Saturday, May 19, 2007

It's The Economy,

My friend Rick and I have been arguing about economy in writing. It's an old bone we chew on, growling at one another until the bone is hardly worth the fight.

Here's my stance.

I guess when I write, I see a short story as a photograph, a novel would be an entire album. For me the story begins with much of the action already in progress (it still has a beginning, middle, and end). However, the short story limits what facets of action the writer wants to explore.

We could write forever about something, exploring different perspectives until the reader collapses with exhaustion. But unless those details are essential they should be removed. That's what I call economy.

As an exercise, I once sat down with a story and tried labeling each sentence to see how that sentence served the story. I think I was responding to something I had read in Writer's Digest.

Of all the writers' quotes that have impacted me, two come immediately to mind.

First, Poe's quote that (I paraphrase badly) "each paragraph, sentence, word..should forward either plot, character development, theme, or setting." Of course, Poe is often credited with codifying the the short story, but I think that's a bit too much to give the old boy.

The second quote comes from Hemingway.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing….

And finally, I recently have become enamored by a quote from Elmore Leonard in his Ten Rules for writing. Leonard wrote that one of the best things a writer can do is "leave out the parts that readers skip".

I love that line.


Jon said...

In a novel length piece, you have the luxury of having enough space to write everything. One hopes that you won't.

Charles Gramlich said...

Identifying the parts that readers skip is the issue.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I sometimes find myself skipping over paragraph after paragraph in a novel...I read a first line and think: "" And I think to myself...what do people read that I write that makes them go, ""

Jon..I like that statement. We spend so much time telling people to get it down on JUST WRITE..that we forget to say..THEN EDIT!!!!

SQT said...

I just submitted a 4000 word short story and had to edit out about 200 words before I could send it. I thought everything I had in the story was essential until I was forced to scale it down. It was a great exercise for me in learning how to identify superfluous phrases and I'm glad I was forced to do it.

DesLily said...

generally, when I start skipping I am either tired or the entire subject matter just isn't to my liking.

Mostly it's that I am tired when I begin to skip, I put the book down for another time.

Kate S said...

Oh, Stewart. I can never look at Captain Jack the same way again...

I read something somewhere along the lines of, write it, take out 50%, rewrite, then take out 20% more. I sometimes worry that I pare away too much, but when I go back much later, I see more pruning to do.

spyscribbler said...

Oh! I like that comparison to Hemingway. Thanks! One wonders if that's why the Harry Potter books were such a success.

Miranda said...

I tend to skip over most description since I find it superfluous to the story at hand. One book that I poured over every description was Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire was almost pornographic in the excess of his descriptions and I found myself mesmerized by it. When Joyce Carol Oates does it, I find it annoying and wished someone would edit her novels down to short story size.

Travis said...

It's easy to get tripped up by economy. What details are essential, which are merely relevant, and which are there simply because the writer likes the way they sound?

Jon said...

Economy is good.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Sqt, Stephen King, whose never seems to follow his own advice in his book on writing, says that he didn't start getting published until he cut about twenty percent out of his work. Me? I have to add stuff. I tend to shred my work to start with.

Deslily, that is instructive for a writer. Hearing you say that makes me nod and know that my writing will be competing with all manner of thing for your attention. and deslily should get together. Maybe you guys could read to one another and act out some of the parts.

Kate, Capt. Sternberg at your pleasure. Jews in boats...usually we just walked on the water.

Travis, like all writing mechanics, I think the thing that makes it go smoothly in the long run is practice. Write..then cut, then write again. The hardest and more important part of writing is perhaps the editing. No, it is most surely the editing.

Anonymous said...

That is a great line about leaving out what others skip. If only we had the wisdom and or a talent for honest self-appraisal to accept what others might skip. Love the pic, by the way.

Lucas Pederson said...

Oh, Stewart, the Stephen King formula to editing is (2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%) I'm a die hard King fan remember. I must be somewhere in between. Because there are time when I need to omit certain things and times when I add far too much. I'm wierd that way I guess.
I agree with Leonard's quote. Only if it was that easy to know what readers will skip and what readers won't. All readers are different. Get rid of the boring parts, was one such phrase I have heard too. Thank God for proof readers, huh?
Oh, and the Capt. Jack Sparrow thing...a little creepy. Just kidding. You'd makle one hell of a scary pirate! Later fella!

SQT said...

I think whether or not we skip the detail in a novel really comes down to an author's skill. Some writers mesmerize me with their descriptions and I can't enough while I end up skimming others. Some people just have a certain skill with words than can make you want to stick around even if there isn't a lot of action; something I definitely need to work on.

ShadowFalcon said...

My appraoch to writting changes day to day!

Susan Miller said...

I remember when I first started blogging and came upon Jon's "LaVere and Hazen" through a link that you had provided. In less than 250 words he had done a work that floored me. My first thought was, "Now that is art in writing."

Economy is a huge topic in many conversations about writing and something I tend to struggle with. I write like I talk...too much.

