Writing advice, Writing and Editing

After Rereading Hemingway

Last week I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I had read it at least once before, during my pursuit of a University degree in Literature and it had impressed me, primarily because its style was so different than most novels that had come before. However, it had been a while, like (I hate to even say it) thirty years.

It would appear that I have changed a bit over those thirty years.

Why? Because as I read what is often considered Hemingway’s best novel, the work that almost single-handedly changed the way the modern novel is written, I found problems. They weren’t major problems, mind you. But there were problems. Often the very same problems I work to eliminate from my own writing.

Thirty years ago, as a young student and writer, I had read the novel in something like a religious awe. This was HEMINGWAY. This was a master. Everything about his novel had to be—by definition—perfect. I dedicated myself to reproducing his style.

Apparently, I have grown some, both personally, and as a writer.

So what problem did I find in The Sun Also Rises? Nothing terribly earth-shattering, but a problem nonetheless, in my opinion.

Hemingway is reknown for his spare, understated prose. He often tries to employ innuendo and nuance to tell the story as much as he does verbs and objects. And he pulls it off very well. Most of the time.

For example:

“The road came out from the shadow of the woods into the hot sun. Ahead was a river valley. Beyond the river was a steep hill. There was a field of buckwheat on the hill. We saw a white house under some trees on the hillside. It was very hot and we stopped under some trees beside a dam that crossed the river.”

Very simple, but effective. Compare his description with anything by Henry James, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. He uses no similes or metaphors, just simple, declarative sentences.

But sometimes it falls short, as in this conversation between Jake, the narrator, Mike, and Brett:

“I’m a little tight, you know. I wouldn’t ask you like this if I weren’t. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Oh, shut up, Michael,” Brett said. “How can the man say he’d mind now? I’ll ask him later.”

“But you don’t mind, do you?”

“Don’t ask that again unless you want to make me sore. Bill and I go down on the morning of the 25th.”

“By the way, where is Bill?” Brett asked.

“He’s out at Chantilly dining with some people.”

“He’s a good chap.”

“Splendid chap,” said Mike. “He is, you know.”

“You don’t remember him,” Brett said.”

What bothers me about this passage is the question of who, exactly, says: “He’s a good chap?”

At first reading, I wasn’t sure who is saying it. I’m still not absolutely sure, but think it’s Brett. In my opinion, this is a mistake. If someone has to pause to figure out who is saying what, the writer has not properly done his job.

Anything, that bumps the reader out of the flow of the narrative, is, in my opinion, a problem for the writer. This happens a handful of times in The Sun Also Rises, always in the dialogue. Mr. Hemingway occasionally writes so sparingly that we are left trying to figure out who is speaking.

Other than that, I thought it flawless.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Art of Omission

All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.”

Gustave Flaubert

A writing friend pointed me to an article in The New Yorker recently titled “Omission,” written by John McPhee. The subject of the article—a personal essay really—is writing and the process an author goes through as they make creative decisions to create their work.

I’ve discussed this concept before on this blog, under the title “Le Mot Juste,” which is Gustave Flaubert’s term for the struggle each writer goes through searching for the one perfect word for each particular sentence, in each particular paragraph and each particular story. It’s a fairly familiar concept to most writers. In “Omission” though, Mr. McPhee approaches the subject from the other direction. He states that it’s as much about what the author decides to leave out as what she decides to use.

For example: you have chosen—after several rewrites—the perfect first word to begin your story. At the same time you have decided to not use almost a million other words in the English language. You have chosen to leave them out.

By the same token, we are constantly deciding to omit things whenever we begin to write, for there are almost an infinite number of possibilities out there. Is the main character male or female? A child? A teen? An adult? What is their socio-economic background? Where do they live? Have they always lived there? Is this where the story takes place?

You get the idea. Without realizing it, we are deciding to leave out everything we don’t want in our finished story.

It is said that the famous artist Michelangelo once said that the secret to sculpting a horse out of a block of marble was to examine the stone and then remove everything that wasn’t a horse. It is an oversimplification, but is basically true. It is the same method when we write a story or article. We look at the universe around us and omit everything that isn’t part of the story.

I stumbled upon this concept as I learned the art of revision. As I’m revising, I constantly ask myself whether a particular scene or description is essential. If I take it out of the narrative is the story essentially changed? If the answer is no, that particular passage must come out. I even set up a parallel file and physically remove the passage to that separate file to make sure (that way I can always replace it if I need to).

The art of omission is learning—as an artist—what to leave out.

