In Defense of Unnecessary Words

Have you ever read a book that was so well written that you were sick of it by the time you were half way through it?

As I mentioned in my post last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about style lately. Strunk and White, Zinsser, even Elmore Leonard all talk about trimming prose down to what’s essential, but personally I feel that when writers take this advice too seriously they end up with prose that is so freaking dense that it hurts my head to read it, and I usually put the book down before I get to the end.

This isn’t to say I think a writer should get wordy just for the sake of filling the page (unless of course you’re getting paid by the word, in which case, go crazy), but as a reader I like to get a few extra words every now and then.

For instance, here’s a Steinbeck quote I posted last November:

“A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the dusk.”

He could have said “The sun set and darkness crept over the land.” It gets the basic idea across without all those “unnecessary” words, but oh, the dripping, and that torn cloud like a bloody rag. Not only are these beautiful descriptions, but they also set a tone for the story (“Grapes of Wrath”). Would this book have withstood the test of time if he’d gone for the simple statement of the sun setting? I think not.

That said, I’ve also put down books because of endless adverb abuse or descriptions that fill pages without telling me anything about what’s going on. It’s a fine line to walk, so I get why instructors often tell us to cut the superfluous words, but I’d like to say here, because I can, that maybe, once in a while, illustrative verbiage is the spice that makes literature so delicious.

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On Style

I feel like Lewis and Clark would have felt if they had not kept a journal, but rather tried to remember everything to write it down once they got home.

But of all the adventures that have kept me busy (and away from my blog – sorry) over the last month, the one I am most excited to tell you about is the New York Summer Writer’s Institute.

For two weeks I wrote, read, listened to others read, critiqued work and took in feedback from my fellow writers. It was the first time that I ever immersed myself in my writing so completely, and it has left me a little stunned.

While there is much to say about the experience, and I intend to talk a lot about it in the coming weeks, the thing I’ve been ruminating the most on is style. My instructor at the Institute was Rick Moody. He wrote The Ice Storm, Garden State, Right Livelihoods, and his new book The Four Fingers of Death just came out (I am half way through my autographed copy and loving it).

He has a very clean, direct style that is different from some of the writers I’ve studied with. I tend to lean toward more languid, flowery writing, with digressions of visceral descriptions. That’s the writing I usually love to read, and so it’s the style I tend to emulate. Rick pushed me to consider a different kind of style, to trim everything that isn’t absolutely necessary and whittle down my writing to the barest of shiny white bones.

What’s more, he told me to take his advice with a grain of salt. He very earnestly said that no matter who I try to imitate in my writing, I will always be me, and so the best thing I can possibly do is just keep writing and let my own style develop. What great advice.

So I’m back at the keyboard, typing away once more. Please accept my apologies for my recent absence, and rest assured, now that life is returning to normal, I will be back to my regular routine of Monday morning blogging.

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Vacation Reading

I’ve been in Spain this past week, on vacation with the family. We stayed at a hotel with a big fat pool. Despite the rich history of the area, the ancient castles and even a day trip to Gibraltar, the pool was my daughter’s favorite part.

Of course, it’s never been hard to get me to the pool either. I love swimming. The other thing I love, love, love about the pool is seeing what people are reading. There was one book I saw called “Loose Girl.” The subtitle ran “Some girl’s were anorexic, some chose drugs and alcohol, I chose sex.” Juicy. The woman reading it didn’t put it down all day, so I’m very curious.

Though a lot of the covers I saw were in languages I didn’t understand, I was still excited to see so many people reading. Whoever thinks nobody reads anymore should visit a crowded pool for reassurance – people read.

I devoured two books myself. The first was “Eat, Pray, Love,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. The second was “The Space Between Trees,” the new debut novel by my friend Katie Williams. It was a great read.

I’d love to know what folks out there are soaking up this summer. What’s on your list? Any surprises – good or bad?

On Monday I start my two week adventure at the Skidmore Summer Writer’s Program. Two whole weeks of nothing but working on my novel/fiction. I’m very excited about it. Stay tuned.

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All Work And No Fiction…

Makes April one cranky writer.

Last week I complained that I only wrote six pages on my novel. This week I can’t even say that I did that. I’m busting my ass to get this sample chapter of my non-fiction project done as soon as possible, and it just hasn’t left any room for my fiction.

This is true physically and mentally. While I have very little spare time, I feel like if I really wanted to I could make the space to work on my novel. After I put my girl to bed, for example, I could write a few pages.

