's a technique that hobbyist authors seem to have a terrible fascination for.  As such it's probably one of those red flags that quickly identify an author as "not ready for publication", and that must be so useful for winnowing the slush pile.

* Some may see a comparison to Stephen King as negative, but I mean it as high praise.  Imitating King is something that many attempt but most fail miserably at.  This guy was definitely learning from King rather than pastiching him.
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Liminal
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« Reply #7 on: April 26, 2008, 03:20:09 PM »

eyes don't drill . . .
Of course they don't, not literally. But what about figuratively? I think you can pretty easily justify the feeling of someone's eyes drilling into you.
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cuddlebug
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« Reply #8 on: April 26, 2008, 03:42:28 PM »

Absolutely, drilling eyes, I love those. Actually, I am very fond of wandering body parts in general. I enjoy that style of writing, if that makes me an 'inferior reader', then so be it.

In fact, I like to use wandering body parts in my own writing, and to be honest, it would be even worse without them, so I'll stick to 'drilling eyes'. Thank you very much.
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smartbombradio
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« Reply #9 on: April 27, 2008, 01:03:59 AM »

Any rule of writing can be broken, however, you're less likely to get away with it as an unknown. 

Stephen King can eye drill all day.

You, cannot.  That sucks but it's true.  Every rejection I've had (which isn't a lot, granted, because I decided podcasting was more fun) had some cardinal sin I'd commited cited along with the rejection. 

I still do, but I don't submit, I just publish and people listen or they don't.
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Rachel Swirsky
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« Reply #10 on: April 27, 2008, 01:11:27 AM »

Quote
"Wandering body parts" is a poetic technique that needs to be used carefully, by authors who know what they're doing.  Otherwise it sounds silly.

That.

Actually, that's the way almost all the "rules" of writing work. It's not necessarily that more experience dwriters can "get away" with breaking them (although thre definitly is a force of inertia going on), but that it's more likely they know how to break them iwhtout sounding silly.
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Troo
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« Reply #11 on: April 28, 2008, 05:02:43 AM »

One of the things editors seem to bash new writers for on a regular basis is something they call "wandering body parts."

Her eyes drilled into mine.

His hands searched my shoulders.

My ears caught the sound of a baby crying.


According to the "experts" (and I use the term loosely) these are wrong.

So tell me...

Why?

What everyone above said about the physical impossibility of such actions, but also this:

Every single one of those examples is a cliché.

What editors do not want to see is cliché.

So by all means have a wandering body part. Just try to do it in a non-clichéd manner, which won't be easy.
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Trudi Topham,
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Nobilis
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« Reply #12 on: April 28, 2008, 06:53:24 PM »

Aha!  Now *that* I can accept.

Internally I'll translate "wandering body part" as "cliche" and then see if I can find new ways to handle the situation.

(English doesn't have enough words for body parts and what they do, if you ask me)
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CammoBlammo
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« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2008, 07:05:54 PM »

(English doesn't have enough words for body parts and what they do, if you ask me)

I've heard your podcast, and yes it does!
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Troo
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« Reply #14 on: April 29, 2008, 04:56:22 AM »

The only way to really overcome this is to spend time working on how you describe things. Word Painting is a handy book that focusses almost exclusively on this aspect of prose, which might be of use to you.
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Trudi Topham,
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Nobilis
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« Reply #15 on: April 29, 2008, 06:57:21 PM »

(English doesn't have enough words for body parts and what they do, if you ask me)

I've heard your podcast, and yes it does!

Is that a compliment?
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Troo
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« Reply #16 on: May 14, 2008, 07:01:07 AM »

Good luck with it. Hopefully we'll see examples once the writer's board gets up and running Smiley
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Trudi Topham,
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Planish
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Fun will now commence.


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« Reply #17 on: July 17, 2008, 03:29:21 AM »

So by all means have a wandering body part. Just try to do it in a non-clichéd manner, which won't be easy.

Make sure that they have only the intended effect.

This example, I gather, was from a noir sort of story:
Quote
His eyeballs slid down the front of her dress.

Euw.

I forget where I heard that one. I think it was an example pulled from somebody's slush pile, as an illustration of how it can go horribly wrong.
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SteveCooperOrg
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« Reply #18 on: July 17, 2008, 10:35:01 AM »

Her eyes drilled into mine. | His hands searched my shoulders. | My ears caught the sound of a baby crying.

Some of those sound fine, some not. I'd use 'searching hands' but not 'drilling eyes'. The big difference is that the hands quote is literal, but the eyes quote is figurative; eyes can't literally make holes in things, but hands can literally rummage about or find by touch. One is telling, the other showing.

I think it's important to be able to use related techniques like synecdoche. There's some great pieces which use body parts to describe the whole of a thing. For example, Milton describing God's vengeance as breath and hand;

Quote from: John Milton
What if the breath that kindled those grim fires
Awaked should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the flames? Or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us?

Beautiful. Feel free to write like this Wink
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