Toni Morrison said this the other night on the PBS NewsHour. Here’s the context from taken from the interview.
JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was?
TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.
JEFFREY BROWN: More?
TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.
I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.
I have to say, I’ve been feeling this for some time about a lot of fiction. Adult fiction, YA fiction, Middle Grade fiction, all of it has been feeling rather bloated around the middle. I don’t know where writers pick up the literary equivalent of a spare tire (perhaps it’s MFA programs?), but whatever it is undermines a lot of good books that always leave me feeling like they could have been just that much better with a trim.
It is the middle of many books that are the problem. And from a writer’s point of view, middles generally are a problem. Starting out, you pretty much have to know where you’re beginning and where you plan to end up and then somehow connect the dots. There are various philosophies about this – the general divide is between “pantsers” who write but the seat of their pants, so to speak, and “plotters” who detail every step of the way – but no approach I know of has an advantage over the other. I have followed detailed outlines and I have winged it and it both cases revision has shown that many of my problem came from a flabby middle.
The one revelation I had about middles came when I was working on my creative thesis in grad school. I was working the story from both ends inward, a path I chose because I wanted to have the story elements “mirror” each other in a balanced way, when I got to the point that, in my mind, was one of those “cross that bridge when I get to it” moments. I had always assumed that the incidents and characters would help define what I needed to do to bridge these moments but I suddenly felt stumped. I was certain I had reached the point where I had no middle act, that the story required an additional element that seamlessly fused the two parts… and that I’d have to go back and weave these new elements into the two halves I’d already created.
Then a voice in my head asked: Do you really need to say anything more?
All it took was some slight changes to account for a leap of time and the two parts melded as if I’d planned it all along, and in my subconscious maybe I had.
Now, it goes without saying that I’m no Toni Morrison, but she’s right about the fact that it is harder to write less and make it “more.” Economy of language, or dialog, or scene and symbolism, boiling down those words into a condensed space makes it all the richer. It is easier to sit and write and throw it all out there on the page, much harder to weed and trim and make what’s already good that much greater.
Less is more. It isn’t a new thought, but perhaps it could become a renewed pledge taken to reassure readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Number 1 Rule of Creative Writing 101:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.