Friday, October 07, 2005

DAVID LEAVITT On writing a story


“This was told to me by my first writing teacher, a famous editor named Gordon Lish. ‘Never put yourself in a position of moral superiority to your characters.’ Very useful to remember.”

“Lish’s law: ‘Enough is enough.’ Every writer should have that over his or her desk! Writers are insecure about getting the point across. There’s a tendency to say things forty times when you really only need to say it once. It’s good to remember the virtues of simplicity.”

“I always tell my students
writing is not like cooking in this one way: you can add more salt. Because, unlike cooking, you can take some out later. If it takes you twenty pages in the first draft to get your characters out of the beauty parlour and into the Thanksgiving dinner, you can cut that, and sometimes you need to write the twenty pages to get to that point. I’m a great believer in cutting ...”

LEAVITT David [1961-] Short-story writer, novelist. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. NOVELS The Body of Jonah Boyd (2004); Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing (2000); The Pager Turner (1998); While England Sleeps (1993: shortlisted for the 1994 Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize); Equal Affections (1989); The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) STORIES The Stories of David Leavitt (2005); Collected Stories (2003); The Marble Quilt (2001); Arkansas: Three Novellas (1997); A Place I’ve Never Been (1990); Family Dancing (1983: shortlisted for the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction) NONFICTION The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (2005); Florence, A Delicate Case (2002)


Blogger Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Hi Eric,

This proves another extraordinary piece that you've slipped into your blog.

And like the art picture, such a theme as you've mentioned in cutting and tightening - and I am always guilty of this weakness - does afford its haven of discovery but differently as opposed to the direct education of the mind.

For instance, with my little muddle over which of a variety of fiction manuscripts to send to a literary agent - an attitude which I now forsee in a completley different way and not as it was for me earlier this year - simply from remembering that many in England were once the publishing industry's stalwart in-house editors and also knowing that the genre I choose marks the yardstick that carves my future writing identity - the rest will serve as pen-names and reflect my versatality; I did find out the following, while writing my stories.

Perhaps its naive but when I wrote serious fiction based on two romances, the characters were afforded a larger number of thought patterns that threaded themselves out from the unhurried stream of the unconscious mind. While these words were played out on paper, the word count did rise quickly even while plodding on a tight pace.

The writing of comedy - and I don't mean any kind of chick lit - but fiction proper, affords a different route. Pace with a sharp combination of slick wit is everything. And especially if your attempt is to make prose clever, then the craft itself must make sharp swerves to become painful and cautious. One loose line or leftover word can quickly lose the writer its reader's attention span. Boredom immediately sets in and the finished story appears straggly.

And so now I find that in writing humour for a strict prose - pace like tightly-woven threads on a fabric mat is everything and any other literary venture is built upon it.

So this is an excellent form of self-discipline for editing and tightening. If you want to get the humour just right, you have to. The writer simply has no choice.

Here in England, they would say, 'cut the crap' if you wrote fiction and took an age to describe someone getting out of a car to walk to his apartment or someone waking up and getting dressed to go to breakfast and you took another chapter over it. That is if the events have no captivating purpose.
Not unless you were describing espionage or a thriller or a different story that holds some immediate form of drama or surprise waiting on the other side. Then a routine ritual suddenly turns suspenseful & intriguing.
Happy editing to my own rambling, Eric & best wishes

Saturday, October 08, 2005 2:59:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Hello Susan,

Really enjoyed reading what you had to say about cutting and tightening one's writing. I think it is also important for writers to rewrite their sentences.

Much of writing is the hard work of rewriting, rewriting and rewriting, followed by more rewriting. And revising. And more revising. Successful writers attest to this practice.

Isaac Babel is a genuinely great writer. He rewrote constantly. He revised and revised and revised. The stories that read so effortlessly, that seem to have flowed from the pen of an angel, probably were the result of months of painful struggle. He was in awe for the perfect sentence and was driven by a need to achieve that.

And there are good writers who writes slowly, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and never revises what they have written. William Styron, for instance, never goes to another page until he is satisfied with what he has poured onto that page.

But I don’t think Styron’s method works for most writers. If you are not satisfied with a page, just go on to the next and come back later. There are no hard and fast rules. Write what works best for you.

What do you think, Susan?

All the best
Eric Forbes

Saturday, October 08, 2005 4:46:00 AM  
Blogger Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Hi again Eric,
To answer your question:

Because I write my stories directly on a laptop...

I guess I am a little mix of both.

I may trundle like a tractor with perhaps 2 or 3 paragraphs and then feeling elated and suddenly inspired, race through the next 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and so on. On the same sitting, I would then go repeatedly through my lines like a madwoman bent on finding some hidden clue, until I was convinced my lines had become a tight fit. I would read them aloud, click my lips and indulge in a fair amount of secret neuroses - just to taste the melody of my lines.

Once a whole chapter is written, I would then go back to the chapter, a few more times, reading each line over and over, checking word by word for its, grammar, the rhythm of its tense, the drawl of its line on how a reader would read it, perceive it etc...

Once that's all done, the same chapter would by now have become much much tighter. My story will now read smoothly and stay sweet to my eye and the whole process would of course have been sprawled over days.

By the time, I move on to the 2nd chapter, the 1st one would be already perfect for me, so that's how I edit my work. You'd be surprised how many loose bits you could find on a page tomorrow, that had looked to you the writer, all nice and tight today.

That's why, Eric, I've taken much longer with the literary agent and all the entire publishing authority that follows. I could have relentlessly pursued this part of my life much earlier and would now have gone through that hurdle.

The thing is I write in a variety of styles so I have to decide on a fixed identity with regards to a genre and also because I know that any mild show of cleverness or lack of it from my personality as a prospective author, will be revealing to any British stranger who's going to read my work. He/She will judge my cleverness from my manuscript.

That's why to me personally, the fluid fluency of the English Language and the weapon that it gives you to masquerade or playact any role in any story genre, is so important to me.

And I feel that any British authority who looks at my work must see that standard about me or not see anything at all.

Then even in the face of rejection, I can stay satisfied to know that with persistence, my manuscript will find its way to the right people!

In England with the publishing industry, one little slip that depicts amateurity or carelessness with tensing and grammar or with the way a phrase is worded and your manuscript is straightaway pushed out of the way. The agent's reader will assume that the writer hasn't got the right skills.

Saturday, October 08, 2005 5:21:00 AM  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

Nice quotes Eric! Shall write them big on my heart.

As to the editing debate you kicked out I'd say just keep going forward until you've finished the draft. If you stop to tinker you may get so bogged down that you never move on. But everyone has to find his her own way of getting the words down ...

Sunday, October 09, 2005 3:10:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home