Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Just Because I Can, Doesn’t Mean I Should


I have a recurring problem with my writing. I fall into these long passages of glorious description, when I should be moving on with my story.

Take, for example, this paragraph from an early draft of my short story, “The Getaway”:

The day of the outing dawned too beautiful for Mark’s liking. Blue sky, a fresh dusting of snow on the branches, but the roads clear and wet as they drove along the shore of Lake Michigan. The beach was a gallery of contorted ice sculptures, crystalline white blocks tumbled against one another by the waves, spires and hollows where the water had carved and dripped. Beyond the ice field, the water gleamed frozen green, the color of old Coke bottles capped with choppy white frost. It was beautiful in a way that hurt his eyes, unblemished, too pristine, too perfect.

Ugh. Too much, clearly. In the revised version, after much prompting by writing friends, I pared this back considerably and also fixed the glaring structural errors. But it was a bear to let even one image go, although I knew the story cried for it.

I think this disease comes from an honest place: my longstanding adoration of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are passages in Gatsby that make me weep, even after a dozen or more readings. I’ve never been able to read about the billowing curtains at Daisy Buchanan’s house without floating away with them. On a recent reread of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” I was astonished at the lightness of his prose, of how masterfully he used it to make the inevitable emotional crash at the end of the story more devastating. When it comes to wringing potential from language, Fitzgerald was a master.

I need to master restraint.

This issue loomed hugely on my recent reread of Folly. I suspected there was far too much artful clutter, but I was loathe to clip a single word. In retrospect, I see I need to surgically excise at least a third of the description slogging down the pace.

It brings to mind a favorite analogy, from Gary Provost’s Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing. In it, Provost compares a story to a race car and excess words to penny nails. One or two nails won’t slow down a story, but sacks and sacks loaded in the backseat will. The message is clear: jettison the junk.

I think all writers stand at the edge of this trap. We’re so in love (and hate, but that’s another post) with what we write, we can’t imagine our stories being trimmed. It’s hard to step aside, to let the story stand alone, rather than prop it up with authorial help. We describe things to death, say the same thing over and over. We beat our readers over the heads with our intrusive presence. Sure they get it, but do they really want or need to? Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

And yes, I should take a hacksaw to this post, too.


Stephen said...

My suggestion is to only cut the prose that doesn't either push the story forward or offer insight into the character. It's not a crime to paint a scene. But if it doesn't serve the objectives of the story, then you need to pare it down and move on.

Here's a little nugget, spoken by a music minister about praise and worship songs, but it's applicable here: "Please don't bore us, get to the chorus." How true.

Greta said...

Stephen, you make it sound so easy...

Stephen said...

But we know better, don't we? For every one of my stories there is a mountain of revisions. If it was really so easy, then the world would be full of published writers.

Linda said...

Great post, Greta (Hey, Greta = Great... cool!).

I'm pretty verbose as well. I love adjectives. I do, and like you, I could spend pages dallying in the environment. Painting with words, if you will.

I assure you, though: once you begin hacking, you will find it amazingly satisfying. There is as much satisfaction watching word count DECLINE while editing as seeing the numbers climg in that first draft.

I'm going through BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT (again, yes again... I wrote this story the first time in 5 months and 19 months later, am still lediting and revising... sigh...) and pulling out almost every other adjective. Nearly all the adverbs are gone. What this forces me to do is find strong verbs and nouns. A challenge indeed.

But it is important to remember the genre you are writing. Literary, historical fiction, sci-fi - all these lend themselves to detailed description of place. So don't hack too much... Peace, Linda

Linda said...

Ugh. That should be climB, not climG. I do wish the comment box was bigger...

Greta said...

The part that's stymying me is that the setting serves as a mirror for one of my major characters. So how much is too much when description serves such a major role?


I'll figure this thing out eventually. But for now, I struggle.

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To be honest, there are a lot of times that I experience exactly the same situation. I am working for a certain eessay writing service company. What I usually do is to just continue with my story - move forward. This is to stop myself from writing further descriptions just like what you have done. I also seek the advice of other writers and I see to it that I am always open for comments and suggestions.