Less Is (Often) More

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was much involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, reviewer, PR person, playwright, and all-around flunky. In the years since I’ve drawn heavily on that experience as both writer and editor. Here’s an example, brought to mind by something another editor was wrestling with.

My colleague was editing a novel in which a 20-something character texted to another character a acronym-laden message that my colleague found incomprehensible. She’s not an avid texter, so she asked an online editors’ forum for feedback. Would the acronyms be readily understood by text-savvy readers?

The answer was a nearly unanimous no. Even the avid texters had trouble figuring it out. It didn’t sound like a plausible text either.

What to do, what to do?

One possibility was that the 20-something character was being intentionally obscure. This, however, didn’t seem to be the case. There was general agreement that translating the acronyms into plain English was out of the question. Footnotes are fine in a scholarly work but not so fine in a novel, and working the translation into the text was going to look contrived no matter how gracefully it was done.

Aside: Something like 20 percent of War and Peace is in French. There’s a point to this. Tolstoy is showing us how the French-speaking Russian aristocracy is estranged from the Russian-speaking rest of the country, at a time when the French-speaking Napoleon is threatening Moscow. In the original Russian, Tolstoy provided translations in the footnotes. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky kept the French (and a smattering of German) in their translation and provided English translations in the footnotes. It worked. I loved it. But I know for a fact that I am not Tolstoy, and you probably aren’t either.

This brought to mind something I learned as an amateur actor who occasionally had to speak with a foreign accent or in an English dialect not my own. My teacher was the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. She was the language consultant on almost every production I worked on, and many more besides.

When we actors went to her to learn to speak southern or English or Russian or Australian, her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Travvy picture

Any excuse for a Travvy picture, right? Travvy loves to jump. Note the retrieve object in his mouth. He’s working hard!

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way.

I suggested to my colleague that a similar approach might serve her client well: In text messages, use enough acronyms and emoticons to sound authentic but not so many that readers are left scratching their heads.

This might apply as well to the research and technical know-how you bring to your story. In my novel in progress, I’m drawing on what I’ve learned training my dog, but I’m not writing a dog-training manual. My goal is to sound like I know what I’m talking about without boring my readers — especially the less dog-obsessed among them — to tears with esoterica that isn’t important to the story.

Less is (often) more. Thank you again, Dr. Gurren.



No, not job titles or aristocratic titles or even the title to my finally paid-off Forester that arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.

Titles of stories, novels, essays . . . especially the title of a piece I posted to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, yesterday morning. The post was ready to go except for the blank box at the top where the title was supposed to go.

That blank box was staring at me.

Some titles come easy. Not this one, but I was more than ready to go walking with my dog. I typed “Rootless” in the blank box, hit Publish, gave it one last read-through for typos, and logged off.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

“Rootless” wasn’t a bad title. The blog post is about two different trees, a birch and an oak, that I pass often on my walks. Both trees were felled by storms, the oak by a 2011 hurricane, the birch by one of this past winter’s blizzards. Both remained partly attached to their trunks, and both continued to leaf out after they fell. Both have since been severed from their roots. One is dying, the other dead.

As I walked, another title came to me: “Two Downed Trees.” Bingo.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak's trunk. Its leafing days are over.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak’s trunk. Its leafing days are over.

It’s nice when that happens.

Some titles come easy. Others come hard. Some don’t come at all — you have to go looking for them.

When titles come early, they often help shape the story. The epigraph for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, gave the novel its title and kept me honest while I was writing it. It’s a remark by the late Grace Paley (1922–2007), a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and political activist.

“If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place,” she said in an interview, “you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

I added some literal mud to the novel so readers wouldn’t be disappointed.

Novel #2, in progress, needed a working title so I could stop referring to it as “my current project” or “the novel I’m working on.” I started calling it Wolfie, after one of the main characters, a dog. That may turn out to be the actual title. Who knows? It’s definitely the one to beat.

