Monday, June 22, 2015

Minimalism In Word and Deed

Advice is not a four letter word. We all like to give it, and we are often keen to search it out and follow the advice of others when we lack confidence ourselves. But as an author I have become more and more dubious regarding advice so frequently given on the practice of writing itself.

There is plenty of such advice to writers out there, and a good deal of it refers to strict minimalism, cutting out all detail, and never using 10 words when you could use two.

So which is preferable? "He went," or "He ambled, enjoying the warm sunshine on his back."

There have always been brilliant authors who followed the belief in brevity and kept to the Hemmingway style. Indeed, many years previously John Ruskin told us - "It is excellent discipline for an author to feel that he must say all that he has to say in the fewest possible words, or his reader is sure to skip them." But then Ruskin got a lot of things famously wrong and I feel it is somewhat patronising to assume your reader is an impatient and somewhat shallow soul of limited focus and lacking in concentration.

“Murder your darlings,” advised Kipling.  But there are a good many differing ideas about what constitutes a ‘darling’ – and Kipling does not seem to be talking about cutting out everything, although this is what some people assume he meant.

The darlings we write and sadly want to hang on to are often those over-precious phrases of cleverly worded irrelevance. We, as authors, may feel very proud of a precocious little joke, or a suddenly poetic description. Purple prose, for instance. These are what is meant by our ‘darlings’. So yes, cut them out, even though we are lovingly proud of them. They look out of place and we need to crop ruthlessly with such over-indulgent violate passages.

But this does not mean cut – cut – cut. Some critics seem to think we should end up with a book 6 pages long. Or perhaps we should cut them too?

Some types of books call for brevity. The Regency romance can be a delicious frolic of no more than 100,000 words. Such a book speeds along without need of heavy plotting, considerable action or even depth of characterisation. A modern crime drama can also sizzle in 120,000 words or less. A fashionable contemporary novel of mental anguish about a woman who lives an even more boring life than we do ourselves, can be self-consciously arty in less than 80,000 words. Indeed – the shorter the better!

But what about Dickens? What about Hardy? Tolstoy (although no, I haven’t read War and Peace lately either – once was enough) In fact, Shakespeare’s plays were considerably longer than the average theatrical performance today. And coming up to date, there’s Tolkien. Dorothy Dunnett. Even Harry Potter. So many of the greats and so many of the best sellers are massive meaty stories, and their authors are not minimalistic at all. Alright, none of us pretend to be at the standard of these masters. But they had to start somewhere too.

Some of the classics are very thin books, but not so many. The great novels of the past were rarely scant or flimsy. And they are still adored and admired. If you are setting out to write a complicated story with a large cast of characters and a many layered plot, then I believe that characterisation and detailed episodes which promote storyline – suspense – anticipation and atmospheric description, should be used to the utmost effect.  No we don’t need to know what every character is wearing at every moment or have to wade through pointless dialogue discussing the weather – but that is more to do with the quality of writing rather than simply being told to cut and cut again.

In this age of publishing desperation, with traditional publishers slow to catch up with modern trends, and either going bankrupt or having to merge into fewer and larger companies, it is commercially helpful to keep your book short. Some literary agents will not even consider a novel longer than 150,000 words. Some won’t even open a manuscript over the 120,000 mark. I understand. Commercial profits rely on low printing costs. This is another reason why self-publishing can be attractive.

But my point goes beyond this. I am strictly interested in what actually constitutes a good book – and I utterly refute the idea that cutting out all description and layering while keeping word count to the absolute minimum, automatically means good writing.

I would rephrase John Ruskin’s advice and say, “The number of words you use is less important than the quality of plot, characterisation and style you use. Your reader will not skip as long as your writing keeps them utterly absorbed.”

I am biased, of course. I love long books. I want a novel – of whatever genre – to carry me into its world, transport me into its exciting and vibrant life – and to immerse me in its emotional diversity. I want to lose myself in the pages and that means a big feast of a book where I can swim and climb, savouring the beauty of its words and cherishing every tasty morsel.

I write long books too. And the same delight applies. I disappear each morning into a new world of dark mystery and adventure. And words are my roads, my map, my milestones, and my rumbling, rattling coach, lined with velvet and pulled by magic.

And of course, I do not denigrate short books in general, they can be delightful, frivolous and fun. There are sometimes advantages in a quick snack or a romantic dalliance. But it’s those magnificent heavyweights that usually end up being my favorites.  

Oh – and one more thing. If we, as authors, must take the advice of others, let me suggest the delicious and utterly convincing advice of Somerset Maugham, who said –
"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Same Door

I am standing alone. Except for the shadows, the room is empty: Dark and sinister, they billow around me like heavy curtains in a silent wind. I am lost, the emptiness both within and without. But I cling to hope.

My hope is a doorway which stands before me, the only escape from this place of dark depression. The way out glows brilliantly and is utterly enticing, offering me everything I need and desire. But even as I rejoice in its promise, the door is closing in my face.

I stand bewildered as my hope dies. The door closes remorselessly until the magical light beyond is no more than a sliver. For a moment the light still shines – but then it is taken from me and I stand in complete darkness.

But in some part of me a small fact registers: there was no click as the door shut, no sound at all. I feel abandoned. But there has been no material confirmation of finality. I cling to hope … yet I can see nothing and what else can I trust but my own eyes? The light of hope is quite gone.

Or not? Have I misunderstood?

Because although the door has shut in my face, a crack as slim as an echo is once more shimmering with that same wonderful light. Only the barest suggestion, but I see it.

And the light grows and I realise that the door is swinging right through; it is opening onto
the other side now and the way through is widening.

Of course, it’s a swing door! It never actually shuts at all! Or should I say that even as it was closing, it was also opening again. What I thought was the end of the light was the swing from one room to
another. Not the end at all but a beginning. Now opening wider still, it promises so much. Soon I will be able to walk through, out of the dark and into that light.

Taking my first step towards this new disclosure, I hear a voice in my head say, very distinctly, IT IS THE SAME DOOR.

And now I know that there is nothing that closes forever. Success and failure are the same door. The same thing. It depends which side of the door you are looking from.

We authors are so vulnerable to the self-perception of failure. We are not helped by the inevitability of our careers involving a good deal of solitude. Alone and concentrated on our imaginations, we can fall too easily into believing in our own defeat. And not only authors. Our society is fixated on achievement – winners or losers – whether in wealth or simple satisfaction. And, in despair, who remembers that failure is the necessary first step towards success? There are few more essential building blocks for happiness and success than those initial experiences of failure.

And it’s no use trying to squeeze past while the door is closing on you. You’d simply be squashed and achieve nothing. You have to wait until the door has swung right through and is opening once more, just for you. Timing is everything. While the door is shutting, don’t despair. Don’t collapse in a puddle amongst those dank dark shadows, feeling miserably sorry for yourself.

Just remember, IT’S THE SAME DOOR.

And it is your precious self standing in front of it. Rather than valuing ourselves on some external scale of success, judged through the eyes of others, we would better value ourselves for the truth of our own inner self.

You are the only person in the world who can represent your true self. Nobody else brings to the world exactly what you do; you are unique and therefore precious just as you are – this is your value. Once – in spite of inevitable failures – we recognise our own intrinsic value and love it for what it is, then the door can swing through and open into that brighter future.

Because, whether that brightness is yet visible or not, IT’S THE SAME DOOR.

That initial sense of failure is a transitory affair – the door CAN’T open onto the other side until it has first closed in our face.

The door that closes in your face and the door that opens to opportunity – are – quite simply – the same door.