Fab said...

Sometimes economy is good. But it depends on the writer. As a reader I tend to skipp, like you said stewart "". I'm too impatient maybe. And then I have to re-read because I probably missed something essential.

miller580 said...

I hate to say it, but my stack of books that I want to read is too tall. I enjoy reading and if I find myself skipping paragraphs, the book is closed and I move on.
I've read books that were 400-800 pages and the story could have been edited down to 250 pages. Now for some that might have been an improvement. But for me the books are simply perfect with all those extra words.

While I agree with the fact that everything need not be put into a story, the "facts and only the facts" type of plot pushing narrative can be tedious. For example, compare Cain's "The Postman Alsways Rings Twice" to Patricia Highsmith's "Stranger on a Train." Postman is a 116 pages and Highsmith is 280 pages.

Postman is very economical. The narrator tells the read everything the reader needs to know.
"We crept into bed, and she cracked up. She cried, and then got a chill so she was trembling all over and it was a couple of hours before I could get her quiet. She lay in my arms a while, then we began to talk."

This facts only style (to me) is tedious and dare I say it....boring. It left nothing to my imagination and it left me no time to digest the actions before it threw me into the next plot point.
Where as "Strangers" adds in those slices of life that open the reader's mind even though it really doesn't forward the plot.

Look at the scene where Bruno rides the Carousol. Highsmith could have wrote: "Bruno followed Miriam onto the carousal He rode the white horse through two songs and then he followed her to the boat ride. He paddled in his own boat keeping a small distance behind her. When they reached the island and when no one was looking, he strangled her." Facts only.
But rather she writes: "Bruno loved the song and so did his mother. The music made him suck in his belly and sit his horse like a ramrod. He swung his feet gaily in the stirrups...The world beyond the the merry-go-round vanished in a light-streaked blur. Bruno held the reigns in one hand as he had been taught to do in his polo lessons, and ate the frankfurter with the other."
Here we see economy--but with extra words. We get subtle implied facts. The reader gets to take the time to see Bruno for what he is rather than be told by the narrator that Bruno is a rich spoiled brat with mommy issues. She paints his psychosis subtle and she takes three- four pages to show us Bruno's madness before he kills Miriam.

Sometimes (at least for me) that slice of life that doesn't push the plot, but still might give some insight as to the character is needed to move the prose from newspaper article to narrative.
Ok, now I will be quiet and take my punishment.

Vwriter said...

Sure, like I was going to let this one pass!

No one really likes economy in writing anymore than they a carefully pruned lawn over the glorious, rich panoply of life canvased for our appreciation by a forest. In fact, economy in art is highly valued only by capitalists. The most experience in the shortest time or the least amount of words nets the greatest profit. Pages and ink, after all, cost money. Publishers with a flare for the pecuniary point of view foisted the limits of short stories on Poe and his ilk, and they took it to heart because they needed the money, not because the idea had merit. It is as though the Rockefellers have taken over literary aesthetics. Writers who press for economy in good writing (bad writing is not to be included in this discussion as that is a separate issue) are the maidens of merchants who wish to charge more for less ink and paper.

And Poe was hardly an economical writer. He simply preaches it. Read the "Imp of the Perverse" or "Descent into the Maelstrom" and you might come away with the impression that his pen was in fact possessed by the Everyready Bunny and just couldn't quit writing.

Like television evangelists, most of the writers who preach economical prose are guilty of the same sins that they rail against.

And is "Economy" (I feel in this context it must be capitalized as though we were discussing a saintly virtue) an unquestionable, unassailabe virture? No. Not really. I can get that on cable. I can get economy in a newspaper clipping, or perhaps even a toilet tissue advertisement. Oh the worlds of beauty contained within the lovely "Just do it" from Nike. What more needs to be said? Is all that we need to learn about creating a memorable reading experience for our audiences to be acquired by watching Geico commercials and the like? I wouldl hope not.

Economy is a horrible distraction from our main task as writers, which is to create a memorable reading experience.

Here's something else to consider- what differentiates writers and their stories from quicker mediums (TV, Film, and perhaps Graffiti) is that we not only can deliver a more in depth experience to our audience, but they expect us to do so.

Why did Harry Potter succeed considering its length? It wasn't in spite of its length, it was in part because of it. Rowlings was able to provide an immersive experience to her readers. Readers want to read. Don't believe the bottom line pushers who say otherwise. Readers open books because they love the immersive experience.

Look, the measure of a short story's success isn't its word length or whether the same thing could be said with less words, its really whether the writer makes his presentation compelling. We must write compelling works.

Think of this, how many of you would jump out of a plain wearing an "Economy" parachute. When readers leap out into our created worlds, their not looking for economy (oops, did I forget to capitalize the sacred word), they're looking for performance.

It's a long way down.

Vwriter said...

You know, sometimes I should check my spelling before publishing on your blog!

Vwriter said...

Then again, I was using the Economy Spellchecker.