The novel on the back burner has been The Squatters’ Speakeasy almost since it first flickered into my mind. This is the project that stalled out because of its “surfeit of subplots,” one of which has to do with a bunch of musicians and artists who take over a trophy house and turn it into, well, a sort of speakeasy. I love the title. Trouble is, as the novel bubbles along on the back burner, the speakeasy subplot is fading into the background. I don’t know what the main plots and themes will turn out to be. Will they include a squatters’ speakeasy? Damned if I know — yet.

So where do your titles come from? Do they come easy, or do they come hard? How do you know when you’ve got a good one?

Leave your comments here. If you’re shy, feel free to use the handy-dandy form below. Seriously — you don’t have to be shy to use the form, and it doesn’t have to be about titles either.



Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

Free the Scene!

Here’s a revision tip for you. I’m currently working on the second draft of my second novel, and it just came in handy (again).

When reading your early drafts, keep an eye out for the potentially interesting scene that happens off-stage. Maybe you were in a hurry when you wrote that part. Maybe you didn’t see the possibilities. Maybe you did, but they were a little bit unsettling and you didn’t want to go there — yet.

Open the door. Let the scene out. Give it room to breathe. See what happens.

These things are little gifts from the Muses, or your subconscious, or wherever you think your writing comes from. They’re the treasures you find at the bottom of a heap at the thrift shop, or in your own closet.

Here’s one of mine. In draft #1, Shannon, one of the novel’s two viewpoint characters, gets a phone call. It goes like this:

Meanwhile, Shannon had had a call from some busybody on the conservation commission, whose members apparently cruised around looking for unsightly objects that detracted from what they called “the character of the town.” The busybody objected to the snow fencing Shannon and Ben [Shannon’s next-door neighbor] had put up to reinforce the post-and-rail fence in the back yard. Shannon explained about Wolfie [the dog she’s just rescued], and how the post-and-rail alone wouldn’t keep Wolfie in for a minute. The busybody was not impressed: the fence did not conform to the town’s fence bylaw and that was that.

This phone call had the makings of a fun scene, and I was ready for a little comic relief. What if the busybody showed up in person? What if she caught Shannon in the act of installing the fence?

snow fence 1Consulting the town’s zoning bylaws — the scene takes place in the town I live in — I discovered that the snow fencing didn’t violate any bylaws, but this wouldn’t stop some of the busybodies I’ve run into in my time. I also decided that she wasn’t actually on the conservation commission. She had appointed herself guardian of the character of a neighborhood she didn’t even live in.

This is what the phone call turned into this morning. Note that I’m still in early-draft mode. I strongly suspect that the scene will appear in the novel’s final draft, but I don’t know what it will look like. Will this woman appear again? No idea. It’s up to the Muses.

[Shannon] was halfway done when a white Honda Pilot passed on the road, heading toward the intersection with the Edgartown Road. She didn’t recognize it. Not that she knew every vehicle that lived between here and Sepiessa, but her mind half-consciously sorted them into familiar and unfamiliar and this one she’d never seen before.

Even more unusual, two minutes later it passed by again in the opposite direction. Shortly after that it rolled to a halt on the grassy shoulder opposite her driveway. Looking for directions?

The driver got out of the car, looked both ways, and crossed the road. She carried a cane but walked briskly, barely tapping it on the pavement. Her mostly gray hair was done up in a french twist and her garb said “country gentry”: heavy wool cardigan with leather elbow patches, an ample wool skirt that hung just below the knee, and sturdy walking shoes, all in autumnal browns and russets. She did not look lost. She caught Shannon’s eye briefly then rapped the top rail of the roadside fence with her cane.

Taking this as a summons, Shannon wiggled the stake she had just driven into the ground to make sure it was steady, laid mallet and zip ties on the ground, and walked up to greet the visitor.

The visitor wasted no time on introductions. “Do you have a permit for that fence?” she asked, in a clipped accent that sounded somewhat English but wasn’t.

Loaded for bear, thought Shannon, but with no bears in sight. “That fence has been there for over fifteen years,” she said pleasantly. “I don’t believe I need a permit.”

“That orange fence” — the woman pronounced the word with obvious distaste — “has not been there for fifteen years. You are just now putting it up.”