Possibly the most accomplished proponent of the art of omission was Ernest Hemingway. He stated the theory like this:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strong as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

To experience the concept in full display read Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway is at his best as he renders a couple engaging in a heated (if understated) disagreement. At no time does the author or any of the characters ever mention the subject of the disagreement. He does this so well that the reader doesn’t really notice this. It is enough that the author knows what the argument is about.

The idea of omission is most useful when the work calls for a great deal of research. When we research for a historical story, or one involving a career field we don’t know, it is a given that much of what we learn will never explicitly make it into the prose. Yet all that information will effect the manner in which we present the material.

In your historical adventure during the American revolution, you may never actually need to show the reader what song your character hums to himself as he marches, but the fact that you know what that song would be still influences how you portray him. If asked, you could name the song and the reader would nod her head and agree that makes sense.

Mr. McPhee’s article also introduced me to a new term in the world of omission. The term is “greening.” It comes from the world of magazine journalism. After an article has been researched and written and edited and rewritten and approved and sent out to the layout department, it would often come back marked “green 3,” or “green 5.” What this mean was the article was too long for the space available in the magazine. “Green 3” means the writer needed to cut three lines from the article.

The important thing (in my view) is that this didn’t mean simply cutting off the last three lines. It meant going through the article and eliminating any extra or unnecessary words until the article was reduced by three lines. Try doing this with one of your existing works. It is difficult, but can be done. You can eliminate all adverbs and adjectives. Eliminate the word “very.” If you’ve used a compound verb, try a simple one (such as was instead of had been). It is a great exercise in how much leaner we can make our writing.

I believe it was Thelonius Monk who said it about music: “It’s not about how many notes you hit. It’s about the spaces between the notes.”

That is the art of omission.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

7 Things School Didn’t Teach About Creativity

Since anything we do or want to do with our writing and our lives as writers all begins with one common thing, creativity, I thought we could take a look at the subject. So with some help from Michael Michalko, I present Seven Things School Didn’t Teach You About Creativity.

Everyone is born creative.

The only difference between people who are creative and those who are not is simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative are not. It really is that simple.

Creativity is work.

It is not easy to be creative. If it was, everyone would be doing it. You must possess passion and the determination to practice and learn the process of creating. Then you must have the patience and strength to continue in the face of adversity.

You must practice creativity to be creative.

Like almost any ability in this life, if you don’t use your creativity you will lose it. Moreover, when you create new ideas, you are exercising the creative parts of your brain, which leads to more and better ideas. If you want to become a musician, for example, and you play your instrument every day without fail, you will become a musician. You may not be a great one, but you will be a musician.

There are no bad ideas.

This is a difficult concept for many people. How can you say there are no bad ideas? What about genocide? How about murdering your wife for the life insurance? Yes, those ideas are immoral, illegal, and even repugnant, but they are not in and of themselves good or bad. They may be invalid, or counter-productive, but they aren’t bad. They’re just ideas. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas. Think of all ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can. Only then do you sit down and decide which ideas will work best.

Expect the experts to be negative.

The more expert and established a person becomes, not matter what field it is, the more fixed they become on validating their ideas. It’s human nature. You’ve spent your career championing a particular set of beliefs and opinions. When someone new comes along and challenges those ideas, you’re probably going to move heaven and earth to prove them wrong. As a creative person, you should be expecting these attacks and prepared to deal graciously with them. (It means you’re succeeding).

Trust your instincts.

This is related to the previous statement. You cannot allow yourself to become discouraged in the face of rejection or criticism. Of course, this is very easy to say and quite difficult to do. Surround yourself with friends and family who believe in you and your abilities. That will help. But most of all, you need to believe in yourself. Of all the people in this world, you have to be your own most dedicated fan.

There is no such thing as failure.

There’s a story out there that someone asked Ernest Hemingway if he did writing exercises. He replied that no, he didn’t do exercises. He wrote stories that didn’t work.

Hemingway had it right. Whenever you try to do something that doesn’t succeed, you have not failed. You have learned something that does not work. If you can, figure out why it didn’t work and come up with a different way of approaching the problem. If we learn from everything we do—even if it is just establishing what doesn’t work—we never really fail. We just take another step toward our overall success.

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Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part Two

Last week, I went over some of the notes I’d taken during the workshop I attended at the South Coast Writers Conference on dialogue, taught by Tess Thompson, author of seven romantic suspense novels. Much of it is refresher, but we all need to be reminded time and again, right?

This week, part two of dialogue, some of which I hadn’t actually put a name to, though I instinctively tried to use it in my own work.

But enough of my prattle. On with Notes on Dialogue, Part Two.

What to Avoid?

