Monday, January 21, 2008

Mastering Subtlety

If there is a writing crime of which I'm guilty, it is overwriting. Although I've come to realize it's the mark of an amateur, polishing and adorning prose until it's the equivalent of an over-sized tiara, it doesn't happen for me in the same way. What naturally spills out onto the page is some sub-par, Faulkner-esque, never-ending train of words, the structure as complex as the words are bloated with imagery and detail.

Jessica Page Morrell devotes an entire chapter of her amazing book, Between the Lines, to subtlety in fiction. Gospel to my muse's ears, often tuned into three symphonies at once. Morell breaks the chapter into subtlety techniques in character description, setting and the land-mine of conveying emotions. The recognizable differences between good drama and melodrama, a dangerous territory for anyone who attempts to write about something as complex and intense as love, is worth the price of the book alone.

In addition to other aspects of subtlety--the proper placing and use of subtexts and how simplifying modifiers, qualifiers and intensifiers can make a stronger impact--the most important point Morrell makes is that of trusting your reader. A hundred years ago, readers craved languid, thorough prose, as the stories lived entirely in the place of imagination. Today's reader, living in a media-saturated climate doesn't need the author to take them by the hand and act as a tour guide. Chances are they've seen it on streaming web video or one of three hundred high definition channels in their living room. For authors, it becomes a tightrope. How much is too much?

I rank Between the Lines as one of the best writing books I've read in years. Morrell peels back the important layers found in so many craft books to the lesser-known techniques that bring storytelling to the next level.

What is your greatest writing crime?


Jen FitzGerald said...

This does sound like a really informative book, Laura. I'm putting it on my to-be-bought list.

As for my greatest writing crime, I'd say just not writing enough.

Jen FitzGerald

Andrea Geist said...

LA, can I borrow?

Marilyn Brant said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. It's sounds like one I'd enjoy reading.
(And, oh, I have too many writing crimes to list... :-)

L.A. Mitchell said...

Absolutely, A., you can borrow. I'll bring it next time.