Friday, December 10, 2010

The Humble and Terrifyingly Dangerous Adjective!

Peter here. John’s musings yesterday about Hemingway’s obsession with the unwritten, as much as the written, reminded me of why I so much enjoyed reading him in my earlier years, and how much he influenced my writing.

It seems strange to me now, to reflect on how big an influence Hemingway was, when my own writing style bears such little resemblance to his. But, then, perhaps it’s a good thing that we don’t try to ape our heros, and just let them teach us lessons that we then absorb into our writing psyche.

Hemingway had an abhorrence of the adjective. He wanted to “make” things with words, not “describe” them. Which produced some beatifully stark, yet evocative prose.

I must confess to a secret (or not so secret) passion for the adjective. I enjoy its creative use in portaying a vivid sense of place or character for the reader. And despite a current fashion for denigrating the humble adverb, I find nothing wrong with it either, if used appropriately. How else are you going to evoke, in the reader’s mind, an accurate picture of the backstreets of a provincial Chinese city, or the windblasted beauty of a Hebridean moor, if they have no experience of either? You are taking your readers by the hand and leading them into unknown territory.

But I do very much adhere to Hemingway’s belief that what you cut in your text continues to have a sort of phantom presence, and an impact on what remains. Any description of place, character, atmosphere, requires a construction of words to give it life. Each word choice is dependent upon what went before, and what comes after - a logical procession of language. So the removal of some of those words or phrases, in the pursuit of lean, tight writing, still leaves their influence in the words and phrases that remain - many of which would not have been chosen without those now cut.

The same is true, I think, of research. I am a great advocate of in-depth research. I enjoy it, for a start. The danger, of course, is that you put it all in there just because you’ve researched it. But like the words you cut in your text - or the nine-tenths of the iceberg hidden from view - the bulk of your research should stay where it belongs. In your research folder.

For me, the purpose of research is to inform you, the writer. So that when you come to write, you do so from a position of knowledge - not putting all that knowledge on display, but using it to give you confidence in your material, while at the same time subliminally informing your reader that he or she can trust that you know what you’re writing about.

So that, as usual, as with most good writing, less is more.

4 comments:

Sarah Hilary said...

Excellent post, Peter. Reminded of film-makers talking about special effects; just because you've spent millions of dollars and man hours making a beautiful spaceship, doesn't mean we have to sit through sixteen minutes of you panning the camera lovingly over its hull. In fact, far better to show us it looking "everyday", and in that way pull us into the world you've created. Great point about it applying equally to research. Sometimes it's so tempting to share everything we spent all those weeks and months uncovering, isn't it?!

Rick Blechta said...

Some very good points here, Peter. Thanks.

On research: I find I tend to overwrite when I haven't researched something in depth, simply because I'm unsure of myself. That's when I tend to throw in the kitchen sink.

When you're truly familiar with a topic, you know the salient bits to inject into your prose in order to describe, set the mood, etc.

For instance, there is NO substitute for visiting a place when you're going to be using it as a setting. You just pick up so much "feel" for the place that you won't get from reading about it, on the Internet, or even talking with people from that place. You have to GO there if you want to give your plot line the best chance to be memorable.

Even better is to live in that place for awhile. I choose Paris. In the spring.

peter_may said...

Yes, Sarah, it's always a temptation to throw that research in there just because you've done it. But you're right, you're only going to bore the reader if you do.

And I couldn't agree more, Rick, that there is no substitute for visiting a place you are going to write about. In fact, I never write about somewhere I haven't been to (well, almost). And that has led to some wonderful trips to China, poking around hidden corners of France, and travelling the length and breadth of the Hebrides - experiences I might not otherwise have had.

Anonymous said...

A great post Peter as always!