But one of the things I never count on with writing projects is just how draining they can be. After writing for six or seven hours on the non-fiction project, I just don’t have it in me to do any more. Especially since shifting to my novel would mean a complete brain wave modification. Different characters, different structure, even the basic style of my writing is different when I do fiction.

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself. The chapter is coming along well, and should be done in a day or two. Then I can set all this non-fiction aside and focus on the novel for the foreseeable future.

The really juicy dilemma will be if I do get a book deal for the non-fiction project. What then? Do I set aside the novel indefinitely? Do I make Mondays Talulah Jones days, and devote the rest of the week to non-fiction? Do I toughen up and start writing pages after dark?

I’m not going to worry about it just yet.

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The Balancing Act Continues

I considered writing out my to-do list as this week’s post. Ultimately I decided against it, because really – how boring would that be?

In a few weeks I move in to the Skidmore dorms for their Summer Writing Retreat, and I am so excited. Sure, getting ready to check out of my life for two weeks is partly what has my to-do list growing like a colony of bacteria on nutrient-rich agar, but once I’m there – it’s all about my fiction.

Just me and Talulah. Ahhhh….

Right now I feel like a neglectful parent. I only wrote six pages last week, and the worst part is, I know exactly what I want to be writing, I just can’t seem to find the time to get it down. In order to get the non-fiction proposal ready to go out I’ve been prioritizing that work to the top of my list, and Talulah keeps getting bumped. I wish I could tell her to hang in there. “I’m not abandoning you, I swear.”

Anyhow, I’m keeping the post short and sweet today. I’ve got s**t to do….

ps – I know the photo for this post has nothing to do with its content, but I’m feeling stressed and it always makes me giggle, so I thought I’d share.

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For anyone who may not know, in March I took on a project I called the Month Without Monsanto. For the whole month of March I did my best to avoid all Monsanto products. It was ridiculously hard.

I blogged about it on my other blog Since finishing the project at the end of March I have been working on a book proposal called “Nonsanto,” and on Friday I met with an agent who is excited to work with me in putting together a proposal to take out to editors/publishers.

I am absolutely thrilled to say that I have an agent. She is smart, savvy, and genuinely interested in the project. She has asked me to write one more sample chapter (I already wrote an introduction that we will use in the pitch), and I am working hard to get it done in the next two weeks.

What’s the hurry? Well, in addition to the material being pretty timely, I am also headed to Skidmore in July for a writing seminar – a fiction writing seminar. And here is where the multitasking comes in. In the coming weeks I have to not only bust out a kick ass chapter for the proposal, but also keep moving forward on my fiction. It’s a wonderful dilemma. My first instinct is to just drink a lot more coffee, but…. I’m pregnant! The good news has just been rolling in lately.

I’m feeling a little daunted, but super excited. I have so much work to do, and anything that doesn’t get done before mid-December (my due date is Dec 15 – which is awesome, since our insurance deductible resets on January 1st) is going to be pretty much put on hold for a while, so there’s a serious fire under my booty. One cup of coffee a day simply isn’t enough. I wonder if my OB will understand. Probably not.

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The Writer’s Notebook

I’ve kept a journal for as long as I can remember. Traditionally I fill one a year and buy myself a new one on my birthday. It’s a fun tradition, but what I learned last fall is that a journal is different from a writer’s notebook. Learning to keep a writer’s notebook has changed how I see the world. It has challenged me to become a better writer, and supported my story telling in ways I never really believed it would.

It was Janet Fitch who taught me to keep a writer’s notebook. When I took her class last fall she insisted that we all have a small notebook, and that we keep it on hand at all times. She pushed us to write in it every day, if not multiple times a day. Every day we should note the weather, pushing ourselves to describe it in a way we have never heard before. Every time we hear or see something that catches our attention we should write it down – in a way we have never heard before. And that (“a way we have never heard before”) changed the way I write.

Describing things, weather or people, in a way that is uniquely my own, over and over again, is hard. It takes training. I am getting better at it all the time. And the great thing is that every couple of months I take a few hours and type up everything in my journal and store it for future use. Now, should I need to describe Los Angeles in October during a sudden down pour, I don’t have to try to remember it – I just go to my file on weather and pull something out:

“The rain sounds like an argument. Insistent an imposing. I try not to hear, but it keeps getting louder. Reflected droplets splash up and hit my shins making me cold. Everything is shiny in this dim light and I can see the outline of drops clinging to the underside of the railing as if they too are trying to hide from the downpour, trying to stay dry.”

