One of the challenges in growing older is having to adjust the amount of food I eat. Like many women, I’ve battled with my weight for my entire adult life, and have kept it mostly under control with careful food selection and regular exercise. I had reached an understanding with my appetite, a truce of sorts, and maintained a fair degree of equilibrium. Then menopause hit, and a decade later, it is finally penetrating my brain that I cannot eat as much as I used to without gaining weight (which, now for health reasons rather than vanity, is not desirable). In other words, I no longer know how much is enough.
I fought this realization for years. I clung to the illusion of being able to navigate three meals a day, whether at home or in a convention hotel restaurant, without having to think too much. Now I have gotten as far as making my peace with re-defining “enough food,” although I don’t always know what that new amount is.
It strikes me that there is a parallel process in learning to write. When we begin, we have no idea how much is enough — enough description, enough dialog, enough scenes, enough blows in the blow-by-blow sequences. What’s too little? What’s too much? It takes experience and critical reflection to judge. My own version was that I’d either write stories that were so minimalist, the most important story elements verged on becoming non-existent, or else I’d belabor every detail, no matter how trivial.
I’d think that because I had worked hard to craft a single sentence (or even a phrase), it would necessarily carry a similar weight with the reader. Surely, those few words would convey the full impact of all that travail. Surely, the reader would fill in all the carefully-understated gaps, would realize every nuance and spot every subtlety. While I still believe in giving the reader credit, I’ve come to understand that the material has to be on the page to begin with. Even perceptive, literate readers aren’t telepathic. We do have to give them a clue here and there, more here than there if it’s something important.
I also fell prey to the widespread beginner’s error that the amount of text on the page (and hence, the time it takes to read it) ought to correspond to the speed of the action itself. Fast action = short scene, right? The truth is that the more dramatic a scene is, the more “weight” of detail it can support. An essential element in suspense is “playing the scene out.” Overdone brevity undercuts the build-up of tension and deprives the reader of that very experience she expects from the story.
At the same time, I’d excessively elaborate details without reference to their importance. (Actually, the word “excessively” points out that even crucial details can be overstated!) Some of my tools-in-crime were exaggeration, inappropriate diction, and repetition. I described every object, every character, every bit of action, with multiple adjectives, and I couldn’t use a simple verb like, “said” or “ran” or “was.” I twisted sentences into excruciating shapes in my efforts to avoid the verb “to be.” I thought the more syllables an adverb had, the more it added to the color of the sentence.
What, isn’t the “purple” in “purple prose” a strong color-word, and a good thing? And my goodness, I can’t risk the reader not getting *this* point! So I’d better highlight it every time it comes up, just in case they missed it the first time.
In my early years, I focused on cutting out the redundancies and overwritten prose. (Although I can’t claim to have been entirely successful, I’m much better than I used to be.) I learned to “flesh out” my scenes, to draw out moments of drama, to slow down the action, and to give the reader time to savor whatever is going on. As I’ve gotten more skillful, I’ve learned to do it more with fewer words. I’ve found different way of “playing things out,” of creating resonances instead of inflicting repetitions on the reader. I strive to evoke rather than delineate. I try to make every story element serve multiple purposes (for instance, advancing the plot and revealing character and adding backstory, or setting the scene and heightening tension and suggesting the larger world).
What is enough has, like the food on my plate, gotten smaller. What is too much, on the other hand, requires never-ending vigilance.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.