Friday, March 21, 2014

The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part Three

The Writer as Interior Director

I have talked about the writer as architect and the writer as builder. As architect we plan and design our story; as builder we put together the words, sentences and paragraphs that give our ideas form.

Hemingway argued that writing was not interior decoration, and that the Baroque was over. Many writers, once the building has been constructed, would consider their job done. However, I believe there is one more step that can turn competent and even good writing into excellent writing. It is what transforms writing as craft into writing as art. This does not necessarily involve the elaborate constructs of the Baroque; but it does require attention to detail. It is about word choice, sentence structure, and the careful construction of paragraphs. It is beyond good grammar, and often even breaks those rules. This I call ‘interior decoration’. It is writing to create a mood, to generate an effect, and to vary pace. As with all art, this will often come down to a matter of taste.

Consider the following passage:

She came in the Towers’ front entrance and walked up the stairs, passing her neighbors on the way. She walked down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C, dug in her purse, unlocked the door and let herself in. She was shocked to find blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this. It’s not badly written. The grammar is fine. It’s clear and concise. Now consider this:

Coming in the Towers’ front entrance and walking up the stairs had been a familiar experience. Passing her neighbors on the stairs had been a familiar experience. Walking down the hall of the fifth-floor to room 5C had been a familiar experience. Digging in her purse for her keys, unlocking the door, and letting herself in… all familiar as well. Finding the blood splattered on her living room walls, her flat screen television smashed on the floor below its wall mount, her plants uprooted and dumped out of their containers, well, all of that was very unfamiliar.

What the writer has done in that second version is to first of all create a rhythm, using repetition and well measured phrases. They have avoided overusing that repetition by varying it on the fourth pass: ‘all familiar as well’. Then comes the reveal, with the antithesis: ‘all that was very unfamiliar’. The writer has used this measured rhythm to build suspense and create a mood. The reader knows something is coming, and is led skillfully towards it. That is interior decoration, and it turns good writing into something much more powerful and evocative.

This is not something that should be done all the time. To do so would be to stumble back into the Baroque, or even the glitzy pretention of the Rococo. The book would become far too long-winded and annoying. This, I think, is what Hemingway is warning against. But it should be done at key moments, and to a lesser extent along the way.

Interior decoration is not always about adding words. Minimalism is also an interior decoration choice. Less is sometimes more effective than more. A simple word or phrase can be just the right touch. Listen to this from The Dubliners, by James Joyce. ‘Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.’ So few words to say so much. There is an entire personality—a philosophy even—in that sentence. ‘All this happened, more or less’, is the opening line of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse Five. It forewarns you about what you are about to read. How much more? How much less? This is a true story but, well, maybe not so true, too. This is sort of what happened, and sort of not.

When it comes to interior decorating, words are used—even fewer words—to do far more than just tell a story, or convey information. They are used to create an effect. They are used to evoke. Poets do not have a monopoly on this. And creative writing is not journalism. Any number of combinations of words can convey the information. When we choose this word rather than that one… When we decide that this sentence sounds better before that one… We are already doing the interior decoration. It is a fine line we tread and it will come down to taste in the end. Did Joyce go too far when he wrote that ‘Love loves to love love’? Or when he described ‘The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea’?

This is not something that an editor can necessarily help you with very much. I might say to you: bring this passage more to life. I might say: tone that down a little. I may suggest a better word here and there. I may suggest that a particular metaphor does not work well. But this, more than anywhere else, is where a writer’s individual style comes in.

It is also where the rules are broken. It is where sentence fragments are used, where words are used with unusual meanings. The rules are broken intentionally to create a particular effect. And this is where a copy editor must tread carefully. Often it is obvious when a writer is simply making a mistake; but sometimes there is the suspicion that an ‘error’ is intentional. Here, as copy editor, I will just raise the question. Did you intend to do this? And I might also suggest that, in my opinion, it does or doesn’t work. But this is a judgement call, not an appeal to the rules.

The best writing, then, demands that the writer be architect, builder and interior decorator. There need to be good ideas, an interesting plot and strong characterisation. The right building blocks and materials need to be used. But this empty building also demands decoration. This will give it interest and even beauty. This will generate the surprise and delight when we turn the corner. It is this which helps to transform writing from a craft into an art.

If writing as art is frowned upon today, regarded as something pretentious, we are the poorer for it.

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