Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Minimalist Conspiracy

The latest writing honk invites a diet fad analogy.
Exorcise all adjectives and adverbs and assorted imagery from your bloated, bulging prose. No similies. No metaphors.
Or you'll never be propositioned by the Big Guys.
It's all flab, it's fat. Unwanted. Ugly.
Anorexic is in. Lush is out.
Get rid of the upholstery. No chintz, only tube steel, plastic and wood.
Nouns and verbs only.
Just the facts, ma'am.
Liposuck, you cretins.
It's all about speed. Zip. Zip. Next!
Would anyone want to have sex with that type?

May I suggest, as an aside, that only a forensic anthropologist can distinguish between skeletons? And only after the owners are dead?

You know I've been on a Saintly kick.
I found this:
"He woke up presently out of a light dream mist in which sane thought and diaphanous fantasy had blended so softly and lightly that it seemed like a puzzle in clairvoyance to separate them.
Then, as you sat still and probed for them, they slipped away elusively and faded at the last fingertip of apprehension, so that it was like searching for shadows with a lantern; and in the end there was nothing at all except time gone by and the headlights still drinking up the road - a road over which pools of thin white fog loomed intermittenly and leapt and swallowed them and were gone like the dream."

And also this:
"No thank you," said the Saint calmly. "I've had several of your drinks, and I want to get my tummy pumped out before goldfish start breeding in it."

Beware the One True Way.


Savannah Jordan said...

In some ways, for some genres, I believe that minimalistic is fine; but in other genres, it is nothing more than statutory rape of an underaged, unappreciated manuscript.

Bernita said...

Quite right, Savannah. Some voices in some genres do it well. Can even be electric.
I looked at a fantasy manuscript yesterday that would have been improved by the addition of a few adjectives.

Tsavo Leone said...

Harsh imagery Savannah, but accurate nonetheless.

Writers write. That's what we do. To then say that all the words we use are of no import? How, pray tell, are we supposed to tell a story?

Oh. That's right. The publisher isn't really interested in the story. All they want is product. Cheaply mass-produced at that, sold for maximum profit. All those words, they just get in the way, and the readers won't understand half of them at any rate. Or do the publishers think that maybe they should be paying authors by the word instead? Or have the type-setters unions have been complaining again? Or maybe it's the cost of ink? Or paper?

Sorry. Getting away from the point. 'Fashion' kills creativity, and I suggest this is just a 'fashionable' edict (sp?). I'll do the writing, and an editor can do the editing, and then a publisher can do the publishing... I hope.

Dennie McDonald said...

oddly enough I yhink this goes back to your post of voice - you pull all that out and you have lost the "writer's" voice - we can all - even people w/ no aspirations to write - state the facts. But it is the vivid imagry and ones way with words that sets a story apart, gives it the flavor and appeal to make a reader purchase your next book or suggest you to another reader.

Robyn said...

Reminds me of Amadeus. The king tells Mozart that there are only so many notes he can hear in one evening, and could Wolfie just cut some of them out?

Mozart counters, "I used as many as I required. No more, no less."

I wonder if the current minimalist fashion is due to lazy readership. There are only so many descriptive words one can read in a scene, eh?

Sela Carsen said...

I had a professor once who, when pressed for the required page count on some paper or another, replied, "If you can tell me everything I need to know in five pages, great. If it takes 50 to tell it all and you're not just blowing hot air, then I'll read all 50."

Spare or lush, you just write until the story is done.

Kirsten said...

I wonder if the current minimalist fashion is due to lazy readership.

Nah. We all need a palette cleanser once in awhile. To rub all that old prose off our palates.

R.J. Baker said...

The writers who get caught up in the fad of the moment are the ones that will end up on Amazon for one cent.

True writers write what they love, the way they intend to write it, and are read for ages.

Voice. Prose. Pace. Interesting, well written stories shall prevail every time.

Rick said...

Mimimalist isn't even really new. Didn't it become the fashion sometime fairly early in the last century? For all we know, in another generation the minimalist style may be so 20th century.

Perhaps we'll never go back to Victorian lushness, if only because there are other "entertainment options" now. But aren't simile, metaphor, and all those things our CGI special effects.

