One of my most horrifying encounters with a creative writing teacher happened while we were engaged in a one-on-one workshop class in his office, in which we were working on my first big novel, Touch. James was one of those quiet, badly dressed, golden-hearted teachers who I’ve often thought about years after our classes. His softly spoken doctrine on how to write still flutters through my thoughts today as words appear behind the cursor and creep across the page. He’s here, in my writing, keeping my excessive description down with a heavy but caring hand and lifting my vocabulary up ever so often, pointing a stern finger in my face whenever I’m tempted to cliche.
A menacing ghost I keep alive.
I sat down with James one morning and he had my manuscript spread out before him, and he gestured to the pages with a sort of disappointed shrug.
‘This storm here, at the beginning of chapter two,’ he said. ‘You describe it for a page and a half.’
‘Yeah?’ I said.
‘I know what a goddamn storm looks like.’
‘Not this one,’ I countered, trying to save my dignity. ‘It’s… uh. It’s pretty fucking epic.’
We used to swear at each other a lot, James and I. He started it. It’s just something we did.
‘Is this fucking epic storm critical to advancing the plot in any way?’ he asked. I scratched the back of my neck.
‘Well cut that shit out,’ he said.
He put his big black marker onto the paper and slashed the pages out like he was cutting open a box. It was tough. But it was the first of many times he would do it. I know what a messy apartment looks like, he’d say. I know what a bus station looks like. I know what a park full of kids looks like, too. Words tumbled and fell. My words. And when they were gone there was only plot, and character, and every now and then a piece of setting only where it was crucial and only where it was beautifully and uniquely described. I was sad for all those gone places, weather events, distant mountain ranges peeking between suburban rooftops. They had been fun to write. But remember what I was telling you last time you were here about things that are fun to write: They’re not always fun to read.
When you’re trying to decide if something has to go; and I’m not only talking about setting here, but dialogue and characters too; ask yourself whether you could have done what you were trying to do in less words, less instances. Think about songs, and how little space and time songwriters have to describe a character or a place or an emotion and how they do it, and whether or not your novel can be one great long beautiful song of few words but many ideas.
Look at this, from Kris Kristofferson‘s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’:
Take the ribbon from your hair,
Shake it loose and let it fall,
Lay it soft against my skin,
Like the shadows on the wall.
So much here isn’t written. Rather than telling us that we’re in a dark room lit by soft light, we know that there are walls and shadows and that’s all that’s necessary for us to feel the warm glow. Rather than telling us that tender loving sex is about to happen, or that she’s beautiful, or that he’s naked, his desire is merely for her to let her hair down and to touch him with her ribbon, so all of those things come in the same bag. In twenty four words, we have a shadowy room, gentle love, the caressing touch of hair, ribbon, skin. We fill in the intimacy and romance and tension and longing and all that other gooey lovey disgusting stuff ourselves. To write it would just be patronising, wouldn’t it? You patronise someone whenever you tell them something they’re quite capable of working out for themselves.
The same goes for dialogue. Real people don’t talk that much. I mean we talk, sure, but we don’t talk about things like love, desire, hurt, fear. Particularly men. It’s an awful lot more powerful to suggest that one character loves another than going and spoiling it all by having them say something stupid like ‘I love you’.
There are two asian guys sitting in the alfresco area of the cafe in which I’m writing this (the same cafe where I wrote Over The Wall). They’re smiley characters in skinny jeans and suit jackets, bathed in sunlight, doing everything they can to avoid sitting in their chairs the mainstream way; putting their feet on the other chairs, hanging their legs over the arm rests, tucking a foot under themselves. They’re bejewelled and drinking from tiny cups. One’s texting and listening. The other’s explaining something embarrassing; he won’t look at his friend. At the end of the story the friend lets his head hang back a little until it catches all the yellow light from above and smiles in a sad kind of way. Says nothing. And that’s critical. He says nothing. It’s the look that says ‘I feel ya, bro’ or ‘Man, that sucks’ or ‘Jeez, I’m glad it wasn’t me’, or all those things at once.
We say ‘I love you’ by brushing the back of someone’s neck with our fingers as we pass behind them sitting at a desk. We say ‘I hate you’ by breaking something that we know they cherish, not picking up the phone, turning our chair away from theirs. You can say ‘I want you’ by taking a ribbon from your hair. I remember a friend telling me once that she was in that shadowy, soft, tender place with a man between the shut door and the surface of the bed and the guy she was with said ‘Let’s do this.’ It turned her off so fast and so bad she had to leave. You can ruin everything with just a few words.
Try to be tender with your description. Light, and soft, and subtle.
When you say ‘storm’, your reader knows what you’re talking about, so as soon as you’ve used the word your reader has clouds and rain and lightning and thunder in their head. Add a couple of things your reader might have forgotten about this experience if you like: the heaviness, the earth taste to the air, the way a sound can, if it’s loud and sudden enough, move in your belly like an unborn child. Then leave it. Refuse to ruin it with more. Cut that shit out. You’ll be left with the intricate bones of an idea, and your reader will add the flesh and make it move.