Thursday, October 21, 2010

What needs to be in a work and what can be taken out?

Last week, I followed closely the public-reading thread started by Peter and followed up by Rick and I’ve been thinking of one of Rick’s suggestions the past five days.

“You don’t have to read the passage with everything included,” Rick wrote. “Most descriptive stuff can go or at least be truncated. Sidebar material should go. You can even drop bits of dialogue that aren’t necessary. Remember: it’s a performance. When a book is brought to the screen, they don’t (and can’t) put everything in.”

His remarks remind me very much of an interview I once read in Time titled “James Patterson: The Man Who Can’t Miss,” by Lev Grossman (March 12, 2006 ed.). In discussing how Patterson went from chairman of J. Walter Thompson in North America, who wrote on the side and happened to win an Edgar in 1977 for THE THOMAS BERRYMAN NUMBER, to the commercial success he is today, Grossman cited the evolution of Patterson’s stripped style.

“His evolution into James Patterson, The Man Who Only Writes Best Sellers,” Grossman wrote, “had yet to be fulfilled. First came the creation of the Patterson style, which dispenses with any flowery bits or extraneous details. A typical Patterson novel might have 150 chapters, but each one is just two or three pages long. His paragraphs are short too, often just one or two sentences. It’s an approach that emphasizes action over style and pace over everything. ‘It was a little bit of an accident,’ he says. ‘I was writing a book called Midnight Club, and I’d done about 100 pages, and I was planning to really flesh them out. And I read the 100 pages, and I said, There’s something interesting here. And that’s where I went to just leaving a lot of stuff out.’”

Rick mentions cutting out what isn’t needed when “performing” the text. Likewise, one of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing: leave out the part readers tend to skip. Leonard is speaking of thick narrative paragraphs (no one, he insists, skips dialogue).

I’m as guilty of overwriting as anyone. (My first drafts are filled with cross outs and self-inflicted red ink wounds everywhere.) So I try to read my work aloud before submitting. I tell students reading a paper aloud before turning it into me will show them what I will read or what they “really wrote.” After all, how a prose piece sounds is how others read it. When proofing and reading my work aloud, if I stumble on a sentence, I shorten the sentence. If the work has set, or aged, for a couple months, and I find myself distracted by descriptions that I loved when I wrote them but now find distract me from the storyline or characters, I cut the description.

Thinking of Rick’s comment about stripping a piece prior to a reading, about Patterson’s sparse style, and about Leonard’s lesson (which, by the way, he says he didn’t fully grasp until 1983, well into his storied career), I’m left considering what needs to be in a work and what can be taken out. Less is usually more.


Vicki Delany said...

I read a James Patterson book once. Never again. It's worked for him, in my opinion, more because of marketing than quality of the writing. I like reading descriptive passages and emotion.

John R Corrigan said...

I'm with you. I love the language of SJ Rozan and James Lee Burke. But I also love the sparse works of Hemingway and Robert B. Parker.
The challenge is finding one's own balance.

Hannah Dennison said...

Such great advice! It's only recently I started chopping out bits of my chapter when reading aloud. I could sense the audience dropping off to sleep in the longer, more descriptive passages. At home though, I always read my work aloud - it's amazing how many repetitions I catch or phrases that don't make sense.
Wish I'd known all this years ago!