This relates to Savannah's - vivid! - comment about genres. Hardboiled is supposed to feel tight, because the mean streets don't have time for anything else, and lollygagging along will get you dead. Doesn't mean it really is minimal, but it should feel it.

Fantasy? Hist-fic? I think the people sitting in the theater of the mind want some lush; it's part of what they paid for. Gabriele is writing about the Roman Empire. A barbarous frontier province, to be sure, but how can you have Rome without just a bit of DeMille? How can I have a pseudo Tudor era royal court without some pomp and circumstance? Both Bernita and Carla are in the Middle Ages - before castles and tournaments, to be sure, but there's still the vast and looming landscape.

Ric said...

I think minimalistic is the wrong description. What's happening, I feel, is the next generations move to quick, snappy, short attention span. ie video games. Adverbs and adjectives, lovely as they are, cause readers to slow down to process the image.

This poses a distinct problem for unpublished writers. First, most agents accepting new clients are just starting out - ie young. Second, editors are even younger.

Since video games, etc, are geared for short attention spans, it only goes to figure that all media is following. Commercials have shortened from 60 seconds to 15. Newspaper articles are shorter. Magazine articles are much shorter.

There is no time for adverbs. Hence, the admonitions to remove them (or anything else that slows down the rapid pace).

Is this a good thing? I'm probably too old to comment on that.

Carla said...

This is a fad I don't understand. I got bored with the 'See Spot run' style before I started school. It's passages like the ones you quote from the Saint that make me buy books so I can reread them. Minimalist books go back to the library and I don't buy a copy, because there's nothing more to find in them after the first read.

Minimalist prose is hard to criticise, so it's safe ground for the writer (did I say that a few days ago, last time we were discussing Puritans)? Maybe it's also safe ground for the publisher, or maybe they've swallowed the attention-span-of-a-hyperactive-mayfly argument from the TV people and are trying to pander to it, forgetting that, ahem, books are not TV programmes.

Bernita said...

Well put, Dennie!

"Fashion kills creativity." I would be inclined to say that creativity inspires fashion, Tsavo, thinking of clothes, of course. But fashions are transitory, and writers usually are in for the long haul.

A useful anecdote, Robyn. Wonder if minimalist intend for us all to just play message drums.

Sensible guy, Sela. Brevity is not an end in itself.

We have to believe and trust so, R.J.

Do you really think that "old" prose is cloying, Kirsten?
Sometimes I wonder if this "fresh and new" approach is itself quite retro. And in effect, we're invited to gnaw on bones rather than suck on a mint.

Bernita said...

Nicely said, Rick, though it's Dark Ages for Carla.

Ric, very well put and I hope you are wrong. Otherwise you present a world of sight and sound only, without touch and smell and taste.
If so, we'll just have to wait for the inevitable revulsion.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

"Fashion kills creativity" Never truer words were spoken!

I can see cuts when the words are redundant or tedious, but when they add to the vision, to the picture that the writer is painting, they definitely should stay.

Anonymous said...

We must be careful to distinguish between fad and truly strained writing.

The pace of writing and the pace of reading are vastly different (yes, I used an adverb). I know that when I write, I love dropping in loads of wonderful description. It feels AMAZING. I'm almost euphoric. However, when I go back and read, all the extra verbage starts pounding in my head. I'm reminded that a deft paintbrush accomplishes more than dumping a gallon of paint. Is that belief a fad? Is it really new? Of course, "voice" determines how much to keep or cut. I actually consider myself on the flowery side of the spectrum.

I think what I'm trying to say is that some people cloak strained writing in individualism, anti-commercialism, and you're-not-the-boss-of-me syndrome. I agree that conformity is bad. I agree that skeletal writing should not be the universal way. However, many forms of writing which won't work today, wouldn't work in 1990, or 1980, or 1970. If it worked in 1770, I'm really not convinced. So many times on writers forums I see arguments against convention which seem to be rooted in personal disappointment (i.e., rejection/criticism) rather than objective analysis.

Sometimes "bad" is opinion, and sometimes "bad" is bad. Without polling the entire reading public, it can be hard to know which is which.

Tsavo Leone said...

