Friday, 18 November 2011

To be brief

Shall I tell you what's interesting about writing a novel?

Yes.  I shall.

As regular readers know, I've mainly written poems and short stories. I've also worked on a local newspaper, and as freelance newsletter editor and press and PR officer.  It's all writing, but it's all writing of a certain kind... succinct!

Learning to edit comes in really useful for poems and stories... where the reader is expected to do a good deal of the imagining.  It's good for any writing which, due to the limitations of space or the pursuit of brevity, applauds the cutting down of what you want to say to the minimum possible number of words.

This can be tricky in a novel.  It dawned on me some way into it that readers may struggle with this kind of succinctness and could need some breathing space between events, some scene-setting - the sort of stuff I cut out of stories, poems, articles ... and blogs!

When I read, I'm too impatient for pages and pages of irrelevant 'purple' prose - but I'm not sure I want to romp through a story at breakneck speed either. So I'm now anti-editing - adding rather than taking away. What's she thinking?  What's the background to this?  What's the weather like? - not for padding (it's already 77k words with a few scenes to add), but to make it a more satisfying read.

I'm interested what you think - do you like the 'two veg' of scene-setting or do you skip to the 'meat' of the next exciting thing?  Do you want to know a character's whole back story or is a well-chosen pen sketch enough?  And when YOU write do you find yourself writing too much or, like me, do you compulsively edit what you've written until you are gnawing on the bare bones?  Short - or lengthy - replies welcome!


  1. As with most readers, it depends on my mood. Sometimes I want a 'page-turner', sometimes something that requires more from me.

    I heard, recently, that James Joyce was once asked how his writing was progressing. He replied that he'd had a productive day.

    "A chapter?"


    "A page?"


    "A sentence?"

    "Yesterday, I wrote a sentence. Today, I got the words in the right order."

  2. Even with a novel there shouldn't be any fluff. If it's not important to the story it shouldn't be there. That said, some fluff might be relevant. I didn't give a very straight answer there did I?

  3. Sorry, too short.

    No, yes, no, yes, yes.

  4. Your reader, Martin, made a comment which prompted me to think of an Oscar Wilde quote that I included on TLLG in a blog post this past July. The quote is, "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again."

    If you'd like to refer to my post, I've included a link below:

    AND in my very first entry (Dec 2009) on TLLG I included some of the issues regarding writing that you have expressed here with a "Snoopy clip" (but not the one you have here). The link to that post, if you are interested is posted below:

    Meanwhile, (late last night), I added a comment to what you posted yesterday with a Saint's name in the event it helps your project.

  5. I tend to write skinny. My CPs and editor then go in and tell me where I got stingy. I'm getting better at recognizing skinny narrative intuitively now, but I still rely on them to smack me on occasion.

  6. It may depend on your audience. This article is about SF readers, but personally, I think it applies to any good writer - you can convey a lot with a little, but it takes work. Some from you, some from the reader; what sort of readers are you writing for, and how much work will they do?

  7. Bloody interesting post, this one is (as always). And the answer is ..... ummm ...... I have read novels that have too much wanky prose that bores the tits of me .... for example, if you are going to describe a sunset, a sentence will do because we have all seen one.

    When it comes to describing people, I always think that Charlotte Bronte reached the pinnacle in Jane Eyre. You can get away with far more descriptive prose when it comes to people .... because people are interested in people.

    So I guess it is all just a balance.

  8. I think one of the best things that ever happened to me, writing-wise, was when an editor said she would only publish a story I'd written if I cut it down by a third, from 1500 words to 1000. It taught me SO many lessons about how economical writing is best. I actually quite like backstory, though, because it helps me understand motivation of characters, such as in Andrea Levy's 'Small Island'.

  9. Ooops - I didn't reply to these comments except by responding to emails...

    Dave: I was so brief there I didn't reply! And now I'm just gabbling on again... *sigh*

    'M' - indeed

    Amie - Hello and welcome. Sorry for delayed response. I'm not sure. I think a bit of fluff may sometimes be necessary as a breather... the jury's out (and possibly milling about, not doing anything very important)... oh, sorry - fluff alert!)

    LLG - Thank you ... and thank you!!

    Maria - I like the term 'skinny' - it's exactly right! I'm certainly needing to 'feed up' some parts!

    Antipodean - G'day... hey you forgot you're just a 'lurker'! You're exactly right about how much work the reader will do... but I'm just realising how different a novel is from a short story or poem in that respect. You can give the reader more and they'll still be doing some of the work but it's a richer experience maybe? p.s. couldn't get your link to work but it might be my browser... will try again later!

    Annie - I agree - I can't be doing with big descriptive passages about places in particular. I don't even pay much attention to places when I'm IN them! I LOVE Jane Eyre too!!

    Fran - it's great training. My editor used to give me a two page press release and say she wanted it down to three short paragraphs. I cut for England now! Haven't read Small Island - I've made a note of your excellent (and excellently short!) book reviews in your side bar to create a reading list but keep getting distracted!!