Personal Aspects of the Writing Life

Category: Blog

Many years ago before I proclaimed myself to be a writer, I worked for a mortgage banking company in Boston – our offices were on the top floor of what had been a grainery in Faneuil Hall, across the street from the Sanborn Fish Market. My boss was a sailor and the office was decorated with ships’ clocks, Spode china, and models of Boston whalers.  I was hired on the basis of my prior position as an editor of economics and business textbooks at what was then Houghton Miffllin.  Initially I was in charge of writing offering memoranda for potential lenders (banks, pension funds, insurance companies and the like).

My boss had been head of credit analysis for Irving Trust company and New England Merchants National Bank, responsible for training their staff so I listened carefully to his advice and learned a lot from him. Looking at a first draft I had written, he said, "I always tell my staff that if a ten-year-old doesn't understand this, then you haven't done your job.” He handed my draft back and said, "Work on it. Simplify.” And I did.

I moved to Los Angeles and was hired by a NYSE-health care company in their strategic planning department – more writing, and this time, I got slapped up one side and down the other by my boss, a former Marine, who didn't have a college education, and collected automatic weapons as a hobby. Not exactly my type, but I learned something from him. "What is this word ‘hubris' doing in your report? Nobody will understand what you're getting at.” I wasn't sure if I was supposed to dumb down my writing, or if he had made a valid point. Either way I was humiliated.

What do these two stories have to do with the art and craft of writing? First, as Hemingway has recommended, if there is a simpler word for the one you have chosen, use it. You're not getting graded on your PhD-level vocabulary. On the other hand, there are times when an esoteric word is exactly the right choice, but it is up to you as the writer to know the difference. One way to figure this out is to read the sentence aloud; if the word stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of the story, and seems to be pointing back at you, the writer, rather than driving the story forward, find another word. If you are like me and you fall in love with words, that process can be as painful as breaking up with a lover or admitting that a marriage is on life support, and husband and wife need to part ways.

The flip side of simplifying is knowing when something needs greater specificity and an artful explanation. And that boils down to selecting the telling details that create context and put meat on the bones of a scene and a character. This is particularly true when writing historical fiction. You need to give the reader enough historical background so that the action of the story and the characters who are driving the action, are not just being pushed around by the keys of your computer, but are reacting to what is happening. For example, I worked on a memoir for a client, as their ghostwriter, and it was my job to dig up the telling details of the World's Fair of 1939 where they worked. I unearthed the price of a ticket, the names of some of the pavilions, and the fact that the Soviets served bowls of caviar to visitors. Reading this scene aloud, I discovered when I had overdrawn the scene, and what needed to come out. It's a little bit like the three bears – not too much; not too little; just right.

Brevity is an important aspect of simplification – is your novel a doorstopper weighed down with too much back story that is important for you to know in order to build believable characters, but is really "too much information." I am working on a novel, which has morphed from 200 pages to 650 pages. An agent I pitched it to said, "Good story, great writing, but I won't be able to sell this. Your book takes up the shelf space of two books. When you've written three or four best sellers, then we can talk about a 650 page book." So my challenge is now to cut, cut, cut while maintaining the integrity of the plot and characters. I'm on my fifth draft, and still have another 200 pages to go before it is ready to take back out into the marketplace.

I recently had a short story published in the Horror Issue of The Yellow Chair, a literary journal published in Texas. Entitled "Hermitano," it began its life as a first-person essay, and morphed into a short story with an omniscient narrator, who knew more than the characters in the story and could backfill what led to a character's action. "Hermitano" takes place in the Southwest and one of the main characters is a boy's dead grandmother, whom he murders, but does it do it to take her out of her misery? Or did he do it to free himself from taking care of his abuela? I leave it up to the reader. Yellow Chair was looking for stories of 800 words or less, and "Hermitano" was 1,500 words -- too long to be considered. So I deleted hefty passages, that turned out to be tangents to the main story and none of that material was really missed. In fact, taking out 700 words made it a better story with more punch and surprise. And the ambiguity of the story added to its power and invited the reader to bring his own imagination into the mix.

As you are making your way through one draft, to the next and ultimately to a manuscript ready for a publisher to consider, remember what one of my clients – who is in the fashion industry – said, "The skirt should be long enough to cover the situation, and short enough to be intriguing."