Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Writing Wednesday 20: How Much is Too Much?

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In this week’s Writing Wednesday video blog, I change direction a bit. For the last few weeks I’ve been talking a lot about doing historical research and how that impacts the story. Today I’m talking more about editing the writing itself, and focusing on one of my biggest pitfalls: over-writing.

By over-writing, I mean saying too much. Telling rather than showing; explaining things to the reader rather than trusting that the reader is smart enough to know what I mean.

Obviously this is partly a matter of personal style, and also a matter of era you’re writing in — as I say in the video, nineteenth-century writers believed in telling the reader everything, whether you need to know it or not. I think it’s also a matter of the kind of writing you’re doing. I believe one of the key differences between literary and commercial fiction is how much the writer trusts the reader. In commercial fiction, it’s far more acceptable to spell things out for the reader, whereas the further you go along towards the literary end of the continuum, the more emphasis is placed on being subtle, allusive, hinting at things rather than laying it all out. This results in a lot of literary fiction that’s very terse, spare, and in some cases completely loses me as a reader, because I can close a book and find myself asking, “Wait, what just happened?”

(Interestingly, there are modern literary writers who are very subtle, trust the reader so completely that I’m never sure what’s happening in any given scene, and yet also manage to write novels that are as long, rambling and discursive as any nineteenth-century tome. Yes, Mr. Chabon, I’m looking at you).

I tend to think of my writing as somewhere in the middle of the continuum from commercial to literary fiction, and I find myself always having to curb the tendency to write too much, explain too much. Almost everytime I read through a draft of my work, I end up crossing out with my red pen the last sentence of several paragraphs, because that sentence is the one where I tend to explain what just happened and what you were supposed to get out of it. And nearly every time, it’s unnecessary. I’ve already shown you; I don’t need to tell you too.

In the video, I give an example of how this works with a particular scene in the part of the story I’m currently working on. As with all revisions, I still don’t know if this is the right decision or not — but it’s the one I’m going with for now.


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