Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Fine Art of Balance

Yesterday I went through about a dozen manuscripts I'll be critiquing at the Colorado Christian Writers' Conference. Several times I found myself underlining a phrase and simply writing "no" in the margin. Since I meet with these folks face-to-face and discuss my comments, that "no" is shorthand for "this isn't exactly what you meant to say--back up and try it again."

I think it was Mark Twain who said that writing isn't finding the right word--it's finding the exact word, for there's a vast difference between lightning and lightning bug. So many times I find that beginning writers get caught up in the story and they dash off the first metaphor, phrase, or word that comes to mind.

But writing that makes the reader stop and go "Huh?" isn't effective writing. The writer has jerked the reader out of what John Gardner calls "the vivid and continuous dream." A good writer, says Gardner, revises and revises until he gets it right, and captures it in language so "that other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again."

Occasionally, however, I run across a manuscript that errs in the opposite direction--a writer who cares more about words than story. Gardner says this writer "is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much--in his poetic drunkenness, he can't tell the cart--and its cargo--from the horse." Gardner says (and this makes me smile) that such a writer should switch to poetry or find an editor and a body of readers who love fine language. "Such editors," says Gardner, "and readers do appear from time to time, refined spirits devoted to an exquisitely classy game we call fiction only by stretching the term to the breaking point."

Gardner says this kind of writer "is not likely to feel passionate attachment to the ordinary, mainstream novel. The novel's unashamed engagement with the world . . . all these are likely to seem, to the word fanatic, silly and tedious; he feels himself buried in litter."

It is at this point that I must confess my attraction to this so-called "litter." On a plane recently, I read a much-heralded book that has been much-praised by the literari. Yes, the writing was beautiful, but I found the whole thing a snooze. If I'd had anything else to read, I would have put the book away. The novelist deliberately kept the characters at arms' length, and I really didn't care about what happened to them.

Lovely words are fine, but what a reader takes from a book isn't the words--it's the images the sharp, exact words create. We may remember a cunning phrase or two, but what we internalize are the characters and the trials they face, endure, and/or conquer. It's Scarlett shaking her fist at the sky and promising never to be hungry again; it's the poor woman in The Lottery who pleads with her neighbors not to stone her; it's Tom Sawyer slyly grinning and convincing his friends to whitewash that fence.

Ah, give me a story. Give me details, sweat, grime, love, laughter, hatred, evil, fear, irritation, pearls of perspiration upon a lover's upper lip. Let me live inside your villain's skin. Let me tremble with your protagonist and quake with her fury. Give me images and real life, and, if you have room, toss in a few lovely words.

As the farmer said, "That'll do."


No comments: