Monday, December 29, 2008

Less is more. Rinse and repeat.

Re: doubling predicates without and and other cute prose tricks: If it's effective, it's good. I think it isn't necessary most of the time, and the writer needs to consider whether it's necessary here-- because if there's a grammatical break and the editor deems it unnecessary, there it goes. Out, out, damned break!

Less is more. "When it is absolutely necessary" is the amount any "clever" formation should be used-- only when it adds far, far more than breaking grammar detracts.

I don't think it NEVER works. But I do think the more a writer uses such formations, the less effect it has (beyond annoying). In fact, if you want such a formation to have an actual effect, you should never use it except the two or three times in a book it works. Maybe more than two or three times... as I said, it can be effective in conveying fast, simultaneous action. But if a writer uses it whenever there are two actions, then the reader will have no way of knowing that this moment is different, that these are simultaneous, not sequential or causal, actions.

Sometimes, I think, writers fall in love with certain constructions and forget why they exist, and use them as if they are in fact the standard.
Alicia

7 comments:

Murphy said...

Reading your last three posts - I am picking up on a theme. Writers have the power to choose - and they should hold onto this power, use it wisely and effectively. I do like the concept of less is more but, sometimes that idea is a little hard to hang onto when you are in the process of creating. Of course, nothing motivates me more than being told that an editor will have no qualms about putting my manuscript on a diet if I don’t have the willpower to stop fattening up my prose with nonessential fillers. Especially, if I happen to use repeated ‘clever’ formations, that, by sheer over-use, makes the treatment stale and I’m going to go out on a limb here - but, I’m guessing distasteful, too? Uhmm,...definitely something to mull over. And, what was it you said about ‘falling in love with certain constructions’ and using them as if they were standard? Isn’t it easy to be forgiving when you are in love?...You get comfortable and that makes it kind of hard to be objective, right? So, thanks for pointing this out - once again you have me thinking :).

Edittorrent said...

You know how Elmore Leonard (or was it EB White?:) said, "Kill your darlings." I always sort of assumed it meant go through your manuscript and cut out anything good. :> And so I rejected it. But I kind of see that "darlings" isn't "whatever you do well", but rather "whatever you love irrationally and use whenever possible" (like the doubled predicates).

So yes, you're right-- it's like falling in love. You want to be with the love object all the time, and he/she can do no wrong!

Always though we should come back to-- is this effective not just in making me feel good, but in conveying what I want to convey to the reader? ("No, honey, you are a wonderful neurosurgeon and there is no one I'd rather have perform brain surgery on me. But really, this time, let's call a plumber to replace that toilet, okay? You don't have to be good at everything!")

Alicia

Murphy said...

Crap, (can I say that on a blog?) I thought it was Faulkner. Shows you what I know. Any way, I guess you must kill what you think is fine, hilarious or moving - even if you did write it and it makes you sigh, laugh or cry - because in the end? By saving your ‘darlings,’ you might be in danger of killing your story, right? Yes, I wrote this down - I read it, I repeated it several times aloud...but, the question still remains: Will I remember this bit of wisdom when I have to murder one of my own? I’d like to think so...but then? Isn’t that where an editor comes in and saves the day? She performs the radical surgery when you only had thoughts of a tiny bit of lipo? The procedure may be more painful, the recovery longer - but the results in the end? So much better!

Bottom line? As the creator, I think it is harder to keep an eye on the big picture and the whole story. Instead, I think a writer gets caught up on the small details. Stuck in that one moment, that meant something to her, for whatever reason - and despite the fact that it doesn’t enhance or maybe even move her storyline along, she really, really, r-e-a-l-l-y wants to keep it in - and couldn’t stand the thought of cutting it out. In fact, she has probably bemoaned to anyone who would listen, that she would: ‘die if an editor cut it’. Now, think about this...is this logical? Nope. But, hey, no one ever said, that to create is a rational process. If it were, there would be no one crazy enough to get into this business in the first place:).

Edittorrent said...

Faulkner had so many darlings-- could it be him? He didn't seem to kill many. I remember he obviously loved the word "immutable" as he used it over and over. :)

I wonder if the reader being able to tell that a writer loves some turn of phrase or device-- if that's maybe a sign that it's overused.

Alicia

Murphy said...

Immutable? That’s what you remember about Faulkner? No wonder you are a stickler for saturation - I mean...really? Actually, your comment made me smile - okay, laugh, because I have just realized that it’s the little things like that - that I pick up on, too. My husband thinks that I am being obtuse and my children tell me I have OCD - because whether it’s a book or a movie - I can break it down to one repetitive word - or an over-done motion or a well-used look...but you know? It may be as simple as this, as it pertains to reading: When you see a word being used too often - the more forgiving reader may skip over it - refusing to read it again and thus, won’t be distracted - but, some of us (like me) are stuck reading it - getting aggravated and being pulled out of the story because of it. I hate when that happens and truthfully? I am not very forgiving when this occurs - regardless of how great the story manages to unfold.

Now, when you say: ‘recognizing that a writer loves a turn of phrase or device’? I wonder...should I care as a reader, that the writer loves it - I mean, if I can’t stand the phrase or device, what then? Someone once told me - about a man who wanted nothing more than steak and lobster every night for dinner. After all, it was the best and he loved it...but then? He had it EVERY NIGHT...and you know, it wasn’t so specially anymore. In fact, it became predictable, boring and eventually dreaded. I hate to say it but, in the end, a simple hamburger was probably looking pretty darn good to him. Any way, my point would be...maybe the fancy, clever and endearing phrases or the snappy new and inventive devices we love to use as writers - would be better served if we just learned to stick to the basics, more often than not...after all, there’s a reason why these treatments work so well, right? Steak and lobster is good but, not every night - and yes, sometimes ‘the old hamburger’ has a way of upstaging even Surf and turf!

MADaboutWords said...

"Murder your darlings" is often attributed to Faulkner, but it appears in On the Art of Writing -- a collection of lectures delivered by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch at the University of Cambridge, 1913–1914. He says good writing does not include "extraneous Ornament" and "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it —- whole-heartedly -— and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."

I think Faulkner and others have just quoted his good advice.

Edittorrent said...

Thanks-- I like his point that you should "obey it" and then murder it. :)
Alicia