I may or may not use all of that, but it’s a great start, and it was written in the moment, looking at the rain, feeling it, hearing it – not just trying to remember it. It’s the details that make a story memorable, and the more you push yourself to notice them, and exercise your ability to describe them well, the better writer you will be. At least, that’s what Janet Fitch told us, and I for one believe her.

So if you are a writer, invest in a little notebook – something small enough to fit in your pocket or purse, and carry it with you always, and don’t forget a pen (there’s nothing sorrier than a writer without a pen). When you have an idea or a thought on how you would describe something – stop and write it. Pull over to the side of the road, make the checkout lady wait, ignore the kid’s request for juice for a minute and just get it down. That’s what being a writer is all about.

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Arbitrary Deadlines

Back in school I learned about this study that some scientists did on motivation. They took two groups of Marines and made them walk twenty miles. The first group was simply told to start walking. The second group was told how far they had to go before they could stop. I’m sure I’m getting the details wrong, but the point is that the first group suffered a lot more. They were tired, cranky and angry. The second group marched the twenty miles without a hitch. They were ready for more – boo ya!

We all do better when we know what the task ahead of us is, and roughly how long it’s going to take us.

I’ve been working on this novel (actually typing pages) since December of 2008 and I’ve got quite a ways to go yet. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much more time this project will take, it’s important to me to know how far I have to hike, and so to keep sane, I break the whole “write a novel” thing into chunks.

My new goal for a finished second draft is November 30th. Yes, it’s arbitrary. No, I don’t have an editor begging for pages, or a publisher anxiously awaiting my newest work, but it’s important for me to know what’s ahead and when I will get there.

Having a deadline (even an arbitrary one) keeps me moving forward.

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I’m writing these words sitting in the Los Angeles Superior Court Jury Assembly room. It’s my first time, and I have to say that I’m actually kind of excited. Ot at least I was when they gave us the orientation about what the day would entail. Today I am an active participant in our judicial system.

Little did I know that being an “active participant” would entail sitting in a large room with a hundred or so slightly smelly individuals, all of us waiting to have our named called. Down time like this makes me anxious.

Today was supposed to be a writing day. Even heading in here this morning I figured I could use any sitting-around time to get some writing done, but I’m finding this environment very distracting.

There’s a guy in the back who keeps singing operas in a strange falsetto voice. Every half hour or so there are announcements from the people running the show. Every person in the room has a newspaper or lap top and the rustling and tapping of keyboards around me seem much louder than they really should be.

I don’t think of myself as easily distracted, but what I’m realizing is that I’m just used to the distractions I deal with regularly. I can handle constant inquires from my daughter without hardly slowing my typing at all. I can suspend the narrative in my head for as long as ten or fifteen minutes should my guy call to say hello. These are the bits of my life that I have managed to integrate into how I write.

The opera singing hipster in the back is not.

So I’m trying hard to focus. I am pushing myself to put in the extra effort. I read and re-read pages and do seem to be making slow progress with minor tweaks here and there. By the end of the day I will know if I am assigned to a case and have to come back tomorrow. I’m hoping not. If so, you better believe that tomorrow I will arrive with ear plugs in my pocket. Even if I only get to write during my lunch break, it’ll be a more productive day than this one.

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On My Own

In the seven month history of this blog I’ve never missed a week of posting. Please accept my apologies, dear readers, for leaving you hanging last week.

In my defense it was a big week. I finally graduated! Yes, I am now officially a Master of Professional Writing (so says USC). In addition to being a master, which is fun to say, I am also now totally on my own – which is a lot scarier.

No more professors giving me their wise guidance, no more weekly classes to force me to change out of my pajamas and go somewhere to hold a conversation, and no more blaming my complete lack of income on the fact that I’m a student.


Luckily I have a small group of writers (former classmates) who get together once every other week, but I wonder if this will be enough to keep me sane. As much as I love working alone, I need to interact with people. I am a social creature at heart.

I also tend to over-plan things. I’ve had to crush the urge to start up another five writing groups so I have something to do every night of the week. I do have one other group I’m hoping to get rolling – to fill in the holes on my current group’s off weeks, but I have to stop myself there and see how things develop before I go crazy with more writing circles than I can handle.

It’s exciting and scary being out on my own now. I’ve had my training, now I have to make good on it and keep writing. As always, that’s really all I can do.

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