deb smiles enigmatically

Today's train ride home involved Genevieve, a child of 7 or so. Genevieve's mother was trying to pretend her child was adorably precocious, when it was painfully obvious to the standing-room-only carriage (including said mother) that her child was in fact a stroppy brat who could do with a little bit of authority in her life.

Book recommendations from today's class:

Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg

Apparently, Max Perkins edited Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and was responsible for Gatsby's verbal tic of calling everybody "old boy"

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Guide to Writers, by Betsy Lerner

I'm finding, more and more (particularly as we drive towards fiction editing in class) that the advice handed out to editors is very similar to the advice handed out to writers. Makes sense, of course, since they're both focussed on producing good stories, although writing is more heavily focussed on the creating and editing more heavily on the smoothing. Typified by the fact that a lot of the books recommended are in fact aimed towards writers. It's all about the words.

For example, today's advice is the rule that in fiction, particularly, "1 + 1 = ½". In other words, say it once and have confidence in the power of the first lesson. Repetition leaches power from what you're trying to say. Not a new concept, by any means, but I do like the mathematical expression as a shorthand way of remembering it.

Another discussion of sorts revolved around the issue of dialect, when it works and when it's trickery and irritating. My general feel for dialect is that it's to be avoided unless there's a very good reason. It feels overdone to me: the voice of a character should come through in the word choice, and specifying a pronunciation through tricksy spellings (leaving aside the fact that I might pronounce "gawn", frex, very differently to how an american would pronounce it) feels like a director who doesn't trust the skill and/or intelligence of his actors. It's micro-management. And micro-management, to me, is synonomous with unnecessary intrusion.

Of course, Irvine Welsh and Anthony Burgess and other dialect-writing greats were trotted out as examples of when it works. And it does work, even though most people will say it's "hard going" for the first few pages or so, until the writing settles in to them and they begin to acquire the rhythms and patterns. Still, working or not, I think if you're going to put in something that might/will make your reader stumble 1) you'd better've earned their trust and 2) make sure there's a satisfying reward or payoff for all that work you're asking them to do. Otherwise it's going to feel gimmicky. And you'll lose their trust.

The last snippet from today's class involved adverbs. One of the girls in the class was rather incensed at the idea that all adverbs should be cut. What, all of them? But they give a story a closeness, a cosyness, an atmosphere! If you take them away you're turning writing into an attempt to be cinema, dialogue and action and then it's nothing more than a script, where's the tone, where's the voice? After assuring her that "cut all of them" didn't necessarily mean all, we edited a snippet of The Great Gatsby, which was full of adverbs ("argued skeptically", "assured us positively", "nodded in confirmation", "leaned together confidentially"). The result? She agreed to cut all of them (bar the "argued skeptically") as they were tautological. The "argued skeptically" she wanted to keep, as replacing it with "said" removed some of the sense of competition inherent in the text at that point. But she was perfectly happy to replace it with an action that suggested skepticism and argument in its place. Honestly, it made me chuckle. (Which is probably why the tutor observed the subject line aloud 😉 )

New Links memorised: an interview with Michael Cunningham (link courtesy of Margo)

Six months later, I can't tell what I wrote on a good or bad day. What seems to be true is the juices are always there. We lose our connection to them.

2 thoughts on “deb smiles enigmatically

  1. "Argued skeptically" actually sounds redundant, to me.

    I've heard some people (notably Stephen King) make the same "kill all the adverbs you can manage" argument, and I know why– because it's a tool so easy to use badly. But then I was just reading Straight Man by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo, and noted he had no problem using adverbs to good effect, even in places where King probably would have cut them. So I don't know.

  2. Hi Matt,

    The "kill all adverbs" is common advice, but I've never taken "all" to mean "every single last one", myself. For me, the advice unpacks as adverbs are the easy way out, and people often use them to modify a weak(er) verb when choosing a stronger verb (or modifying the word choice in the dialogue) will convey the meaning you want. Adverbs have their place, just not as large a place as new writers imagine 😉

    As with most writing, it comes down to "if it works, you can keep it". Sometimes you can keep stuff that's not quite working because so many other aspects of the writing are working really well.

    I'll have to give Straight Man a look, I've not read that yet. Thanks! (And welcome aboard!)

Comments are closed.