Monday, February 8, 2010

More with less, again

I've been obsessively thinking about that New York Times piece by Elmore Leonard that Pale Ramón posted in the comments a couple weeks back. In it, Leonard makes the case for spare prose, and offers up some basic rules to follow, summarizing it all with "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

A lot of it is stuff you've heard before (don't use adverbs). But there are a couple of really surprising things in this list, and they are "avoid detailed descriptions of characters," and "don't go into great detail describing places and things." When you think about it, these constitute fairly radical advice. He's telling you not to describe stuff, pretty much at all. Whatever faults Leonard's books may have, a lack of vividness is not among them. So how does he do it?

It's all about the power of suggestion. The more readers are forced to invent on their own, the more invested they become in the story. The key is to sketch the right lines, so that the detailed picture forms itself in the reader's mind. I am reminded of David Hockney's "greatest drawing ever made," a simple sketch by Rembrandt that has perhaps the largest meaning-to-content ratio of anything I've ever looked at.

I've spent the past week trying to get students to put fewer words on the page--by coincidence, this seems to be the #1 problem in my classes so far this semester. And as I embark on another new possible novel project, I am beginning to envision a slim volume, sketched out with the faintest of lines. I just finished Don Delillo's highly spare and stylized new book, and while I don't adore it, it makes me very excited. To write this way requires a leap of faith, and a level of judiciousness that, to be honest, I have never actually attempted to achieve.

As long as I'm demanding it of my students, I might as well give it a try.

8 comments:

Hope said...

The writing exercise that changed my life was came from my Magazine Journalism prof at Syracuse around 1984. And that was to rewrite a piece but taking out ALL adjectives, adverbs, etc. I still have that piece, which I had typed out on newsprint with a manual typewriter. I still remember how much stronger the "after" version was, how much better I liked my voice.

jon said...

Yes, but think of all the counter examples. Chandler, Proust, Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Nabokov. But, I when I read that piece it made me think of Pale Fire. At some point he describes Kinbote (or maybe it is Shade!) and points out to the reader that he has NOT described his face in its entirety until that (late) point in the novel. It is a great moment of awareness, that the face of the character has been developing like a Polaroid over the course of many pages, and that the reader is in the hands of an author. It is hard, and necessary to get away from the seductions of description (which can substitute for story) but sensual vividness in the novel is not to be despised. And then there is the trick of voice. Authors may not be allowed the use of adverbs, but people certainly use them and some actions must be modified. And some things do happen suddenly, as opposed to last week, or gradually, or haltingly. Good luck John! but as a father, I hope you retain the baby when you toss the water.

rmellis said...

Yeah, it's a good exercise, but come on. We have adjectives for a reason! We describe things because others like to hear the descriptions. These just happen to be things bad writers do especially badly.

A handful of rules can't replace skill and good judgment.

She said snottily.

Hope said...

I agree that we don't want to give up our beloved modifiers. I was just saying that THAT exercise was the best one, for me, at age 19, to make me think much more carefully about slinging words around. In the hands of a skilled craftsperson, they are indeed beautiful. And I suspect there may be some nonfiction vs. fiction tension inherent in all this too ....

Kevin said...

I like Leonard, but I think the danger of that approach is inadvertently relying on stereotypes as a kind of short-hand. Still, there are some who can do it, and do it well.

Anonymous said...

I think the key to creating or not losing plenitude by writing more austerely is in the power of emotions that the story creates...

think of some of the great poets..

like Wallace Stevens poem:

"The Poems of our Times"

Kathleen said...

Chekhov says to be spare in your descriptions, too!

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