Harry Potter and "The Editor Head"
intralimina and I recently set out here ("The Editor Head") some basic principles for revising fiction. While I thought all of them had merit, there was one she brought up that I thought she worded exceptionally well:
<< Deadwood: The editor is always asking, with every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter--if this is removed, does the story get stronger? If the answer is yes, cut it. No exceptions, no mercy. There's always a saved copy of the previous draft ;-) >>
Now, this is not (I would argue) precisely the same as the advice you hear today from nearly every published writer (and virtually all editors): something like, "If it doesn't advance the story [i.e., plot], then cut it"...which advice I consider just plain wrong, particularly after seeing the new Harry Potter film. (No Spoilers ahead. I hate hitting Spoilers without warning, and wouldn't do that to you folks. :) Furthermore, particularly since LadyD hasn't seen the film yet, I won't get into any specifics -- but I'll be interested to hear whether she agrees that it illustrates the following point.)
I believe that critics, editors, teachers and such constantly give advice which contradicts not only human aesthetics, but (often) their own tastes (see our earlier comments praising Richard Lanham's Style: An Anti-Textbook, which is where I first heard this notion). In particular, the "all that matters is story" school is one reason fiction sales have fallen over the past years, IMO. Big concept, small space...how to summarize this? Okay, almost as bullet points:
(1) Henry James, I think, noted that all we ask from a novelist is that the work be interesting (whether his own qualified, even in his day, is, uhh, not precisely my point); (2) John Gardner defined the novelist's goal as producing "a vivid, continuous dream" (ditto). (3) Whom would you rather read? -- somebody with absolutely no spare words, very little "down-time" with her or his characters, very little effort on mood, tone, theme and the like, but whose every word races straight through (bare) exposition, (swift) complication, (brief) climax, and (tidy) resolution*? -- or, say, Raymond Chandler ("my plots creak"), Stephen King (who practically improvises, and whose work is very difficult to swipe, and to bring to film, precisely because plot is the least important part of it), Ray Bradbury (almost ditto, Bradbury at his best being a different order of writer), Angela Carter, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf...and (as they say) a host of others? (including outright philosophers like John D. MacDonald)?
In sum: I think we read for a lot of things, plot being only one of them. We read to be in a particular fictive world, to spend time with particular characters or ideas -- even (hell, maybe most of all) to spend time in the head of a particularly fascinating author: someone who makes us think and feel things we normally don't. I do believe that it's fatal to bore the reader -- reading is hard, we have to give readers a darn good reason to do it, and I do my damnedest to write page-turners...and plot is a part of that. But we can guess, pretty often, more or less where plots are headed; it's the getting-there part that we read for, I think. So: cut everything that weakens the story? You bet. But cut everything that doesn't advance the plot? Nope, don't think so.
Caveats: this advice may not help you to get stories published in the current publishing climate, even if it will sell more books once they do; and after all, you're getting this advice from a guy whose last (self-published) book runs 1061 self-indulgent pages.
But I still believe it, and make a few bucks because apparently some other folks believe it, too. :)
93 93/93 -- AJ
* The sexual comparison is apt here, I think.