Saturday, January 19, 2013

Just As Many Notes As Are Required

As an editor, I often run into interesting questions from beginning writers. Some of those questions pop up more frequently than others. I have been thinking that I ought to address them publicly here, where others might appreciate them and glean something from my answers. Then I sigh and think about how many writers' blogs I have seen that contain hundreds of posts full of mediocre - or just bad - advice to new writers. I don't want to contribute to that pool. On the other hand, there are a few writers whose blogs I have stumbled into, read a few informative posts and shouted, "YES!"  And so. . . it is with the desire to contribute advice of value  that I will begin to offer what I sincerely hope are a few words of wisdom here at LichenCraig. Hold onto your shorts, here is installment 1.

This past week, I received a first draft manuscript from an unpublished writer. In the polite, professional email she sent me (I had agreed to look at three chapters free of charge, as is my policy) she apologized that she tends to use too many words: "you'll see what I mean..."  The thing is, once I was reading the manuscript I didn't see what she meant. She put in just as many words as required to make her point, no more, no less.

I have to pause to point to a wonderful scene from the play/screenplay for Amadeus in which young Mozart has been summoned to play a piece of his own composition for the Emperor, Joseph II of Austria - a man who loved to patronize the musical arts but had little real training himself. After the brilliant Mozart plays the piece, the emperor comments that it was nice but that there seemed to be too many notes. Annoyed, Mozart  shoots back that it has neither too many nor too few notes, but precisely the number required! The same could be said of successful fiction writing - it should have the number of words required for the piece. But how does a writer know what is required?

Now let's stop here and make it clear that we are discussing fiction writing. If you are writing non-fiction, you do want to trim excessive verbage, which can get in the way of clarity of facts and precision. But fiction is much more forgiving - here a writer can use words like the notes of music, and use them to create a tone and style. Where in nonfiction unneeded words are boring, in fiction words can embellish and sing. And yet, it would be inaccurate and misleading for me to state that there is never a situation in fiction where there are too many words.

Today, a young woman asked on a forum for a writer's group this question:

I notice I sometimes have trouble knowing when to quit. Like, when writing certain scenes, I fret about whether or not I'm saying too much, or not enough. Sometimes I'll write it real tight, but it will seem sort of truncated when read back. So, I'll add more, but find I'm meandering.
For example, let's say I wanted to describe a character's "wardrobe malfunction"...I could use this approach...
"When Bethany leaned forward, her generous bosom strained against the front of her imported Chinese silk dress. The dress, breathtakingly low-cut, was made from the same bolt of silk that her grandfather, an ex-British naval officer, had brought home with him after the war as a gift to the wife who, unbeknownst to him, had left him month's earlier to pursue a short-lived but torrid affair with the ne'er do well son of a disgraced Count who had lost his family's fortune to the Machiavellian scheming of a Viennese banker who just so happened to be seated right next to her this very evening, eyeing her dressfront and praying silently that it was made of one of the poorer quality silks that were often being imported today."...blah, blah, blah. You get the picture.
Or, I could say it like this...
"When Bethany leaned forward, her breasts fell out of the top of her dress and hung there like a pair of fried eggs."
...It's just that it is often hard for me to figure out when to say less, and when to say more. I have a natural tendency to become long-winded in writing, and try to avoid too much of that. But I also don't want it to sound like a Twitter feed.
The first thing that jumped out at me in her examples is that she is fretting over the wrong thing. She does indeed have too much going on in the first example (and depending on context, there may or may not be enough in the second example), but it isn't because there are too many words. It is because the words don't belong there. This is my reply to her:

Lichen Craig Linda, I work as an editor besides writing myself, so I get a question similar to yours a lot. This is what I tell people: your narrative needs to advance the story. It might either advance the plot, or contribute to characterization/atmosphere. So in your first example, the story is not advanced by veering off the path into another story about her grandfather. I would say to an author "lose that!" - unless the entire plot needs to involve her grandfather and his history, in which case it would be justified. Does that make sense? So in summary: you never have too many words, IF they advance the plot, contribute to characterization, or contribute to atmosphere. I hope that helps. :)

