Does it work?

Humor -- Statement from a Poet

What Would You Do? Do I wait?

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Apr 19, 2018
For most of my life I have been a writer of nonfiction books, some of which have been successful enough to keep me going. Some others fell “deadborn from the press,” as the philosopher David Hume said of his book — great as it was —A Treatise of Human Nature. In the subject matter my books ranged widely: biography, criticism, local history, how-to, along with some humor. The result has been that I do not have what publishers today call "a strong platform." To have one of those, apparently, you have to specialize.

At present I am again trying my hand at something different — a novella. I have written and published a short story or two, but this is my first try at something more substantial. I am trying to tell a story as naturally as I can, but reading back over the first draft I find that my style is rather spare, the very opposite of the local color-packed novels of writers like James Lee Burke. I admire his work but find that mine is not at all like that. My storytelling seems to be more in the tradition of Albert Camus. In The Stranger the reader does not know much about the house Meursault lives in, what he looks like, or for that matter what his recently deceased mother looks like. All these details are stripped away to reveal a simple, though profound, narrative. His novel The Fall works the same way.

So my story is like that: rich in idea (I hope) and sparing in detail. Two epigraphs stand at the front of the text. The first is by St Jean Perse, from his Nobel Prize address: “When mythologies crumble, the devine takes refuge in poetry.” The second is from Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me.” The action takes place in a small Presbyterian Church on the outskirts of a southern city. The main theme is the problem of evil.

I have waited a long time to write this book, mainly because I was afraid to try it. Now the first draft is finished. I have gotten some positive feedback, but I am still wondering if it is a viable fiction. I look forward to sharing some of it with you when the opportunity arises.
I love l'etranger... a great novel and i would say with an underlying question ? Who is the stranger meursault or the arab ? It is stripped bare i find. Much like an interrogation in a police room. I think if thsts whst you are aiming for it can be a very powerful narrative form.
Can't see how.

Oh, I’ll see if i can explain my thinking.

In the sense that most things in The Stranger have double meanings. Even the title has a double ... maybe a triple ...meaning. If it’s not applied to the Arab, then it has other possible meanings — he’s a stranger in society, or a stranger to himself, or both, or all three.

Camus was a philosopher. Although, not an existentialist as many people thought. Or, as many people still think. Just as Nietzsche was not a nihilist as many people assume. Although by virtue of having written a novel, Camus is a novelist, he wrote philosophical novels and The Stranger is often compared to a very famous and often reproduced philosophical story called The Cave. My only point being, these stories are told with a distinct purpose, to illustrate a point, or many points. It doesn’t make them less creative, but they are distinctly different from genre novels and even literature.

There’s nothing wrong with allegorical novels. I read Paul Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, and thought it was brilliant. The analogies created by effective allegorical writers are so clean, so powerful, that people talk about them forever.
Good to hear that there's someone else who uses epigraphs, apart from me; I find them to be a useful guide to me as I write—reminding me of the underlying theme of my story.

Our writing style, our voice, comes naturally—though is refined by experience and technique. As an experiment, I tried writing like a couple of my favourite authors—Elmore Leonard and Richard Brautigan, who both leave acres of things left unsaid, but in very different ways. Leonard's heroes and villains are generally taciturn, letting violent action do the talking for them, although the author does carry the mood of a scene with dialogue, rather than a lot of detailed description of the surroundings. When I tried writing like him, I naturally gravitated towards including internal dialogue and how the characters looked and moved.

Brautigan was easier to do a pastiche of, though my efforts read more like rejected Monty Python sketches, than the surreal and sad observations he makes in just a few words.

Another master of lean writing is Kent Haruf, who I'd recommend to anyone, especially authors who are wrestling with the less is more conundrum. His restraint in describing landscape, buildings and how people look encourages the reader to fill in the details without feeling cheated, and his dialogue somehow includes the things that people don't say through their choice of words. It's some of the most authentic writing I've encountered.

I'm currently reading Haruf's last novel Benediction and James Lee Burke's latest novel Robicheaux, so it's fascinating to contrast their different styles. For one thing, Burke makes the Louisiana swampy landscape another character in his story, whereas Haruf uses the vast open plains of Colorado as a backdrop.

It's always a fine balance between including detail of people and places and letting the reader use their imagination. My attitude is, that any reader would be satisfied if I described a character as, 'Looking like a stork leaning forward looking for prey as he walked along the pavement'; there's no need to give his exact height, weight or facial appearance—the simile did the work for me.

As I've got older, one life lesson I've learned is that, If it works, it works, so stop tampering with the bloody thing!

This applies to my writing, as well as relationships and devices.
@Paul Whybrow said:"As I've got older, one life lesson I've learned is that, If it works, it works, so stop tampering with the bloody thing!"
I think that can apply to descriptions and detail. Many books work just fine when the author allows the reader to visualise for themselves the look of the characters or the scenery. A few well crafted sentences can be a lot better than padding. If your style tends towards 'spare', then do 'spare' well. I think readers and publishers want authenticity in their writers, so just try to write like yourself. If you are true to yourself, and don't show off, it will show and your public will appreciate it.
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Humor -- Statement from a Poet

What Would You Do? Do I wait?