Dialogue is not a source of facts. This is not to say that there are no facts presented in dialogue, just that any facts presented are of less importance than the characterization. The primary place to reveal facts is narration/exposition.

Dialogue should not be used to describe people, places, or objects. Unless it’s in the context of characterization, (so what’s said may or may not be true).

Dialogue is not a substitute for narrative.

Dialogue is not used to express the extended brooding of a character. This almost never happens in real life (most people wouldn’t put up with it). Instead, this brooding type passage should be dealt with in internal speech or narrative.

Grammar

Dialogue is not always grammatically correct. In fact, it usually isn’t. Most people, even the most highly-educated, seldom speak in complex or complete sentences. This gets worse in times of stress. Dialogue should reflect this, but not so tied to reality as to be boring.

Vernacular or Dialect

It is out of fashion these days to phonetically spell how people speak. It slows readers down and makes the dialogue hard to understand. Instead, suggest the difference through word and vocabulary choice, syntax, and content to render the dialect. Or you could just say she spoke with a deep southern drawl and leave it at that.

Attribution:

In ninety-nine percent of all cases, use the simplest attribution possible: he said, she said, etc. All you’re trying to do is show the reader who is talking where it can be confusing. Beyond that, “he said” is nearly invisible. Using clever attributions like “she surmised” or “he inquired” is amateurish and falls under the category of telling, not showing.

The other one percent forms the exception to the rule and should be limited to an occasional “whispered” or “groaned,” something that works.

This next portion is what I found particularly interesting, the non-vocal part of dialogue. I have been instinctively reaching for that aspect as my skill level increased, but never had a truly intellectual grasp of the subject before now. Now there it is, written in simple phrases, silence and subtext and how to use it to add richness and depth to our dialogue.

Other parts of dialogue (besides speaking).

Gesture

It can be a method of conveying how something is said. If you show a character shaking his fist in someone’s face as he speaks, saying “he shouted” is unnecessary.

It adds realism and authenticity to the dialogue because it is how we experience conversation in real life. People talk with their hands, they slump back in their chairs, or lean forward over the table. Conversation is never a sterile exchange of words.

It adds subtext to the dialogue, such as when the gesture or body language does not match the words being spoken. A cliché’s example is the couple arguing. The woman finally says “Fine.” But everything about her body language says everything is not fine.

Silence

Think about it. Few real conversations involve non-stop talking. Real conversation is a collage of our own vocals, our conversation partner’s vocals, reaction to the other person’s speech, interactions with the physical environment, and memories awakened or associated by the experience.

The object of dialogue is to create an illusion of real conversation, not a faithful copy of real conversation. (Real conversation is boring for the most part.)

How to evoke the silences.

A descriptive passage of the setting.

We see this often (in real life) as people engaged in conversation enter a new room or building. Their conversation pauses as they acquaint themselves with their new surroundings. Dialogue mimics this by inserting a quick sketch of a new location, then the conversation resumes.

Provide an unspoken thought or memory as a reaction to something said.

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Someone in a conversation says something that triggers a memory. For a moment or two, we may even be concentrating on the memory so much we miss part of what is being said.

Provide an association related to the dialogue.

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or profound. Her dinner partner says something about the parking garage at work and she wonders whether she remembered to close her garage door.

Subtext

What characters don’t say is as important (often more important) than what they do say. Using body language, gestures, and oblique references, the character will signal what they really want, even when it’s at odds with what they say they want.

Think of the age-old courtship rituals of the teen-aged human. She really, really wants him to ask her to the prom, but will go to great lengths to pretend it isn’t important to her. The boy will do the same, agonizing over the mixed signals he’s receiving, but pretending to not care. It would be so much easier if both would just admit what they want. But it would also be much less interesting.

That’s what we’re also shooting for in our fictional dialogue.

The best dialogue conveys what is being said as well as what is being implied.

Consider this passage from the master of understatement, Ernest Hemingway, in his story “Hills Like White Elephants:”

“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl looked at the beaded curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

The passage absolutely oozes unspoken tension between the couple, though nothing is actually said about the subject. In fact, they seem to be actively avoiding the subject of their disagreement as well as the disagreement itself.

It’s why I call him the master, because he is very, very good.

No

Characters need to be constantly saying (literally and figuratively) no to each other. This is what causes tension in the scene. Without it there is none and the scene should be cut.

The whole subject of non-verbal communication in fiction reminds me of a semi-famous quote from the jazz great Miles Davis. He was speaking about music, but the idea applies to the literary arts also.

“Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Great dialogue is not about the words our characters say; it’s the ones they don’t say.

Just something to think about.

And thanks again to Tess Thompson for providing these insights.

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