The second thing that jumped out at me about her examples and questions is that she is so very worried about how many words she is using that she may be missing considerations about developing her own rhythm, style and tone - the things that make an author unique. It's the same thing as a good pop/rock band: they have developed a sound that is all their own. When you hear them, you recognize particular elements unique to that band - quality of the lead vocals, use of  percussion, perhaps use of unusual instruments like horns - there are definite pieces of what you are hearing that make you say, "Oh, yeah, that's so-and-so!"  Writing is the same way - an experienced, skilled writer develops over time his or her own "voice": this is comprised of rhythm (and yes, good fiction writing does have rhythm!), tone (the particular choice of words and phrases that make it unique and create the atmosphere of the book or story or poem) and style (elements which identify that particular author, such as subject matter, emphasis, type of character, type of plot).  Fitting somewhere into this - perhaps somewhere in the "tone" category - is the tendency of the writer to either use very sparse language or very embellished language. Neither is wrong, but each creates an entirely different feel and experience for the reader, and thus contributes to setting a different atmosphere.The author in the example above laments her own tendency to use too many words - but I would argue that she is simply developing her own voice, and shouldn't worry about it, unless the words are truly serving no purpose according to the rules we have already discussed.

I would very much like to see something this writer has written seriously - something she took time with but that concerns her. I would like to be able to comb through it with her and talk about why she thinks there are too many words:  are there really?  Or are the words she is using helping to paint a picture for the reader, contribute to setting, tone or characterization, if not plot? 

This puts me in mind of a book every writer should look at once: Leon Uris' Trinity (published 1976).  Uris is truly a brilliant writer in the technical sense. In Trinity, Uris uses throughout the narrative - and this is not only in conversations but the entire narrative - a sort of Irish rhythm and cadence and pulls the reader into Ireland. As an author he offers beautiful description that sets the atmosphere, but his tone is such that he is able to raise reader experience to a higher level - he sets the music of Ireland into the reader's mind almost subconsciously, so that when the reader puts the book down, the everyday speech he or she encounters in real life is jarring in its difference to the world he/she has been basking in.  This is what a truly practiced, skilled and gifted writer can do: use all the tools at his or her disposal to enhance reader experience.

Another book that would fit into this category is James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses, in which the author uses a "stream-of-consciousness" narrative tone to not only create a dream-like feel to the book, but to pull the reader deeply into the mind of the main character. Although one might see this technique from time to time nowadays, at the time Ulysses was written, the style was new and unique and attracted the attention of the literary world (although it also attracted attention for its subject matter, which was considered racy at the time!).

Many of us appreciate the stories of Jane Austen. Look at the way she uses language to set a tone. One might argue that some of this came easily to her: she was writing the way many of her contemporaries spoke. But I think she takes it beyond that: her narrative is laced with irony and humor that invites the reader to view the foibles of her characters with a chuckle, even while absorbing the tragedy of some of the tales. Her language is often heavily embellished with adjectives, her descriptions sumptuous: does she use too many words?  Of course not. The embellishment of the tone reflects the excess and embellishment of the society of which she writes. The reader is pulled into the late-18th/early-19th century almost subconsciously by tone alone.

And so, when you are worried that your writing is too wordy, think about these questions:
  • Are the words contributing to the plot?
  • Are the words helping to paint an atmosphere of description or characterization?
  •  Is the wordiness part of my style? Is it going to bore and annoy the reader, or does it help to pull the reader into the type of story I write? 
If you tend to use a lot of words, take care that you understand the concept of rhythm in fiction. When the action speeds up, or when you want to create tension, your sentences should be shorter and to the point. When you want to create calm, peace, slow down, your sentences should be longer, with an occasional short one to break monotony (use 2-3 long sentences, then a short, repeating this pattern as a general rule).

In evaluation of your own writing, be honest with yourself. Is your wordiness bad writing? - that is, does it happen because your mind is wandering into areas that have nothing to do with the story at hand? Do your excess words, no matter how they might move you personally, not contribute to the reader's understanding of character or to the picture the reader has of the setting? Then lose them!  But on the other hand . . . if they do add to tone, atmosphere, character, music, rhythm . . . are you just beginning to see your own voice and style? Then relax, and cultivate that. It is the seed of what will make you unique as a writer!

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