K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White Rabbit, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.
I used to have Thoreau’s mantra posted on the wall of my Cambridge apartment. I had illusions that somehow my huge piles of books and papers would magically disappear or tidy or somehow look less cluttered. Living in three countries in the last three years, I have managed to unload a good deal of belongings, but I’m a writer. There’s only so many books you can manage to pry from your hands.
I’ve been more successful in trying to employ it in my writing. The reminders keep coming at me lately. The other day Bish’s Beat posted a reflection on a conversation with a best selling writer who went on about simplifying everything: “Cut exposition to an absolute minimum.” Maybe you don’t want to write a bestseller, but as my pal Saranna DeWylde posted, classic authors also tend to write more simply than you think.
“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” ― Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I’m in the midst of teaching a noir fiction course and re-reading Hammett, Chandler, Sanxay-Holding and Hughes has reminded me how lean their prose is. As usual I teach to learn and I am excited by the re-discovery of why I love these books so much. There are so few wasted words. So much is left to the reader to fill in.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York: they assume you know the cities or will take their word for it about how they are. Specific locations we need to know practical things about get just the important details: Sam Spade’s apartment, the Sternwood family estate, the Holley’s boathouse. We know Effie Perine’s boyish face—and we know that no romance will happen between her and Sam because of that description. She’s able and attractive, but no femme fatale. Carmen Sternwood doesn’t just suck her thumb, her thumb is weirdly formed, another finger, so the image becomes an indelible part of her character and her wrongness. And after our introduction to Dix Steele imagining himself flying in the midst of the fog then following the girl even though he “didn’t intend” to do so, there are no more direct words than “She was afraid.” You learn all you need to know about him from his pleasure at that knowledge.
“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” ― George Sand
I’m changing my own writing. In the midst of a new novel, I am taking the unusual step of backtracking. I like to burn through a first draft without looking back and then edit afterward. But I feel bloat creeping in and I want to snuff it out at the start and go on the same way. It’s the same way with teaching. You can see on their faces when you lose them. I stop and go back, try other words, find out where we parted company. You can do that in a class room. In a novel, a reader’s patience only lasts so long. As a reader, I’m rather ruthless when it comes to giving up on a book. There are so many books to read after all.
So I cut the words that are unnecessary. I cut the passages where my joy in describing a scene goes beyond what the reader needs to know into my pleasure at throwing words on the page. I cut to the best words, the specific ones, because the right word is more indelible than a whole paragraph of prose. I cut until it bleeds.