Pythia3 said...

And I did not skip over one bit of this great and useful advice!
Thanks - this helps a lot.
I LOVE your blog! It is "home" for me when I've been away.

SQT said...


It makes sense to a point. However, I remember reading Dickens in school and never wanting to read anything of his ever again because he would spend so much time on nothing but descriptions. And Moby Dick was a great novel if you were willing to slog through chapters that focused only on descriptions of whales.

I like Stephen King actually and enjoy a lot of his descriptive writing, but I would still suggest he could easily cut 20% out of his books and not lose a thing.

In writing like anything else there can always be too much of a good thing.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Oh DEAR GOD...RICK has found us. Quick..everyone turn off the lights and hold your breath.

Sue, you are right about Jon. He is a superb writer. Especially when I edit him. Of course, he never seems to pay attention to my edits. But then again, neither does Rick.

Fab,some books take a different committment level. I'm reading a Donald Hamilton spy thriller now...I expect it to fly. But if I were reading something from John Le Carre, I would slow down and approach the content differently.

Jim Miller, I don't necessarily equate the number of pages to economy. I think economy is understanding what to include and what not to include. I think a writer who gives you a grocery list of behavior is missing the point. I have read both the books you are referring to, and I prefer "Strangers on a Train". By the way, the description truly shows economy. The style of writing, the voice, the detail all contribute in a functional manner to character development.

So punishment Jim. I agree with you.

Rick, Rick, Rick...I can't believe you still argue this. It isn't about length. It's about what you include. Unfortunately, many people who write ramble on and on for pages and pages when a page or two might have sufficed.

I just finished reading a book by Martin, "Game of Thrones". It's a high fantasy that rambles on for seven hundred pages. Yes, the reader can become absorbed in his world, but I think Martin doesn't pick and choose his detail.

As for Rowlings...she is a storyteller. Again, she is economical in her writing, pulling the reader along for a roller coaster ride. I would never accuse her of bogging down her work in a bunch of useless information.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Pythia, good to see you back. Hope it's to stay for a while.

Vwriter said...

SQT makes the critical point. Prose evaluations change with time, culture, and context. Today Dickens' style is today consider excessive. During his time, he was a spell binder.

There is another point in the discussion to put to rest, however, and that is that bad writing is bad writing. Including useless information in a story or going on and on with flowery description is not uneconomical. It is bad writing. It does nothing to enhance the reading experience of our audience.

The counterpoint is that "economical" bareboned writing is hardly quality writing by definition. It is is simply minimalist word art and nothing more.

Finally, if you consider this one last point, I swear I'll humbly bow out- it isn't only what's included that's important, it's also just as important to wonder what has not been included, which is to say what elements of the reading experience that has been excluded from our consideration by a writer whose primary focust is economy.

And now I'm off to Toronto by train. I was going to purchase an economy ticket, but the tablecloth, silverware, and wine is so much better in first class.

(Jon, you know that my mission is to co-opt Stewart into adding at least 1,000 words to every short story he ever writes, and at least 30,000 words to his novel Palpable Illusions!)

Vwriter said...

Stewart, by the way, that is your coolest picture yet!!

Donnetta Lee said...

Stewart: I especially liked your last thought--leave out the part that readers skip. Good. And what a picture!

avery said...

Figuring out how to say what needs to be said with brevity and without losing reader interest is a tough job. Even now, when I consider the manuscript as ready as it's going to get, I'll stumble across a random sentence or two that definitely fall into the 'readers skip' category.

Jon said...

Everyone should know...the picture in this post is not PhotoShopped. It is a real, everyday picture of Stewart. I took this one myself as he was just returning from the grocery store.

Vwriter said...

I knew it.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks Donetta. I need to do a posting about reading. My summer is my prime reading time.

Kate S said...

Really, I'm surprised how many people let that jews in boats comment slide... I've been giggling for two days.


I think you should put your face on a "Buddy Jesus."

Stewart Sternberg said...

Jews in boats is actually something that made me cackle from my days of ridiculing the Mormons. I always thought the idea of the lost tribe of Israel heading to North America was ludicrous. Maybe the Vikings were cool with it..but the Jews in a boat from Jerusalem? I just never saw that. I mean, who the hell wants to travel that far and that long without Chinese take out?

Kate S said...

Oy vey

William Jones said...

I had a stance before I read the responses. Now I'm no longer sure. :) I guess I'll take a different approach. Instead of guessing what the reader will skip, is it possible to guess what the editor will skip? These two I'd say are slightly different. Getting past the editor gets the story to the reader. Or is that too commercial, too mercenary?

The point raised by SQT about Dickens and Melville (later revisited by Vwriter) suggests that reading habits change. But where does the influence to change come from? Is it the reader or the publishers (businesses?)?

William Jones said...

I had to come back to this topic simply to point out the wordy nature of the Hemingway quote. Below is the first sentence. Could this sentence be shorter? :) Of course, the irony is in the sentence's subject matter.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.