Regardless of your book’s length, the way you fill that space matters. But should a writer pore over every single phrase and sentence, crafting it like a sculpture or even a jigsaw puzzle? Or should the author just let it flow like water from a faucet?
It depends. It you’re writing a poem or even a short story, especially one with a designated word count limit (typically around 5,000 words for most magazines and anthologies), then you probably should pay far more attention to each and every word, since you’re working within rather limited constraints.
But if it’s a longer piece, whether a novelette, a novella, or a novel, you have more freedom to experiment and indulge your longer-winded instincts. You can always cut the fat later, as painful as that may be, after you’ve assessed the work as a whole.
The objective is to maintain fluidity. And what flows better than water? So whether it’s a stream or a sea, metaphorically speaking, just keep it moving.
The challenge is making sure you wind up with a well-balanced cocktail, brimming with secret ingredients that blend smoothly and invisibly together, rather than a hastily heated can of alphabet soup, its random preparation tastelessly obvious.
A River Runs Through It
You’ve probably met or heard about – even if it’s a stereotypical character in a film – the intense, morose author that agonizes over every single word in his or her epic manuscript.
Either this is an accidental admission of conscientious procrastination, or they really are perfectionists to an annoying extent. In either case, this kind of self-scrutiny will definitely impede your progress. You just need to be careful you’re not allowing a reason to become an excuse.
No author should tell another author how to write. The end definitely justifies the means, and writing is something one does in private, anyway, at least ideally.
But writers can share their techniques in hopes others can benefit from their experience, even though the actual skills required still need to be honed on one’s own.
Brevity is the hallmark of esteemed authors like Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard, and creative writing instructors often point to them as examples of economy when it comes to construction. Basically, say what you mean, mean what you say, and be down with it. Don’t dilly-dally with extraneous details.
Many readers appreciate that approach. However, others enjoy wallowing in the relative excess of other equally acclaimed authors like the late David Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon, brilliant wordsmiths that revel in their literary flourishes, at the expense of expedience, but delighting those who enjoy reading for its own sake. That particular audience is in no hurry for the story to end, or even begin. The words being employed are not simply vehicles for a plot to hitch a ride, but the joy of the journey itself.
Worth the Trip?
Whether taking the shortcut or scenic route, readers will want to feel the author’s own sense of deliberation and caution. A piece that comes off like a rambling, incoherent rant should be a decision made on purpose, not a result of laziness or lack of discipline. Case in point: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, told by a protagonist that suffers from Tourette Syndrome. Or James Joyce’s psychological odyssey Ulysses, which is basically a man’s many random thoughts transcribed to paper.
The story itself should dictate the style, the length, and the overall agenda. If the characters are relatable and the plot is credible – regardless of context – the reader will close the book feeling satisfied the writer’s mission has been accomplished.
Only the author needs to know the costs and casualties.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO