I just finished reading To Reach the Clouds, a memoir by French street performer and highwire artist Philippe Petit about his 1974 wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I love reading books like this, not only because of the fascinating subject matter, but the absolutely gorgeous language. It’s the kind of language I love to write – and so often get smacked down for. What’s the secret? I wonder. How do you write like this and get away with it? Do you have to be French?
Which brings me to today’s writing topic: overwriting. What’s overwriting, when does it work, and how do you avoid it?
Like everything else in writing, the answer is going to depend on context. What are you writing about? Does the weight of the topic deserve the language you’re giving it? One of the most amusing literary awards is the Bad Sex in Fiction award, given by the British publication The Literary Review. Last year’s award (NSFW if you’ve got people looking over your shoulder) was given to the following (slightly edited):
She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.
Right. The thing that makes bad sex writing so hilarious is the magnitude of the language that’s given to something that is, frankly, kind of mundane. The hype that gets drummed up in our sex-obsessed culture is a subject for some other post, but really, there’s no unfolding of the universe going on here. Wrong words paired with the wrong subject.
Let’s move on to a less squeamish example: When I got the publisher’s contract to write my third book, it indicated a length of 130,000 words, 30,000 more than the first two in the series. This seemed a little overwhelming to me; fortunately (I thought), I had a character who came from a very wealthy and decadent society. He was raised on romantic poetry in the style of the Cavaliers** and he could talk like it. I pumped up my word count with this character’s romanticized musings – and as soon as my editor got her hands on the manuscript, she told me to take them out. It was too much; it felt like unnecessary padding. I streamlined the narration and the word count went back to 100,000, but it resulted in a better book. Not only is context everything, the effectiveness of the writing is prime.
Okay, let’s get back to Philippe Petit. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter where, after years of planning and countless complications, Petit finally walks out on the wire he’s strung between the twin towers:
Leaning against the steel corner, I offer to myself, for a throne, the highest tower ever built by man; for a ceremonial carpet, the most savagely gigantic city of the Americas; for my dominion, a tray of seas wetting my forehead; while the folds of my wind-sculpted cape surround me with majestically mortal whirls.
I rise, standing up on the wire.
The gods of all three, of all five, of all dimensions. Of time.
You have presented me with an otherworldly offering … You have graced me with a new set of ears and eyes; I can hear what my spectators in the street shout and whisper … [They] are no longer able to escape, they slow to a halt, they look at me as in submission.
You have heightened my senses. You have empowered me.
I am grateful.
Now, if you’re actually in the process of doing something as unprecedented and audacious as walking on a wire stretched 1350 feet in the air between two of the world’s tallest buildings, you can get away with language like that. (It probably also helps if you’re French.) Otherwise, you might want to tone it down a little.
Always keep in mind what you’re doing, what your story needs to be. The biggest mistake writers make is getting lost in the coolness of their own ideas. It’s the kill your darlings problem – a cool idea or an awesome turn of phrase is great, but if it doesn’t serve the story, you’ve got to get rid of it. That’s your test for overwriting.
** Talk about bad sex writing! The literature professor who taught the class where I read “To His Coy Mistress” said that Andrew Marvell was probably parodying the Cavalier poets who came before him, writing several decades after this stuff had reached its height. I dunno – I thought the poem was pretty sexy at the time.