Back in the nineties, I was in a two-person writers’ group with another would-be novelist. M had a master’s degree in English and considerably better writing skills than I had. I learned a lot from her. She had agreed to judge the fiction-writing contest for high school students in the city where we lived. Our metropolitan area had a population of over a million, and she found herself buried under submissions. I offered to help.
We split the pile of manuscripts. I was to read the submissions in my half and look for stories that I thought were worth a second look by M, who would make the final decision.
All the submissions were read to the last word by at least one of us. You won’t find such courtesy in a commercial publishing house.
Some of the pieces were very good. One or two could have passed for the work of an adult professional writer. A few were incredibly bad, as in “aren’t you too young to be drinking heavily while you write?” kind of bad.
The bulk of them showed an honest effort to write a good short story, but unfortunately the kids didn’t have a notion of what good fictional technique even looks like.
Before there were authors of how-to-write-fiction books to swindle people out of their money, people who wanted to write fiction usually taught themselves. The classic route was to begin by reading a large stack of fiction. Once you had done that, you would select an author you admired and closely imitate that author until you developed a style of your own. This system of learning through imitation works, and not only in writing. Early Beethoven sounds eerily like Haydn. Van Gogh spent days at a time staring at a single painting in a museum, studying the brush strokes of Rembrandt.
The kids, I soon decided, hadn’t read very much. Some of that was their age. They hadn’t had time to read and digest a bookcase of fine writing. Some of the problem, though, was what they had read. I suspected that they had mostly read badly written cotton-candy fiction, such as cheesy romance novels or clumsy science fiction and horror tales.
If it’s true that you are what you eat, it’s true that how you write is largely a product of what you’ve read. Garbage in, garbage out.
At the time, I wished I had a way to give the honest-but-erring kids some feedback. Twenty years too late, here it is:
I’ve created the beginning of a terminally-ill short story:
“Don’t look now,” handsome, tall, dark-curly-haired John said to his lovely wife Laura, blond, blue eyed, C-cup, sexy in her low-cut, eggshell-blue top with matching skirt, shoes, and jewelry, “But there are a couple of old ladies sitting two tables away who are staring at me as if they want to hypnotize me.”
John and Laura were happy that night. Very happy. Happy, happy, happy. Theirs was a happy marriage. And playful, too. They liked playing games in restaurants and making things up. You could just tell they were playful. They played happily a lot.
Laura pretended to yawn and turned around and looked up into the sky as if the were looking for airplanes the way her father, whom she had never gotten along with and who disliked her husband, their cats, and her favorite ketchup, and who never liked the way her hair looked even after Margaret, her favorite hairdresser, who was getting a divorce from her husband because he liked beans, had it just the way John liked it when he got all excited, but no, this was never good enough for Daddy, and it made her cry sometimes when he looked for airplanes that weren’t there, even though he lived near mountains as beautiful as those inhabited by elves from mythical realms, and where if you wished really hard wishes would come true, and bluebirds danced like fireflies over an azure sea.
People who submit stuff like this have no idea what good writing looks like. They think they are writing fiction because what they produce isn’t much worse than the junk they read. It’s like believing that a Styrofoam sandwich with rubber-band filling is food.
If you forget everything else I say here, remember this: make a daily habit of reading the work of people who write a lot better than you do.
The is the opening of the short story “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier:
“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotize me.”
Laura, quick on cue, made an elaborate pretense of yawning, then tilted her head as though searching the skies for non-existent airplanes.
That is a pro at work. I am envious. Using just forty-eight words she has told us—mostly indirectly—that these are married people sitting in a cafe or restaurant, that they are in good moods, that at least Laura is rather playful, and that something odd is going on at a nearby table occupied by a couple of older women. There is not a single wasted word.
Authors who insist on telling you, frequently, how characters are feeling, instead of showing you, are telling you something else as well: they are telling you they are amateurs. (Okay, even pros occasionally tell readers how a character is feeling, but in most cases it’s a bad idea, like spitting chewing tobacco on the carpet when you’re visiting your clean-freak grandmother who has a severe heart condition.)
Also, Ms du Maurier didn’t start off with a detailed physical description of the characters. The reader doesn’t need that to begin the story, so she left it out when she set up the initial situation. (However, if the character just woke up as a giant cockroach, and that isn’t his normal look, go ahead and begin the first paragraph with a description that explains why sales clerks won’t accept his old photo I.D. when he tries to buy beer.)
I swear that the very worst writing I saw during my stint as a contest filter—bad for many other reasons besides excessive description of looks—contained the most detailed and lengthy and irrelevant physical descriptions of the characters no later than the middle of the first page.
I suppose that if you have mostly read cheesy romance novels sold for the purpose of, well, lets call it “private self-enjoyment” to keep this post G-rated, you’re used to enough physical description of impossibly gorgeous and sexy humans to complete a missing person’s report, and think that’s how it’s done in good fiction.
Think again. Many great novels and short stories lack a full description of the main characters. We don’t even know what color Elizabeth Bennet’s hair was in Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen had an entire novel to get around to mentioning it. (She did make it clear that Lizzy was not a “handsome” woman, so forget about the pretty actresses who play the character in films.)
I also loaded my dying story with a ton of irrelevant garbage that has no bearing whatsoever on the story. Details are fine, even desirable, if they matter, but bad fiction is crawling with the irrelevant and swimming with red herrings.
When it’s time to edit, put every detail and every sentence you toss in during the white heat of writing the first draft on trial for its life. Does it reveal something important about the characters? Does it advance the plot? Does it help to sustain or enrich the fictional dream by making a real contribution to the description of the scene? No? Off with its head!
Overblown description, a common disease of amateurs, usually occurs when a writer tries on a narrative voice that is too big for him. (Bad imitations of William Faulkner come to mind.) I admire good lyrical prose, but it’s a high-wire act few of us can pull off. If you don’t have a real gift for it, please tell your story in simple declarative sentences. Some great fiction has been written in bare, minimalist language.
As a final test, kids, read your dialogue aloud. If it sounds stupid, it probably is. Fix it so an actor could read the lines without snickering. Keep writing, and good luck!