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.