Friday, September 02, 2011

A diet of words

Stephen King's House in Bangor, MaineImage via WikipediaI have learned a lot about writing fiction in the last few years. Some of that learning has come about by reading a lot about the craft of writing fiction. Many of those articles, blogs and books trot out rules that beginning writers must follow if they are to tread the well-worn road to success.

Alongside "murder your darlings", "do not use adverbs" and "omit unnecessary words" go others such as Elmore Leonard's advice to never open a book with weather. There are a lot of rules and it would be impossible to follow them all as many of them are contradictory.

One rules I have kept most assiduously is to keep the text tight. The copy of Ken Rand's 10% Solution I own is heavily thumbed and I use it with every story to snip out a few hundred words and tighten up the places where the text is flabby. That formula of second draft = first draft - 10% is one that Stephen King follows as do many other writers.

I have also been rigorous in trying to show rather than tell as much as I can. The combination of the two has left my stories tighter and lacking the large hunks of internal dialogue I find in many of the short stories I review and read.

I am starting to wonder if I have gone too far. I suspect my day job does not help because in my professional life I write news stories for a large media organisation. I have been doing this for quite a long time. Most of the news stories I write are quite short. The words are short and so are the sentences. Brevity and news go hand in hand.

But fiction is not news. There are times when sentences in fiction can be short. Need to be short. And there are times when those sentences need to be lush and long, stretching out to evoke a mood or underscore the actions of a character. I have lost sight of that. I have re-read a couple of recent stories and they posses the virtue of brevity but lack emotional engagement and any information about internal states. My preference to show rather than tell (albeit imperfectly) has seen me cut those bits out.

I am going to stop doing that. I am done with strict adherence to those rules. I want to write longer sentences, tell readers what a character is thinking and be happy to have my prose show off and swish around. Many of my favourite writers are unashamedly prolix. They write long sentences that sometimes sag under the weight of the words they hold. They use difficult words (spatulate!) and show their love of language. Those are rules I'm happy to follow.
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Mike Keyton said...

You're right, Mark. Books need space to breathe. Too concise and you end up with much squeezed out. The trick is knowing when and how much, and that comes by understanding the rules instead of slavishly following the. Here endeth the lesson for today :)

markb said...

I found that the rules were getting in the way of the story, which seems to be the wrong way around. I think (hope) I've internalised them enough by now so they guide rather than change what I write.