I’ve wanted for years to read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I finally got around to it Thursday and am halfway through. As expected, it’s brilliant.
If there’s a writer I’d recommend to anyone hoping to launch a career in fiction, Hemingway is my choice. He said somewhere that the biggest problem most would-be fiction writers have is that they overwrite. (Or maybe that was Sheila Williams, Asimov’s editor.)
Whoever actually made the comment was right. I don’t know anyone who’s ever drawn me into a piece of fiction the way Hemingway does. Most writers put too much in, and some of it is going to become a distraction. Even Dickens suffers from that tendency on occasion. The goal of a fiction writer is to arrange for the reader to experience the action. To arrange things so that he lives in the narrative. When the artillery shell lands just outside the tent, the reader feels the blast. When his only true love walks out of the protagonist’s life, the reader is left in a state of dismay.
How do we accomplish that? The trick is to bring the reader into the action and do nothing to remind him that he’s sitting in a chair at home. That means get the grammar right, get the science right, don’t add too many details, avoid lucky coincidences, and have the characters behave like normal human beings. All that’s needed is a single screw-up to bring the reader back into the living room. Or load too many words into the narrative. For example, comment that Madeleine was extremely in love.
Being in love is in itself an extreme condition. So leave the adverb out. Hemingway did comment that when writing fiction, the smart approach is to let the nouns and verbs carry the freight, use adjectives in moderation, and steer clear of adverbs. If you’d like to see the technique in operation, sit down with A Farewell to Arms.
Or The Old Man and the Sea.
Or any of his work. Hemingway had a difficult life. A lot of injuries. Wounded during World War I. Car crashes. Two plane crashes. And there’s lots more. It became so desperate that ultimately he took his own life. But he must have gone out with a sense that he wouldn’t be forgotten.