By Eric Scott Fischl
It’s a bit of an ugly-sounding word, really. Say it with me: sprawl. Like the sound one makes after being punched in the gut. Sprawl.
Sprawl can be The Bad, when it comes to a novel.
Let me qualify a bit here: I love big, big, books where a lot of things are going on. Multiple plot-lines, multiple generations of characters, stories within stories; few things make me happier. So, when I say that word sprawl, what I really mean is lack of concision. Lack of focus. If there’s anything that’s changed in the way I look at writing, it’s a hypersensitivity to a lack of concision and focus. And when I say can be The Bad, I want to be clear that there are types of literature for which concision just isn’t all that important. Proust? Not concise. Alan Moore’s Jerusalem? GTFO. But, I’m a firm believer in knowing what you’re doing before deciding to do away with it. Picasso was a realist portrait painter when he started, before he picked the rules he wanted to break.
So, The Good, then, in this case: concision and focus. Let’s take a look at that elusive beast.
Before we dive in – and yes, I realize I am not being concise – I’m talking concision in the macro here, not the micro. Never would I suggest that sentences themselves must be pared down, bereft of adjectives and adverbs; write your sentences they way they need to be written. Use your ear and your voice, whether you’re a spare Cormac McHemingway or a voluble Joyce Faulkner. That’s your own business.
Concision, in the macro, then, starts with that old saw Every Sentence/Paragraph/Page Needs To Advance Character Or Plot. It’s fine advice and, of the reams of writerly advice out there, one to follow almost universally. If you write something in violation of this, cut it in the next revision, because it probably doesn’t need to be there. Where I think that advice can fall down is that it doesn’t step far enough back. A page is micro-level. A scene or a chapter, still micro. Many writers, myself very much included, will fall into the trap of not backing far enough away from the book as a whole and, instead, have pages and scenes and chapters and sections that all clip along and adhere together quite nicely, but are unnecessary or distracting when considered in the context of the book overall. So why are they there?
OK, then, what to do about that?
A few months ago, I read this interview with the historian Robert Caro, which I’ve since passed along to several writerly types. It’s a long article, but very interesting and I’d highly recommend reading it. Robert Caro writes very, very long histories (he’s currently several volumes in to his Pulitzer prizewinning history of LBJ). What gave me a huge that’s brilliant moment while reading this interview was when Caro describes how he goes about tying his books together: before he even starts to write, he spends weeks and weeks condensing what he wants to say, the unifying themes and ideas, into three or four paragraphs, which he posts on the wall over his desk. Every single thing he writes, then, over hundreds and hundreds of pages, he ties back to those paragraphs.
You may be saying: That’s what an outline is for, dummy. And there’s merit in that, for sure. But look at your outline, though, and see how focused it really is. Outlines are great roadmaps but, as a unifying tool, I’m not sure; they can be so long in their own right that it’s hard to see the whole picture. So give Caro’s method a try, see if it works for you. You don’t have to summarize in three paragraphs, it can be three sentences. The key here is that it needs to be short enough for you to hold it in your mind as a unit. Maybe you’re not thinking of overarching themes yet; maybe you’re just trying to tell the story in your head. That’s fine, but, when the story is done and you go back to revise, figure out what the story is about, not just what is happening. Jot those themes and ideas down then, and, as you revise, as you make each sentence/page/scene/chapter Advance Character or Plot, keep those three paragraphs handy.
That chapter where your protagonist fights off ninja monkeys and drank too much antifreeze? Sounds cool. Does it serve what’s happening in the plot? Yep. Does it advance her development as a character? Absolutely. But take that further step back to your three paragraphs then: does having her drunkenly fighting ninja monkeys really work in service to what is at heart a story about X, Y, or Z? If so, great. If not, maybe also great, given that you’ve identified it as such and you’ve made the conscious decision that it needs to be in there. Knowledge is power.
A final word, then. I am in no way, shape, or form advocating for the idea that books have to preach something. Far from it: first and foremost a novel is a vehicle of character and story. It’s not a sermon. But, like having a skeleton under a body allows that body stand and move, having a unified, concise structure hidden under the covers of a work of fiction gives it weight and substance. Weight and structure supports the reader’s experience of your story, and the reader is the person you’re serving.
And that’s Good.
Eric Scott Fischl writes novels of speculative historical fiction and the supernatural. He lives in Montana’s Bitterroot mountains. DR. POTTER’S MEDICINE SHOW from Angry Robot Books comes out February 2, 2017 (UK) / February 7 (US/Can).You can find Eric online at his website and on Twitter @Eric_Fischl