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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

writing breakthrough: little darling death toll spikes

For the last several years, I've been working on a novel. The first draft of this novel was about 100,000 words. The second draft was a quarter million. To motivate myself to finish it before I left my two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony this past fall, and to give myself a fresh experience of the work as a whole, I held an open studio for the last three days of my residency in order to read the entire work aloud from beginning to end. I read about a quarter of it, and my fellow colonists read the balance.

I'm now about halfway through my second re-reading of the novel since the open studio, and in the last few days I've made what feels like a major breakthrough. After years of having it pointed out to me, I've finally developed an ear for--and an aversion to--my own overwriting.

Murder is the prevailing trope of good editing. "Kill your little darlings," goes the editorial adage usually attributed to Hemingway. "If you catch an adjective, kill it," said Mark Twain. I've known these useful maxims for years, but nothing taught me ruthlessness with my own prose like the fiction of John Grisham.

I'd never read a Grisham novel before I took "The Rainmaker" on the plane with me en route to MacDowell in October. I chose the book with a positive attitude, respectful, thinking that to have sold so many millions of books this guy must have something to teach me about plot and character development. Two weeks later I managed to finish the book, and its lesson was altogether darker. The salient characteristic of Grisham's prose is the way he insults the reader's intelligence on every page, sometimes in every paragraph. He does this through the needless repetition of information. If you're a careless reader, this style is easier to read, because if you fail to pick up a cue on its first iteration, you will certainly have it bludgeoned into you by the second or third. If you read thoroughly, you just feel the bludgeon.

I put down "The Rainmaker" feeling predictably smug. But then I picked up my own novel, and the more I read the more I saw Grisham's error, and its implied insult, perpetrated throughout my own prose.

(to be continued)

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