Just about anyone who has ever wanted to write has sought advice from an expert of one sort or another. I certainly have. I have been chasing this particular dragon since I was a kid, beginning the year I turned fourteen and tried to write a novel on an old Underwood manual my mother had cast off. I managed a book just under twenty pages that was set in New York and involved a young woman choosing various outfits. (This ill-advised attempt was never finished.) I began in earnest to pursue writing twenty-eight years ago. By “in earnest” I mean I said it out loud. I started taking classes. I’ve studied with some really great writers, and I’ve read their work, and I’ve listened to their lectures, and I’ve gotten the standard advice. I’ve gotten advice about scheduling protected writing times, advice about where to send material, advice about how to generate material. I’ve gotten advice about agents and publishers and programs. I’ve paid some high prices for this advice, thousands and thousands of dollars, hours and hours of time, and one tiny broken heart.
In anticipation of A BOOKISH AFFAIR, I’ve been thinking about the best writing advice I’ve ever given or been given. Aside from specific ideas about a particular sentence or character or setting or (even) plot, there is one piece of advice that rises above all others. “If it doesn’t work, cut it out.”
Understand, this does not refer to simple errors–run-on sentences, misplaced commas, misspelled words. This refers to whether something works or not. The idea is, if something is working that’s where you concentrate your continued effort. If your reader can understand it and engage with it, build on that. If your reader doesn’t get it, doesn’t engage with it, doesn’t trust it, questions its legitimacy, it’s got to go. You cannot make what doesn’t work function. If it doesn’t work, addressing it will just make the problem bigger, and the area where you have strength gets neglected and in some cases gets shouldered completely out of the piece.
Two things to note here. First, you must be listening to YOUR reader. Not every person is YOUR reader. Your reader is a friend you trust and whose attention you covet. Your reader is as smart (or smarter) than you with a good sense of humor and great taste. Your reader loves good writing and learning new things. You must find or imagine YOUR reader, and when you do, your work will begin to take its best and most pleasing shape, but only if you follow the hard advice, “If it doesn’t work, cut it out.”
Remember that story of Michelangelo? He would go to the marble quarry and look at these huge blocks of white rock and see figures trapped inside. When he sculpted, he just took off everything that didn’t look like what he saw. It’s a simple concept, but profound. There’s a sculpture he did that he didn’t finish and one of his students did. A discerning eye can see where the master stopped. The student’s figure is smaller and lovely, but not like his. Not almost alive in appearance. Michelangelo knew the hardest advice, and he followed it. Aside from the mess that was his personal life, which may have lead to some of the least feminine women in the history of great art, he was devoted to the simple and profound idea of focusing on what works, not what doesn’t. He built from strength to greater strength, and eventually his weaknesses lessened. Look at the Pieta. Really look at it, and you’ll see what I mean.