Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Colson Whitehead has a great article, titled How to Write. Much of his advice applies to writing fiction, but his fourth rule crosses genres:
Rule No. 4: Never use three words when one will do. Be concise. Don’t fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to “kill your darlings,” as they say. I’m reminded of the famous editor-author interaction between Gordon Lish and Ray Carver when they were working on Carver’s celebrated short story “Those Life Preservers Are Just for Show,” often considered the high-water mark of so-called dirty realism. You’ll recall the climax, when two drunken fishermen try to calm each other after their dinghy springs a leak. In the original last lines of the story, Nat, the salty old part-time insurance agent, reassures his young charge as they cling to the beer cooler: “We’ll get help when we hit land. I’m sure of it. No more big waves, no more sharks. We’ll be safe once again. We’ll be home.” If you examine the Lish papers in the Lilly Library at Indiana University, you’ll see how, with but a few deft strokes, Lish pared that down to create the now legendary ending: “Help — land shark!” It wasn’t what Carver intended, but few could argue that it was not shorter. Learn to kill your darlings, and don’t be shy about softening them up in the hostage pit for a few days before you do.