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  • Writer's pictureJack McDevitt

Blog #73

I learned recently to be careful about making general statements. I’d always been impressed by Ernest Hemingway’s writing. I recall a statement attributed to him that aspiring writers should “let nouns and verbs carry the freight.” Be careful about adjectives and stay clear of adverbs. Best advice ever. I’ve read a sizable amount of his work over the years and concluded that he lives by those words. And it’s one of the reasons he became a literary giant.

During my early career years, I frequently asked editors about the primary reason they rejected submissions. Their responses never varied: the problem was overwriting. During workshops, writers trying to break into the field often admitted that they added wordage because short fiction usually paid by the word. Also, some had the impression that length improved the quality of the work.

That brought back memories of my school years. When we were assigned to write an essay, we were usually given a minimum length. At least 500 words. Or whatever. I found myself doing it when I first started teaching. It seemed correct. The idea was to get the student writing. And the more he or she wrote, the more accomplished the work would eventually become.

Unfortunately, it’s nonsense. Ask most participants in a workshop what they are trying to do, and they will say “tell a story.” That’s incorrect. We are trying to create an experience. We want the reader to live through the narrative. To get a sense that he knows Priscilla Hutchins personally. Anything that diverts attention from whatever is going on, from the clash with a giant vulture to the explanation by the protagonist’s girlfriend that she’s sorry and it’s not his fault but it’s over is in effect killing what the writer is expected to accomplish.

So let me withdraw my long-ago position that ambitious writers should read Hemingway and adapt his style. Generally it would probably work. Just don’t pick the wrong book. I just finished For Whom the Bell Tolls, generally credited as one of his masterpieces. I would approach that one with caution. It’s set in the Spanish Civil War, a struggle between those defending the Spanish Republic and Fascists, powered by Nazis.

The protagonist is Robert Jordan, an American volunteer who is an expert at blowing up bridges. That is his assignment, and a small group of Spanish volunteers will assist. The characters spend most of their time talking about how dangerous war is. How painful it is. How much can be lost. It goes on and on, for over 130,000 words. Eventually, Jordan blows the bridge. But I never felt I was caught up in a war, only a talkathon.

There are other distracting issues. The characters would have been speaking Spanish, so Hemingway tries to give the reader a feel for the language while writing in English. It results in an endless use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and other similar terminology. Whenever Jordan’s name comes up, it is always his full name. ‘Robert Jordan.’ Which reminded me throughout that I was reading a novel.

I’m not sure why For Whom the Bell Tolls has its reputation as a classic. It’s a great title; beyond that I wasn’t impressed. In any case, I’d recommend that writers looking to acquire Hemingway’s working style go with The Old Man and the Sea. And I’ve learned a lesson: Don’t recommend anything unless I’ve read it.

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