Don't Like Outlining? Don't Do it. Hemingway's Got Your Back.
The writer's thoughts on style, outlining, and writing for the reader are all condensed in one small section of Hotchner's memoir.
About two-thirds of the way through A.E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway, there’s a five-page section where Hemingway does a Q&A with a students in a local Idaho classroom. It’s extraordinary.
The writer rarely gave interviews to journalists and hated being gawked at by the literati. But here was a situation where he walked into a classroom and sat down to speak candidly with high schoolers about his career and his writing process.
You know how everyone talks about Hemingway’s “terse, declarative prose”? I admit I was struck by how direct and simple the sentences were when I first encountered Hemingway; the simple sentences building in richness of detail and emotional heft line by line. A student asks how he developed that style.
We know Hemingway was a journalist prior to his fiction writing, so we can understand why he favors observation and sensory description to delving too deeply into a character’s inner life. Emotions and thoughts are there but only in flashes, tactfully placed.
So how would Hemingway describe his “style”?
“I wrote awkwardly,” he says, “and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardnesses are easy to see, and they called it style.”
I’m fascinated by this statement.
I think every single artist would agree with it. The artist’s unique peeves, restraints, limitations, weaknesses, choices, all of them amalgamate to be called his/her “style.” They become that artist’s identity.
Spielberg has also talked about this in interviews. He claims he has no “style,” but we have come to identify markers in his cinema that define him: the use of certain shots, certain lighting choices, narrative devices, etc. And he drew inspiration from Hollywood director Michael Curtiz, who made Casablanca, The Sea Hawk, and a bunch of other beautifully crafted productions. Hitchcock, Ford, Welles, Hawks, all of these directors did not care for “style,” per se, but only in figuring out how to use their medium most effectively. The choices that resulted became the shape of their work and came to be called their “style.” Artists make the most expedient choices they can in shaping their work, choices that are true to their sensibilities and tastes. For Hemingway, it might be an even higher standard. You could call it his storytelling ethic.
The ethics of story craft is what Hemingway might hold higher than any other ideal. The world doesn’t spoon-feed you answers and neither should art. Dignifying the character by withholding what they hold most deeply in their hearts and letting their actions give us the inroads we need to connect with them was the foundation of his style.
Hate Outlining? Don’t Sweat It.
I hate outlining. Resent it. And I was heartened to find out that Hemingway never outlined.
“I just start it,” he says, answering the outlining question. “Fiction is inventing out of what knowledge you have. If you invent successfully, it is more true than if you try to remember it.”
In my own writing, I do not outline. I find that it takes the spontaneity out of the process. I have a rough sense of structure, a scaffold in my mind that takes me in and out of every scene and a sense of narrative movement, like waves following each other. I do chart out, on the most macro scale, the arc of story before I start and as I go, so I have a feeling of an arc. But other than that, I don’t get bogged down with outlines.
Outlining is to writing what writing is to dreaming, a process of whittling away the ineffable magic of feeling and of experience by fixing it down with the bolts of language.
So, why outline? Just write as you remember, as your instinct guides you, put it down, and treat the process as the recall of memory. The rest is rewriting and revision, anyway.
Writing for the Reader
One of the hardest lessons for a writer is learning to write for the reader. It’s the difference between writing in your journal and writing for an audience, anticipating a reader’s response to every sentence, what is revealed and what is not, and being ruthless about taking a hatchet to your prose.
“You think it’s easy to write,” Hemingway says about his early attempts. “Later, when you have learned to write for the reader, it is no longer easy to write. What you ultimately remember about anything you’ve written is how difficult it was to write it.”
Knowing what and how to cut might be the most crucial skill any writer can learn. Whenever I’m looking at a paragraph, either my own and something I’m editing for a client, one of the first things I ask is: What function is this paragraph serving in the larger story—thematically and narratively?
If the sentence doesn’t seem to serve either, there’s a good chance it can be cut. I think you can only learn this lesson when you have looked over your own work enough times and cringed at what was left in, because every excessive paragraph is a waste of the reader’s time, attention, and patience. Those things are a crucial resource.
As a writer, you don’t want to squander those. Learn to slice and dice without remorse. You’ll be amazed by what you can leave out and how much a reader can bring to the table when engaging with your work.
I have found that the leaner I can make my prose, the more “staying power” it has; that is, it doesn’t become overburdened with the extra baggage of indulgent metaphors and description. The reader’s eyes and mind stay tuned to the flow of the narrative and are swept along with it uninterrupted.
Here’s a tip that I use: When in doubt, take it out. Read it back, and if you find that the meaning of the central action is lost, put it back in. I try to be as ruthless as I can. I only wish I were more ruthless with the stuff I already published. But we live and learn . . . and learn . . . and learn.
My soon-to-be-released novella, Transcendent, is available for pre-order. Check out Readers’ Favorite’s 5-star review here.