Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Brevity

“Short isn’t necessarily a shortcut,” writes Andy Selsberg, a professor at John Jay College, in his “New York Times” piece titled “Teaching to the Text Message.” “When you have only a sentence or two, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Selsberg’s article is interesting on several levels, but two ideas it has left me with are that the instant-messaging generation might very well approach the novel-length narrative differently than past generations of readers, and Selsberg’s theory that the brevity needed to compose an effective Twitter-length message stresses many elements of effective prose.

Might fiction writers learn something from text-sending teens seen bopping past them on the sidewalk engaged in the two-thumb shuffle? Possibly. After all, as Selsberg insists, “The photo caption has never been more vital.”

I often stress to students that Toni Morrison claims to keep just three of every 12 pages she writes. Accordingly, many writers believe brevity is the cornerstone of sound fiction. For my part, I am still (Egad!) in the midst of a revision that when completed will amount to having written nearly 700 pages to get a 400-page novel. (John Ramsey Miller’s words, as our guest blogger last Sunday, regarding the need to outline continue to ring in my ears.)

Similarly, Daniel Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future” (Riverhead Books, 2006) stresses the importance of possessing the ability to encapsulate, contextualize, and emotionalize a message. Below are two examples he cites from the London “Telegraph.” A fun exercise called the Mini-Saga requires the writer to produce a story in fewer than 50 words. Check out the examples below, then see if you can do better than the teenagers you see skateboarding past you while thumbing snippets into cyberspace.

You just may find it improves your fiction.

ASSIGNMENT
A mini-saga is a 50-word story possessing a beginning, middle, and end. The London Telegraph sponsors a contest to see who can write the most compelling mini-saga. Consider these two winners then write your own using no more than 50 words.

Example 1
“A Life” by Jane Rosenberg, Brighton, U.K.
Joey, third of five, left home at 16, traveled the country and wound up in Nottingham with a wife and kids. They do shifts, the kids play out and ends never meet. Sometimes he’d give anything to walk away but he knows she’s only got a year and she doesn’t (Qtd. in Pink 120).

Example 2
“A Dream So Real” by Patrick Forsyth, Maldon, U.K.
Staying overnight with friends, his sleep was disturbed by a vivid dream: a thief broke in, stole everything in his flat—then carefully replaced every single item with an exact replica.
“It felt so real,” he told his friends in the morning.
Horrified, uncomprehending, they replied, “But who are you?” (Qtd in Pink 120).

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent, John. I can see these "mini-sagas" being an excellent classroom tool for a creative writing course.

On my own front, I've found my prose getting more and more stripped down to the point where on my forthcoming The Fallen One I was actually in the position of being asked to add some things to the final draft. What a luxury! (And what a switch.)