I stand by my fashion kills... comment, though I concede that fashion (outside of the arts) springs from creativity. The only problem seems to be that the powers-that-be then have a tendancy to take fashion at face value and refuse to acknowledge anything not in keeping with the 'fashionable' standard.

Possibly my opinion sems from my perception that creative writing is an art. Whilst it's true that anyone can string words together to form sentences, turning those sentences into something greater than the mere sum of it's parts takes a level and degree of 'skill' (for want of a better word) that not everyone possesses.

It's also true that art is subject to the whimsy of fashion. I've made reference to Tolkien and Stoker in a previous post and their continued validity today, as proven by their continued sales (though I also concede that neither would probably get a sniff of a publishing deal in today's market).

That all being as may, I can easily envision submitting to an agent, only to receive a stern note telling me to include a synopsis next time... even though it was actually the synopsis that I sent!

Aw, heck, don't listen to me... I'm a born-again cynic and a pessimist, and I've always prefered to plough my own furrow than bow to the conventions of others or the latest trend...

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't like reading minimalist. I like reading lush and rich, something that makes me taste and smell the scene the character is in.

Okay, it isn't possible to do that for every single scene in a book, because it could end up a zillion pages long. But I want enough of it seasoning the story. Like the smell of baking bread wafting from the oven, making your stomach grumble. I want those nuggest sprinkled throughout so that I can enjoy them.

Rick said...

Yes, Carla is Dark Ages - though she might object to the term, as a lot of the historians do! (Though it really is dark in the sense that we don't know much about it; Carla is writing in a period when silhouettes are just appearing out of the mist.)

On modern media culture, there's also such a thing as, in media-speak, counter-programming. Reading books is pretty much a niche market anyway (much more than magazines). The editors are young, and grew up in the jump-cut age, but they were reading books, not playing video games.

That said, Jason has a point. We always want to be indulgent toward our own prose, and it is way easy to cloak self-indulgence in the still-fashionable pose of rebellion.

On the third hand, some things just can't be done minimalist. I am writing a coronation scene today, and any attempt at a spare portrayal would fall flat. Should I skip it outright? I don't think so; it's inherently cool, and important to my protagonist since she's the one being crowned. So somehow I've got to get the incense, the vestments, the chants, the whole unearthly vastness of St. Pelagius' Cathedral onto the page.

M. G. Tarquini said...

The second passage brought a chuckle. I skimmed the first. He means it was foggy?

I'm not up on all the terminology and phraseology. Sometime simple writing works well, sometimes lusher writing. I think they work well judiciously mixed.

Bernita said...

You really are quite splendid people you know, as well as thoughtful, articulate writers.
I don't disagree with any of your points.
Jason makes a good one. Some prefer to dismiss a dictum in toto, avoiding in that safe generalization their choice to maintain in their own writing a dialogue tag of "sweetly, loudly, briefly" for every speech, prose that has a purple border and rebound in redundancies as Bonnie says.
"The tendency to take fashion at face value" sums up, I think,a writer's main objection to the latest announcement from the mountain top. We fear, as Ric describes, that agents and publishers have been the first listeners and have hauled out a very narrow funnel..
And the "hard to criticize" point Carla makes suggests an industry concerned with security,with LCD - something apart from letters and tales that entrance.
I like both gritty and lush. I resent, as a reader,a uniform package, and I believe, as Sandra says, that they can both be contained in the same meal.
And yes, I have the lamentable habit of deliberately mixing metaphors.
But,why is it a given that adjectives and adverbs "slow down the pace?"
Do they really?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't think they necessarily slow the pace. I think it entirely depends on the scene. If you're writing an action scene, then you might want to limit the number of adverbs and adjectives to get right to the meat. But there are those other scenes when they're warranted.

Even in what I write, if a cop is entering a house on a search warrant, it's all quiet, he doesn't exactly know what he's going to find, you want to build that heart-pumping moment for the reader, when they connect with the fear, the rush, whatever he's feeling.

And then I think you want to be descriptive enough to convey that. Balance, I guess.

Bernita said...

No, dear Mindy, he isn't just saying that.Be nice.

Erik Ivan James said...

