Writing advice is rarely helpful, even when it comes from writers. But I like to hear what other people think about the process. So I subscribe to the website Advice to Writers, which posts a quote a day about writing. A while ago, the advice was from Elmore Leonard, and it stuck with me:
Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.
I'm reading Dorothy Dunnett right now. Book 5, The Ringed Castle, a.k.a. "the Russia one." You all know how I admire and esteem and oh all right LOVE Dorothy Dunnett. But she was much more interested in commerce than I am, I'm finding more sections than I remember that sound like this:
Grey was pleased. Elkhides would fetch sixteen shillings the skin back in England, with the hair clipped beforehand to save shipping space. He could depend on nine pounds a ton for train oil, in well hooped casks better than their own, from clean knotless timber, seasoned with water and trimmed with pitch at head and seams. And oil from the top of the seal fat at that, pure enough to oil fine wool for weaving. Everything was a bargain: white grouse feathers at five altines the pood; duck down at seven to eight altines. Salmon . . . he had never seen such salmon: fifteen thousand at least, given away each for a couple of dengi. Richard Grey, merchant adventurer, was happy.
Let's just say I read these books more for the adventure than the merchant, and the word pood makes me giggle.
I first read this book 2003 or 2004, while I was living in York. I especially got a library card so that I could check it out of the library. It had a blue cover, was very fat, and bore an overall resemblance to a fantasy novel. It's the only book to date that I have started reading again immediately after finishing it. I read page 637 or whatever, paced around my dorm room for five minutes, and then sat back down and opened up to page one again. The entire time Lymond is in Russia, he is practically a background character. You are almost never close to him, and when you are, he's performing, so you can't get in. (Almost like... a castle. Hmm!) But after that, you get about as close as at any point in the whole series. (Almost like the castle gets surrounded. One could say... ringed. HMMMMM!) I learned a lot from how the narrative is set up, what it relies on you to have learned about Lymond in the previous four books, and the way Dunnett zooms in and out on her main character. She is not easy. She expects you to stick with her and trust her, and it pays off. The hoops, casks, altines, and poods serve a narrative purpose. Just like you often wonder, "Is Lymond a monster?" you might ask yourself, "Is Dunnett perpetrating hooptedoodle?" and the answer is no (well, sometimes), and no.
However, I do have a tendency to perpetrate hooptedoodle, and that's why I didn't post at all in November. I was doing NaNoReviseMo, which involved massive, wholesale revisions. An excising of the hooptedoodle. Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle, and revising is like solving the same puzzle differently. You have to imagine how many ways there are to solve it and ask yourself if you've done it the best way. Chances are you have not. Chances are you will have to solve it seven or eight ways before you figure out the best way. I only got through 35% of the book, so I'll probably have to take January and March off of blogging, too. (As you can see, it is tiring and involves recovery time equal to revision time.)
Anyway, here's how I'm making this topical: it's cold in Russia, and it's snowing outside right now.
[Chancellor] gave his mind and his eyes instead to the land, the mother of whiteness; to the falling snow, a host of dove-grey particles against the pale downy sky; a rush of white against the dark trees and bushes. To the sunlit snow, golden white against blue on the roofs of the villages, and the bright lime green and umber of the trunks of the thinning forests, their snow-white profiles lost to the vaster white space of the sky.
Chancellor later refers to "the indignity of cold" and his nose runs a lot. He loves every minute of it, as I shall endeavor to do until about February, when I'll lose my temper and think seriously of moving to a tropical climate.
The header image is The Alexander Sloboda, by Mikhail Vrubel, 1899.