Caught red-handed, Shannon thought. “I don’t believe I need a permit for that either,” she said. “It’s temporary. I’m fostering a dog for a few days, and I don’t want him getting loose.” She resisted the temptation to tell the woman why she didn’t want Wolfie getting loose. Maybe the woman did know someone on the road. Maybe she kept chickens.

“It is unsightly,” said the woman. “It is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.” She rapped the railing with the head of her cane for emphasis.

snow fence 2

In Shannon’s fourth grade Sister Mary Clement had habitually rapped her eighteen-inch ruler on the desktop while fixing the latest class miscreant with a glare that promised trouble. Shannon hadn’t thought of her in twenty years. Her visitor wasn’t a nun but she was cast from the same mold.

Shannon conceded that the blaze-orange snow fencing was not especially attractive but noted that it was only visible from the road if you slowed down to about five miles an hour and stared out the passenger-side window. She did not ask the woman if she’d ever been down this road before, and if not, how she knew so much about the character of the neighborhood. The character of this neighborhood was more disturbed by big gray dogs running loose than by blaze-orange snow fencing in someone’s back yard.

“The town bylaws are quite clear what sorts of fence are allowed,” the woman said, “and this is not one of them.”

Shannon had no idea what the town bylaws said about fences, but Ben had once served on the zoning board. If he thought snow fencing might be a problem, he wouldn’t have suggested it. Besides, it was past the middle of October. No one who came down this road at this time of year would be bothered by snow fencing. Those with more delicate sensibilities had mostly gone home. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Shannon, turning back toward her interrupted labor.

“I intend to communicate this to the conservation commission,” the woman called after her.

“You do that,” Shannon muttered, not quite audibly. She heard the staccato whack whack whack of the woman’s cane on the asphalt. The car door opened and slammed shut. A moment later the engine rumbled. Shannon zip-tied the snow fencing to the new post and set about pounding the next one into the ground.

Sturgis’s Law #1

I’m taking a hint from one of my favorite bloggers, Evelyne Holingue. She’s a native French speaker who now lives in the U.S. During the month of April she went through the alphabet A to Z. For each letter, she chose a French idiom then gave its literal meaning, its idiomatic meaning, and its nearest English equivalent. It was great fun — playing with language always is! — and (dare I say it) educational.

I loved the idea of doing some kind of series. Not about idioms but about — what?

Over the years I’ve been compiling observations about writing and editing. I call them Sturgis’s Laws. Not “rules.” No way. We’ve got enough rules already. There are 17 so far, plus one unnumbered law that isn’t really a law at all — I’ll save that one for last.

So here begins an occasional series with, of course, Sturgis’s Law #1:

If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong.

Sturgis’s Law #1 has an obvious corollary. Call it Law #1a:

If you stare at any word long enough, it will look wrong.

In the editors’ forums I frequent, editors often post sentences we’re having problems with. Is this construction OK? we ask. Would you use this word in American English (AmE) or is it mostly British? Is a comma enough here, or should it be a dash? What the hell does this sentence mean?

And so on. Usually the question is answered pretty quickly, but the editorial tribe rarely stops there. We rip the sentence apart, rearrange the words, change the punctuation, and come up with clever ways of misreading a phrase that was perfectly clear at first glance.

20130227 birthday bone

If only more sentences were this tasty . . .

We’re a pack of vultures or a dog with a bone — take your pick. I’m partial to the dog-and-bone metaphor myself.

The editor who posted the query, if s/he is wise, has long since moved on, leaving the rest of us to our gnawing.

There’s much to be learned from these gnaw-fests, but at some point Sturgis’s Law #1 comes into play. If you stare at any sentence long enough, it will look wrong — and the longer you stare at it, the more things you’ll find to fiddle with.

Hesitate too long at one sentence or one word and you’ll never finish the job.

How many sentences in the typical short story, academic paper, or full-length book? How many words? How long does the typical reader linger over a typical sentence, a typical word?

Moral of story: Don’t linger too long over this sentence or that word. As the poet said, “the Moving Finger writes; and, having writ / Moves on.”

It’s good advice.