I lack both the skills and knowledge to make any meaningful comment here yet. From Bernita, however, "I like both gritty and lush."

That's also why I eat hard garlic bread with my spaghetti. Don't we tend to prefer that with all things---a little hard with the soft?

M. G. Tarquini said...

I'm not being mean. I skimmed it. So I don't know what he said. If I were reading it for real, I'd skim and think, 'It's foggy out,' and move on. If I skimmed too much, I'd put it down. I have ADD, so I sometimes wonder if I'm a harsher reader than most. Anything that keeps me from skimming is a really good work, from my perspective.

Bernita said...

Yes, Erik, only babies like bland.

Well, Mindy, skimming it to fog won't interfer with following the plot at all.
But you'd miss a nicely expressed description about states of being - a metaphor within a metaphor.

Bernita said...

At the same time, if I'm reading a suspense/thriller, I tend to drift over description the first time through.

nessili said...

Hey! I like your lamentable habit of mixing metaphors and painting multilayer word pictures. Part of the reason I keep coming back for more. :).

On the other side of the arguement, let's not go the Steinbeck/Michener route of overwriting. (I think Steinbeck took 8+ pages to describe a dying cornfield in the Grapes of Wrath. It was about there I threw the book across the room. Michener is even worse).

That being said (merely for the sake of the discussion), bring on those lush descriptions. Adjectives and adverbs are my dear friends. And rick is so right, that fantasy and historical fiction must have them, lest the reader become hopelessly lost in an unfamiliar world. Can you imagine trying to navigate Middle Earth without Tolkien's in-depth descriptions? Contemporary lit may be able to get by with minimal description, because we all know what this era, this life looks like (which is why I don't read contemp lit--I want a different world to escape to).

P.S. Loved the goldfish quote.

Carla said...

Most terms for periods of history are silly if taken too seriously, and 'Dark Ages' is no exception.

Seems to me that what this comment thread is demonstrating is the value of diversity? Publishers are always complaining that fewer and fewer people buy books. Some of us here like minimalist, some of us like imagery, some of us say it depends on the story or the specific scene. Since the entire publishing industry depends on people being prepared to hand over hard cash to read someone else's words, it would seem logical to cater to as a wide a range of tastes as possible. I'd suggest that if someone can't find something they like in the bookshop, they won't buy a book they don't like just because it's there. They're more likely to find something else to do with their time instead.

Re self-indulgence pretending to be rebellion, isn't that likely to be in the eye of the beholder? One person's arrogance is another person's self-belief. There's a continuum between resenting any criticism of one's deathless prose and writing by committee, and there's also a continuum between constructive comment and fiddling with someone else's copy to make it fit your own tastes. When people criticise my writing I give the comments due consideration and make up my own mind - and comments that say 'I didn't like this bit because....' or 'I got lost here because....' tend to get taken a lot more seriously than comments that say 'You can't use adverbs/metaphor/passive voice/multiple point-of-view/long sentences because I read on the net that it's not fashionable these days'. I'd expect someone to treat my comments the same way if I'm critiquing someone else's work, except I try not to make the second type of comment at all.

Bernita said...

Thank you , Nessili!
You know, this discussion reminds me of the directions supplied for putting a garden bench together, we bought a couple of years ago.
"Tighten the screws enough."

Bernita said...

You've put your finger on the point of view that annoys me inexpressibly, Carla. I've ranted all around it.
My rebellion stems from a constitutional resistance to the blind insistence of a rule, the snotty claim/mindless assumption that something must be cut because it is unacceptable/impure.
Brings out an automatic "aux barricades" in me.
And the mind set of the postulators certainly prevents constructive criticism.We're past the "just because" stage by now.
Just spent some hours do a little spot critique for another writer.I took pains to explain why I thought something should be dropped or changed.
Just as an example,in his fictional society, horses were the main means of land transportation. In that sort of society, a galloping horse means trouble. Therefore, his character would be on automatic alert at the first sound of drumming hoofbeats. He would not look up in leisurely surprise when the rider finally draws rein.

M. G. Tarquini said...

Can you imagine trying to navigate Middle Earth without Tolkien's in-depth descriptions?

I did, for the most part. Guess that won't surprise anybody. I also skip anything that Stephen King italicizes.

