Monday, March 29, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 10

(This series begins with Part 1.)

X. Subtlety & Pacing

I'm going to talk about these ideas together. Everything we've discussed so far will have an effect on the pacing. You cut out those unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, whittle down your prose to eliminate wordiness, tighten and sharpen your dialogue, write in the active voice instead of the passive, and show the moments of high drama through the characters' words and actions, and you'll have a fast-paced bit of writing.

But when we talk about pacing, we're not talking exclusively about a FAST pace. Here's a quote from Stephen King that speaks volumes:

"Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. … Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bull-- ..." --Stephen King, On Writing

Noah Lukeman devotes a chapter of his book to the idea of Subtlety. He says:

"A writer who is subtle is in no rush; he can pace himself, prolong tension, suspense and even dialogue for hundreds of pages. He can hint, foreshadow ever so slightly, set things up hundreds of pages in advance. He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you [the reader] to come to your own conclusions." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

This idea of subtlety requires the writer to walk a tightrope between saying too little and saying too much. You may often hear your fellow writers argue against subtlety. They might not realize that's what they're doing, but they'll tell you to spell it out, to avoid any possibility of confusion, to put it in your writing in black ink on white paper.

But that approach may lead to beating your reader over the head. You may risk annoying the reader by stating the obvious. By being too heavy-handed. An unsubtle writer often has a tendency not only to tell, but to both tell and show. --Thereby leaving the reader in absolutely no doubt about what the writer intended to convey.

This is something you're going to have to work out for yourself, I believe. It takes practice and experience to know what information must be included for your reader to follow the story, and what you can leave for your reader to wonder about.

If you aspire to be a subtle writer, you must have confidence. As Lukeman puts it:

"Achieving subtlety is all about gaining confidence, not only in yourself but in the reader. … Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

This is hard, and you may not be comfortable with this idea of letting the reader come to his or her own conclusions. A lot of writers are not. But after I read and digested Lukeman's chapter on subtlety, really gave it some thought in relation to the story I was trying to tell, I went back through my novels and cut, cut, cut. I quit spelling things out. I took out the parts that struck me as too obvious and blatant.

I'm happier with the more cryptic version, the tighter, crisper, faster-moving version that leaves some things unsaid. Experience has taught me the truth of that old saying:

Less is always more.

Next post: Part 11

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