Thursday, May 15, 2008

Edith Wharton on digging deeper

The phrase 'economy of material' suggests another danger to which the novelist and the writer of short stories are equally exposed . . . . Economy is . . . to be advised in the multiplication of accidental happenings, minor episodes, surprises and contrarieties . . . . The reluctance to look deeply enough into a subject leads to the indolent habit of decorating its surface. . . . Again and again the novelist passes by the real meaning of a situation simply for lack of letting it reveal all its potentialities instead of dashing this way and that in quest of fresh effects. If, when once drawn to a subject, he would let it grow slowly in his mind instead of hunting about for arbitrary combinations of circumstance, his tale would havethe warm scent and flavour of ripened in the sun instead of the insipidity of one forced in a hot-house.
--Edith Wharton

This passage from The Writing of Fiction is timely for me. She is talking, I think, about the necessity of developing and digging deeper that I have been working on for the last several months. My first draft had a lot of the dashing about that she criticizes and a lot of my rewriting processed has layered on even more of it. Right now especially at the climax of Part 1, I am tempted to layer on the multiple happenings, coincidences and so on.

I've indulged that impulse, because to me that is a way of discovering the "real meaning of a situation"--a way of letting it grow in my mind. For the most part, it has been in the service of discovering all the potentialities of the situation.

The trick is to distinguish between what helps me actually develop and deepen the work and what is just a distraction to help me avoid it. In the most basic sense, a weak story will just start shooting off fireworks or affect an air of mystery as a smokescreen to hide the fact that the story isn't really complex. It's a kind of display like a fish that puffs itself up when a predator is nearby. I know in my case it's as much an effort to delude myself that the work is powerful as it is trying to slide something by the reader. Decorating the surface isn't inspired by indolence so much as fear.

My mind is on the next draft, and I can see that a lot of it will be addressing exactly this issue--looking at some of the exciting fireworks shows and being tough with myself about what is unnecessary. Not just unnecessary, and therefore needing to be cut, but if those decorations are hiding weaknesses in the work that still need to be excavated.

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