I didn't miss anything, Bernita. The passage is too rife with adverbs for me to get through. His metaphor is wasted on me because he didn't express it simply or succinctly enough for me to grasp. It might be reader lack, might also be writer lack. I'm voting for the latter in this case. But if the problem is the former, it doesn't bother me either way, there's another beautiful metaphor down the road a piece that I can read and grasp the first time around.

For this reason, people write in different styles and voices.

Gabriele C. said...

Wow, every day there's like 30 comments the time I make it to Bernita's blog. And then I must try to find something new to add. ;-)

It's a complex subject, actually.

For one, minimalistic writing isn't that new, the Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th century are very minimalistic while the French epics from the same tame are very verbose.

Second, in former times with no mass media and most people's mobility limited to a few miles, it was necessary to describe things in detail, be it a Roman villa or the mountains where Italian banditti were hiding. Nowadays, everyone has seen a Roman villa in TV or the movie theatre. It's a curse and a blessing for a historical fiction writer, because for one we don't need to spend several paragraphs on describing things, on the other side Hollywood gets it wrong a lot and it is almost impossible to un-write the images some readers have. Speak about horned Viking helmets. And you can't have a conversation like this:

"Kjartan, why doesn't your helmet have horns? I've seen a few that did."
"Roderic, friend, those were Hollywood helmets that have nothing to do with our tradition."

Thus, I expect a different language and amount of descriptions in a 19th century novel than in a modern one.

It's also a question of genre, at least for me. I don't mind descriptions in Fantasy, but too much of it looks wrong in an action thriller. The books a Bernard Cornwell writes work better with a minimalistic style compared to the books of a Tad Williams. Halldór Laxness wrote minimalistic in the traditon of the Icelandic sagas and hides a lot between the lines, while Thomas Mann's books contain a lot of psychology, philosphy, and character musings and are therefore slow-paced and "wordy".

Personally, I like both ways provided they are done well and fit the context.

There's badly done wordiness even in genres where it fits. Maybe I shouldn't name an author in a negative context, but that one has fans enought to still survive. :-) I mean Terry Goodkind's verbose and clumsy style (not to mention his boring characters).

Lastly, I suppose the NO ADVERBS rule was triggered by snippets like this:

"I have no job and no place to live," she dejectedly said.
With sympathy for her, I said, "You could stay here."
"But that wouldn't be fair to you," she replied.
"Why wouldn't it be fair?" I asked questionably.
"It just wouldn't," Pamela said, almost in tears.
"Don't cry, baby," I tried to console her.
"My life is such a mess," she sobbed.
I took her in my arms and hugged her tightly.
"Please don't cry. Everything will work out okay," I convincingly said.

(Ganked from the PublishAmerica forums. Which proves again that they'll publish just anything. Another of their great writers uses phrases like his perspiration irrigated and his respiration was corroded.)

Bernita said...

I guess I'm just a tolerant reader, she said philosophically.

Yes, I do think that selection of adverbs would incline someone to roar, "NO! No adverbs ever again!I will eviscerate,I will fenestrate henceforth any author who uses a single, solitary one!"

And that's a good point about having to over-write preconceived ideas, Gabriele.
I've done it regarding motte-and-bailey and "castles" by having a tour guide instruct his tourists. Yet I worry that it comes across as too much like sheer exposition/ history lesson.

Carla said...

Sounds fine to me, Bernita, assuming it doesn't go on for 50 pages. I've got an idea what a motte and bailey is, but I'd still quite like to have it described if it's important to the story. And I'd be wary of assuming too much prior knowledge in readers; I always have real trouble looking at surviving structures and visualising them in their heyday. I want the author to do that for me.
How does Lindsay Davis do description in the Falco books? I remember them as being very fast and pacy. The setting is ancient Rome so she must have to do a fair amount of description, but it doesn't get in the way.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

"Life lays dows strange paths for men to tread upon in the dark."

