A maxim of jurisprudence enshrined in the California Civil Code is, “Superfluity does not vitiate.” What a beautiful sentence! Its meaning is its own abrupt precision. The rule it expresses is clear and unqualified; it sets an excellent standard for legal writing. I love that sentence. However, as a general matter, I don’t like rules about creative writing. Believe me, there are many of them out there.
I understand that readers expect and enjoy certain conventions, and that those conventions vary depending on a number of things, such as the type of story, the type of reader, and the form the story takes. I try to adhere to standard conventions regarding grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Although I undoubtedly fall short with regard to all three, I’m not interested in eschewing conventions that make what I’ve written reasonably readable. Beyond those three conventions, I try to follow one simple rule that takes the form of a question: Does what I’ve written add anything to the story? If it’s superfluous, I should leave it out.
Judging whether something creative is superfluous is not an easy thing, particularly on a second, or third, or whichever time through. Exercising that judgment effectively requires deliberate precision. Two instances in particular raise the superfluity red flag as I write: landscape passages and poetry.
My intent when I describe a physical setting is to add details the reader can sense, that bring life to the scene, that place the scene or reinforce its position on a timeline, that add to the challenges or explain the actions of the characters in that scene, or that introduce or reinforce a critical metaphor in the story. There have been times that I’ve written a descriptive passage and later stricken it entirely having decided it adds nothing to what I’m trying to convey. When that happens, the passage is usually unnecessarily duplicative of an earlier passage, and it simply slows the story down for no good reason.
The setting for much of the third Nick Temple File, Silent Vector, is the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas. The weather shapes nearly all activity and life in such a setting. To ignore the weather, or to give it short shrift, would have been a mistake in my view. That’s not to say that you can’t overdo it. In that book, the island’s weather was one part of the context in which the action was taking place. It was rarely meant to be a dispositive or determinative factor. In my novella, Judging Paradise, set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Clara, the metaphorical use of oppressive weather is so pervasive that it is rightly viewed as primary character in the book. It affects and infects nearly every moment in the book. I rarely opted to strike a passage describing in some form the island’s weather. (On a side note, the best and most terrifying use of weather I’ve ever read is Somerset Maugham’s short story Rain. See? The title is the first clue to the weather’s role in that story. Brilliant stuff!)
Landscapes and settings are one thing; poetry is another. In my coming-of-age novel, Let Me Explain, I originally used a poem to introduce each chapter. In later versions, and in its current iteration, I put the poems in the back of the book and attribute them to one of the characters in the book. There they are. Having come to the end of the book, the reader is free to ignore them. My hope, of course, is that the reader will read them and view them in the context of what has gone before. Maybe that’s asking too much, but the book is an expression of personal aspirations, and the poems are meant to be considered in that context.
In Judging Paradise, I bury several poems in the book. They aren’t set apart in terms of spacing or punctuation. There’s no sign that says, “Here comes a poem!” The moment of their appearance is determined by the moment in the story. For instance, a passage near the end of the book describes the main character swimming across a gentle bay. The distance he swims is almost a mile. Distance swimming has a particular cadence to it, a methodical, almost meditative quality that strikes me as more poetic than prosaic. In that manner, then, the poem should add something to the book that would be missing from a prosaic description of the same moment.
I try to apply this same rule of superfluity to every aspect of every book I write. Each conversation, each caricature, each movement, each conflict, each chapter, paragraph, and sentence has to add something to the book. Otherwise, why write it? And, more importantly since I’m interested in keeping a reader’s attention, why read it?