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A good novel is a kind of vivid dream or virtual reality, so when I teach writing workshops, I always begin with specificity: generating specific detail that appeals to the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Inevitably, a hand goes up. Isn't this creating clutter? How do you know when the detail is too much?
Anyone who has taken a writing workshop or three will have heard: cut the adjectives, cut the adverbs, if you need an adverb you probably have the wrong verb, etc.
All of this is right and good, but in my experience, most writing-- and I include first drafts by accomplished writers-- is scant on vivid detail that appeals to the senses. Not vivid? No reader. (Read more about specificity here.)
So, how to distinguish needed detail from clutter?
I like to use the analogy of interior decorating. Let's assume the purpose of the living room is to host a tea party. So you decorate it in order to make your guest feel welcome, to make her feel both charmed and comfortable to come in, sit on the sofa, and enjoy a cup (or three) of tea. That will be challenging if the entrance is blocked by five beat-up sofas and, say, a washing machine. It will also be challenging if you've left last night's pizza cartons on the coffee table.
A book invites a reader in-- so, don't ask, am I expressing myself?; ask, will my reader feel welcome? Will she feel confident that I am in control of the narrative (in other words, that I know what I'm doing?) If not, she'll put the book down-- in the same way that she would not want to sit down and drink tea in a peculiar and cluttered house.
More questions: When can I use adjectives? Can I use adverbs? Can I this, that, or the other thing? There are no rules in art, but I think we find our path toward writing a good book when we understand and respect the intregity of our design.
The interior decorating analogy again: Some living rooms might be beautifully designed and yet feature a lot of detail. For example, a Victorian-style living room might have lace curtains, a knicknack cabinet with dolls and teacups and porcelain pugs; cabbage-rose upholstery; numerous chairs (a straight-back and a rocking chair, ottomans, etc); three potted palms, a fern on a stand; portraits of some twenty-seven ancestors and horses and dogs; and outside the windows, a glimpse of gingerbread trim. Despite all that detail, it could nonetheless be considered uncluttered--- a guest could walk in, sit comfortably, and enjoy her tea in what is a very properly fussy Victorian room.
At the other extreme, we might have a beautifully designed yet minimalist penthouse: black leather and chrome furniture; everything white; one giant painting of a red slash. Outside the floor-to-ceiling window: nothing but sky. Certainly, a Victorian rocking chair would look like out of place, as would the washing machine and those pizza cartons.
Similarly, in the Victorian livingroom, that chrome-and-leather ottoman would look more than rather peculiar, no?
Does your reader feel welcome? Does your reader perceive that you are in control as a designer / host / artist? One of the best ways to get a feeling for that is to go back and read a novel you have already read and absolutely loved, from beginning to end, for that is, by definition, a successful novel. Do not read as a consumer, for entertainment; read as a writer-- examining how your fellow writer (be he or she Austen, Tolstoy, O'Connor, Kingsolver) put in or left out specific detail. Where are the smells, sounds, tastes, textures? Underline them.
Had there been signficant clutter, you would have put the book down when you read it the first time.
The books you have already read and loved are your best teachers-- there they are, waiting for you on your own bookshelf. But you have to read them as a fellow craftsperson, not passively, as a "consumer": nor, for that matter, as a student of English literature. The latter is akin to a student who writes about the history or perhaps sociology of interior decoration. It is not the same as being an interior decorator-- the one who chooses the sofa, hauls it in, and determines where to place it. And if you're wrong about the sofa, no need to return it. Take out your mental zap gun and zap it into the infinite warehouse of your mind.
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(Tea party photo courtsey of morguefile.com digitallatina)