I didn't get my PhD because I can't do research and I tend to bruise facts.
Don't know where I got the quote.
Talmud? Antique Stag Magazine?
The Quran?
Certainly a snapper. Shows that the ancient cats used it too.
I once wrote a story a little like
Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, using the quote as a lead and having very fwe nouns and verbs in the copy.
Obviusly didn't have Kubricks talent, because the next thing I know, he comes out witht the entrire fershlugginer movie.
But the exercise in minimalism was worthwhile. Shortly afterwards, I got somethig published in the Toronto Sun. And man, they are minimal.

MissWrite said...

I just love your wit in tearing apart the rediculous trends of today. The minimalist trend is fine if a writer actually writes that way, but man, don't condemn the whole lot of us to writing two word sentences.

MissWrite said...

Gabriele I just read your response. Gag, I guess that would indeed trigger the reflex. It's kind of like the common habit of punishing everyone for the crimes of a few. Everything in writing is about learning style, learning the 'right way' to break the steadfast rules. There will always be the ones who hack it up.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tami.
I'm afraid though, judging from Gabriele's source, it may be more a case of the few being punished for the crimes of the many.
I'm just hollering for minority rights.

Actually, Ivan, from reading you, that sounds like temporary castration. Glad you recovered.Don't do it again, please.

No, Carla, not THAT long, a couple of paragraphs, but he's also spouting out dollops of history as well for a couple of pages. I think I had better interject a few squirmy listeners or something.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Saucy girl!

Bernita said...

~flirts eyelashes at Ivan~

Ivan Prokopchuk said...


Rick said...

Carla - as I remember the Falco books, Davis doesn't really describe all that much; just what you need to know, letting the reader's image of Rome fill in the rest. (But I haven't read any in quite a while; I have no idea what he and Helena are up to, though I'll guess that he still hasn't gotten the 300,000 sesterces (sp?) together to buy his way into the middle rank.)

Which pretty much goes with the hardboiled style; he deals after all mostly with the seamy underside of the grandeur that was Rome.

Ric said...

Stop flirting.

Or.... Bernita, stop flirting.

I go off to work and come back to find THIS?

Goodness. Surprisingly, he said, removing adverbs per Stephen King's suggestion, makes most work stronger. You let the reader figure out the context, SHOW NOT TELL.

I think the discussion has evolved into two distinct items. Minimalism is sparse writing, from a different era.
Removing adverbs and adjectives is an effort to force us to SHOW not TELL.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Great comments. The one about show and not tell nearest the mark.

Just to do a one-eighty, our flirting here in good fun.

But you should see what Analalogue has up on his main blog. He lists all the bloggers he knows for sure are gay. I am still too much the Luddite to highlight properly, but
Ananalogue has me rolling on the floor.
I believe Bernita and I were spared, but about sixty others were not.
Show tunes anyone?

Bernita said...

A valuable point, Ric, but why are you shouting at me?
I just don't believe there are enough verbs to cover everything necessary without a few qualifiers - something like a feather fan. If you don't mind I'll use a few adverbs every now and then when I dance.
And let you figure out the show.

Bernita said...

I should hope so, Ivan.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...


See how fast this Luddite is picking up all the hip internet acronyms?

It's the bees' knees. I'm hep.
Amscray! Nothing could be finer than to shack up with a miner.

Sorry Bernita. Got the Johnny Walker giggles.
One definition of the act of writing is a kind of playing.
Of course, we don't feel all that playful when there's just us there, staring at the screen, waiting for the muse.

MissWrite said...

Who waits? Kick that *!&$* in the butt and get her fingers movin' for ya. :)

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I was tempted to do a standard play on your web-monicker, but somehow resisted.
Apposite, that's what Humpty-Dumpty would say.

MissWrite said...

I feel sullied. LMAO

All of a sudden my little muse is looking at me funny.

I'm really not 'that way' honest!

Okay, thanks, Ivan. I don't think she'll ever look at me the same way again. Guess I better go find me a 'hunky' muse, and get his fingers a workin'.

Yeah, that's it!

Gabriele C. said...

Ivan, could you give a link to that blog, please.

Ric said...

Trust me on this, you don't want a link to that site.

Anonymous said...

Writers can't win. If you try the spare-prose approach, some editor will bemoan that he's sick of all these Hemingway imitators.

Bernita said...

There'a a lot of truth in that, Anon, and thank you for coming by.
Hope to see you anon.