WIR #7: You Can Write a Novel

You Can Write a NovelBocca, Geoffrey. You Can Write a Novel. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Copyright © 1983, by Geoffrey Bocca.

This is such a refreshing how-to. I'm not done reading it, although I am close, but consider Bocca's discussion of air:

So far we have been dwelling on the importance of significant details. But what about insignificant details? Should they all be banished from our narrative prose? The answer is yes, most of them should be banished, but not all of them.

Think about it for a moment. Imagine that I am sitting at the bar of a saloon in Flemington, New Jersey, writing notes. Overhead, shiny new electric fans are clicking. They are just about the only new things in the place. The barstools are frayed. If the boss doesn't get some fresh linoleum tiles to replace those that have disappeared, some drunken customer is going to trip and sue him. Someone has put a quarter into the jukebox, which has burst into sound with country music: "Oh, I never wenta bed with an ugly woman, but I sho' woke up with a few...." A large round plate with an illustration of the American flag and the dates 1776-1976 stands, crooked, behind the bottles. The person who used the ashtray before I arrived wore pale pink lipstick. A woman sitting near me, drinking a beer with a rye chaser, has a tattoo on her left shoulder. Outside a convoy of cars rushes by, klaxons blaring, and trailing white wedding streamers....

What does all this add up to? Nothing really. Air. But air is what every novel needs. A five-hundred-word newspaper report must make every word tell. A five-thousand word magazine article requires the regular pause for air with an anecdote. Written as tightly as a newspaper story, it would choke the reader. A 65,000 word novel needs air in the same proportion.

There were perhaps a dozen people in that saloon, and no two would see it in the same way. In fact they probably didn't see it at all. But I saw it for the air it gave me between sequences in some future novel I may or may not write.

Air. We've all gotta breathe, including the harried reader of the novel of suspense.

2 comment(s):

monstro said...
January 24, 2010 2:54 PM

It's a very good point. But when do too many details become a distraction instead? I'd guess it's all a matter of keeping some balance.

g d townshende said...
January 24, 2010 5:16 PM

Bocca calls it 'air,' but it could just as easily be called 'atmosphere,' if you get my meaning. His main point, though, is that everything should move the story forward. Anything that doesn't, whether it's insignificant details or even a brief exchange of dialogue, should be removed. Some 'air' is needed, though. Not to add 'fluff' to a novel, but for the sake if giving the reader time to breathe. Lots of people love fast-paced novels, but very few writers learn how to master pace. Pace, in fact, is one of those things that doesn't get enough coverage in how-to literature.

How does one know whether the insignificant details are those that should be removed or not? Well, the answer, I think, is contained in the problem. Just ask yourself why it is there in the first place. Is it there for the sake of pace, to give the reader a rest? Then you can leave it, but what you leave should probably be sparse. Otherwise, cut it out.

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