Here’s another in my randomly numbered rules for fiction writing, which apply to folks who aren’t good enough to break the rules. That includes you. And me.
This rule came to mind as I considered the Ohlin/Giraldi bad review controversy, which I wrote about here (and which generated a lot of search hits–it’s a popular topic!). First, there was the review itself. When I read a book review, what I want to find out is whether the book is worth reading–not whether the reviewer is clever. So I found myself skimming the first paragraph, which quotes Ezra Pound and throws in references to Middlemarch and Don Quixote and calls entirely too much attention to itself. Just tell me about the book!
But when he finally does start to discuss Ohlin’s work, he makes what seem to be valid points. If an author’s prose is flabby–if her descriptions and narrative are filled with clichés–then why bother reading that prose? If I ever do read the book, I know I’m going to start skimming. (Of course, I did read the first chapter of Ohlin’s novel and didn’t skim, which makes me wonder if the reviewer was overstating his case.)
If readers aren’t going to read your words, why bother writing them? The only way you’re going to find out if readers are skimming is to get yourself some readers–and that’s another rule, which I haven’t written yet–maybe because it’s so obvious. Short of that, here are some things worth thinking about–at least, they’re the kind of things I think about:
- Have I eliminated all unnecessary words? This is standard writing hygiene. Make every word count. Don’t say “in order to” if you can just say “to”; don’t say “all of” if you can just say “all”. It makes the prose tighter and clearer.
- Have I right-sized my descriptions? This probably deserves to be yet another rule, but the idea is to make your description the length that is appropriate for the significance to the story of the person or thing or event you’re describing. For example, minor characters don’t deserve fully developed back-stories; we don’t need to know exactly what they’re wearing or where they grew up or what their politics are. If a meal isn’t a major event, we don’t need to know what everyone ordered and what kind of wine was served.
- Are my descriptions too ordinary? This is one thing Giraldi complained about. You can’t just say, “She was medium height, with brown hair, green eyes, and white teeth.” Why bother? Typically, a physical description has to merge into characterization. For example, if you describe someone’s teeth are “impossibly white,” you are starting to say something about that person.
- Have I de-clichéd my prose? This is another Giraldi complaint. If you’re going to say “Nice guys finish last,” you’d better have a good reason for it–for example, it could be funny or ironic in context. Otherwise it’s pure deadweight.
My first drafts tend to be underwritten–I’m too eager to get through the story and reach my destination. I add detail and depth in succeeding drafts. But sometimes I overwrite, which will happen when you’re not sure of yourself–you’re describing a character for your own benefit, not just for your readers. Then you need to prune ruthlessly.
I sometimes worry that I worry too much about skimming. I recall taking out a lot of detail in the final draft of Replica, concerned that the pace was too slow for what was supposed to be a breakneck thriller. When I re-read it recently in the process of turning it into an ebook, I thought maybe I had gone a little overboard.
There are no right answers; that’s why they call it art.
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