I know I’ve told this story before, but I remember reading one time that Louis L’Amour was giving a talk at a seminar (I
think it took place in LA, where he lived) at a writer’s conference, in which he said something to the effect that he felt he was just beginning to master his craft. This was shortly before his death, when he’d been writing for something like fifty years.
The aim of the article I read this in was that writing is a craft you’re always improving on. It seems to me that any craft worth learning is that way, whether it be woodworking or sailing catamarans. I believe the article also went on to say that one of the participants was completely discouraged by Mr. L’Amour’s remark, rather than taking it in the spirit it was offered.
I have to say that, having read most of Mr. L’Amour’s books, I have to wonder what he meant, in a way. I think he was an excellent writer, bar none. And his sales figures tend to agree with me. Mr. L’Amour felt himself to be in the oral storyteller vein, so the bulk of his works are short novels—I’d guess many of them weigh in at less than 70,000 words, quite a few probably under 60,000. By today’s standards, not exactly long novels. In his later years, though, in books such as Comstock Lode, The Walking Drum and The Haunted Mesa, he upped his word-count considerably. His storytelling didn’t suffer for it, though.
But, let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about, in case you’ve never read any of his work.
When I came down off the cap rock riding a wind-broken bronc, half of New Mexico must have been trailin’ behind me, all ready to shake out a loop for a hanging.
Nobody told me I should wait around and get my neck stretched, so when I’d seen them coming my way I just wrapped myself around the nearest horse and taken off down country. Seemed likely those boys would run out of ambition before long, but they must have been mighty shy of entertainment in the gyp-rock country, because they kept a-coming.
Me, I high-tailed it out of there as fast as that bronc would take me, and for a spell that was pretty fast. Only the bronc had run himself out trying to save my bacon and now I needed myself a fresh horse, or else I’d never need another.
That’s from Mustang Man,Mr. L’Amour’s 1966 novel about Nolan Sackett, an outlaw member of the famed Sackett
family. The book clocks in at 168 pages in paperback form. (My copy is a 6th printing from 1971 and cost all of 95¢.)
The main point, though, is that you can see how lean his prose is. There definitely isn’t any fat there, and I think we could all learn some lessons from this.
I’ve been seeing ways to tighten sentences up better in my own work as I’ve been editing Spree. I’ve got the bulk of the editing done there, by the way, but now I think I need to go back through it and give it more polish. I don’t like the idea of doing too much editing as I believe you can edit the spontaneity out. But it’s far too easy to get wordy on first draft, so some tightening is always necessary. And since I wasn’t even able to edit out my requisite 10% the first time through, it’s obvious that I need to put in more work. I still think some of that will happen through either deleting entire scenes or at least rewriting them in shorter form, but I’m waiting on a critique for that.
Let me give you one example of a sentence I tightened up in Spree. The original sentence went like this:
Eddie drove the car around the building and into the back lot.
Okay, that’s not all that bad, right? Well, here’s the edited version:
Eddie drove around to the back.
I dropped that sentence from 12 words to 6. I halved it. That makes it an even better sentence and it gets right to the point without being wordy about it. I like that. Wish I could find ways to do that with a lot of my work, but that’s the point of this post: I’m learning how.
Writing is a constant art of learning and bettering what you’re doing. If you reach a point where you’re thinking, You know, I think I’m about as good a writer as I’m gonna get, it’s about time to reassess. I don’t think we can ever reach the epitome of our craft, because we’ll never be perfect writers. We’ll reach a peak, I’m sure, when we’ll have a handful of works that’ll be considered our best, with things falling off after that. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still learning things—or at least we should be—about our craft.
Hmm. Now that I look at the edit I made above, let me part with this question: Would it sound even better if I shortened it to Eddie drove around back?
Let me know.