Less is More
Show, don’t tell
Kill your Darlings
None of these are easy. Let’s take the first.
Less is more. Telling someone who spins words together to use fewer of them is like telling a professor not to use every second of lecture time, or advising a preacher to cut a sermon by 10 minutes. (Interestingly enough, this commandment can be applied to life. Less judgment. Less intolerance. Less talk, more listening.)
Now, the second. Show, don’t tell.
It’s easier to write that, “Miranda was tired,” rather than describing how she stifles a yawn, as her knees begin to crumble, and she jams a fingernail into her arm—anything to keep awake. She still has ten pages of that report on applied economics (yawn) before her 10 a.m. class with the insufferably boring professor, Mrs. Kleincraft.
But possibly the hardest commandment to keep is to kill your darlings.
Man, I hate this one. What it means: don’t ever get too attached to your work, be it a word, sentence, paragraph, or (gulp) a whole chapter.
We write, we create, we build, and sometimes we slip into these creative zones, during which we feel guided by some mystical force. Our hand moves automatically, as if guided by a will of its own, creating prose like poetry, our thoughts perfectly expressed. We live for those words.
But sometimes they’re not needed.
At the moment, I’m staring at a paragraph of a novel I’ve been working on for what feels like forever. I wrote these two paragraphs in 2015. As soon as I jotted the last word, a chill shot across my arms. Butterflies tickled my stomach. I’d created a great paragraph, I was sure, one that would melt readers.
In the story, the main character, Albert, a troubled 15-year-old, has traveled to another world and become a battle planner for an army, and he’s also fallen in love with Rachel, a girl who hunts and traps and could no doubt kick his butt. She’s also consripted to marry another boy.
For weeks now, they’d spent every night together. Kissing her was better than Albert ever imagined. The first few times were clunky, but they laughed about it. Albert loved they could laugh about it. He was comfortable with her, able to be himself, and that was the greatest feeling in the world.
He’d memorized every feature of her face, especially her lips—rosebush red and shiny, like she’d bathed them in lip balm from a beauty store. But she hadn’t; it was all natural. Just like Rachel herself. With her, there was no pretense, no changing her behavior to fit into a crowd, no slathering on makeup to present a model-like appearance. She was happy with who she was: Rachel, the tomboy with tangled hair and a gap between her bottom teeth who enjoyed making fishing hooks more than baking desserts. She was comfortable in her own skin; and for Albert, who’d for fifteen years been trying to shed his skin, this was the quality he admired most.
With this paragraph, I’m breaking two commandments. I’m telling too much while showing too little, and I’m holding onto my darling … jamming these paragrapns into the narractive when my instinct says they doesn’t fit with the 2018 version of this book.
She was comfortable in her own skin; and for Albert, who’d for fifteen years been trying to shed his skin, this was the quality he admired most.
Highlight then Backspace. Gone.
As I’m revising this novel, I realize this commandment is a metaphor for life. We have projects, jobs, relationships, dreams. Those are all good. But we hold too tightly. They start to define us. They steal our focus from the deeper, when it’s the deeper that should define us.
My prayer for the moment: Give me a loose grip on this world.