By Stephen Jay Schwartz

“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”

– Either Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, Hemmingway, Cicero, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln.

It doesn’t matter who said it, it’s still a great quote.

I used to love the long, epic tomes, the Micheners (let’s get into the formation of the volcanic rocks before we get into the backstory of our protagonist’s great-great-great-great grandfather, shall we?), the Urises, the Haleys, the Tolkiens, etc. You can really get lost in those worlds, you can dive down deep and disappear for months at a time. There’s something magical and escapist about it and I know a lot of readers who wouldn’t want it any other way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate the sharp, spank on the ass I get from a tight, lean, bitch of a novel. I think it began when I discovered Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, The Getaway, After Dark My Sweet, A Hell of a Woman, etc). He gives you everything you need without any of the fat. His characters are deep, psychologically disturbed and very, very real. Thompson gives it to you in tiny little brushstrokes on the page.

A couple months ago David Corbett recommended “Bellman and True,” by Desmond Lowden. He shared compelling examples of Lowden’s exceptional, tight prose, and it sent me to my Amazon button to have a copy sent from London. I read the book and was impressed with how much action, drama, social critique and psychology he managed to pack into such a small space. Lowden’s characters come off the page fully-realized and as real as any one I’ve ever met, and yet they’re stream-lined, compressed, tight.

We often hear the line, “Don’t write the stuff that everyone skips.” It’s a good line, though somewhat daunting when you feel that all your lines are worthy of being read. The truth, however, is we tend to over-write our work.

When I worked in film development I often helped guide screenwriters through multiple drafts of the same project. Sometimes it was necessary to remove large sections of story in order to reduce page-count or make room for new ideas. I once had a screenwriter complain that his character wouldn’t come across as real if so much of his backstory was lost. But I realized something–you can cut a significant amount of your work and, if you do it right, the “ghost” of what you’ve done remains. You don’t need the full story; what’s left behind is often exactly what is right.

I continue to learn how to write tighter and leaner. The screenwriting assignment I just completed gave me a real-world, professional opportunity to practice this task. At only 110 pages or so in length, screenplays have to pack a punch. The best screenplays are as tight as a good poem. Each word should be chosen with special care. Each word an image. I’m bringing that experience back to my current novel – trimming everything back to its bare essentials. I like it, it feels good, it feels right.

But, God, it takes a hell of a long time to write a short novel.

In other news, I recently connected with a wonderful poet whose work provides a great example of how to pack a whole lot of story into an itty, bitty space. Alan Berecka’s poems are little life-stories with brilliant epiphanies that turn on a word or phrase. He shows us that less is more, that words are precious and beatific and ought to be used sparingly.


Also, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention that my novel, BOULEVARD, just released in mass market paperback this week. Go out and buy three dozen to fill the pumpkins on Halloween!

And, lastly, I haven’t even touched on the wonderful trip I took to Ireland and Scotland with the family. I could write a book on it. I hated missing Bouchercon, but…come on, man, I saw Ireland and Scotland! Instead of over-writing the experience, I’ll leave you with a few beatific images to ponder….


27 thoughts on “WRITE TIGHT

  1. Alaina

    I don't concentrate on writing it short; that would mean I'd obsess over that while writing and never get it written. I just try to edit it short.

    Stephen King said, in On Writing, that a second draft is a first draft minus 10%. Between June and yesterday, I managed to cut something from almost 130k to a bit under 110k. It led to a lot of wincing– how do I MISS so much stuff on every run-through?– but it's a better book.

    Now to get it published's the hard part…

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Castles yes, mystic monuments yes, surreal rock formations yes, emerald everything yes – but it wouldn't be Ireland without the sheep.

    I'm suffering but can't wait to hear all about it..

    As for writing short – I've written short for so long I just write short. The only thing I tend to overindulge in is descriptions of architecture, it's a funny thing.

  3. David Corbett

    I wish I shared Alex's problem.

    I too admire the lean and mean, but except in body type I've seldom managed it. But you're right, the "ghost" remains in so many ways. We do overwrite, it's the most naturally thing, especially as we're discovering the story ourselves. But you do develop an eye for — if I cut that, I can still hear its echo here, and here. The key is training your eye, your ear and your intuition to be alert to those echoes.

    Says the man who's never written a book shorter than 375 pages.

    Like you say, we're all still teaching ourselves to write.

    Your pictures stunned me a bit. A good portion of my people, as they say, hail from County Cork, and as I looked at your photos I felt a sad, bitter, vaguely weepy sense of longing I can't totally pinpoint, more than a desire to go. A desire to be.

    Thanks as always, brother, for the thoughtful words and the haunting photos. You were missed, in many warm ways.

  4. Louise Ure

    Gorgeous photos, Stephen. And I, too, rushed right out and ordered a copy of Bellman and True. It's indeed great writing.

    Cell phone novels are good practice for writing lean. When it's that time consuming to create each word, it makes you think twice before typing.

  5. Gar Haywood


    My first reaction to your photos was, "And he came BACK?"


    The truth is, I couldn't overwrite if I tried. I don't have the patience for it. It's all I can do just to get two people in a room and start them talking. Clothes? Furniture? The scent of her perfume? ARCHITECTURE??? Trying to describe these things is like pulling teeth for me, so I'm usually out of a scene before the thought even occurs to me to touch on them. So I'm probably lean to a fault.

    But since we're on the subject… Actually, Stephen, this post could have been 60 – 100 words shorter. In my opinion, anyway.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alaina – that's a good quote from King. My problem is that I can't get through to the end of a first draft before going back to polish the beginning. Currently I'm polishing my first 140 pages, which is about 45,000 words, and I haven't written anything further. However, I do have a pretty comprehensive outline that takes me right to the end. I just hate moving forward without a very, very solid foundation. It's the bane of my existence.

    Alex – the architecture thing gets me, too. I always over-write it, but the problem is that I know nothing about architecture. So, I spend a lot of time figuring out how to describe it, then I write it, then I cut it down considerably. It's like the work of a mad-man.
    I wish you could have seen the things I saw in Ireland and Scotland, dear. I know you would have been awed. The photos I didn't post – my family, separated in two canoes, being carried off into a loch and almost out to sea by sudden winds, being saved at the last moment when the Irish form of Search and Rescue came to our aid; the photos of the Scotish tow truck pulling my rental car from a ditch (I hated those single lane roadways surrounded by marshy bogs), photo of the asshole bartender who refused to let me enter the only bar in that little town on the Isle of Skye because I walked in with a shot of whiskey in my hands. There was a lot of adventure going on.

    David – County Cork was our favorite, along with the Canamara coast. We felt such a kinship with the southern, west coast that we decided to retire there someday. It's an incredibly special place. The pubs are so fun, the music is out-of-this-world. And they let our kids stay until closing time. It's a free-feeling place with the attitude of "if you aren't hurting anyone, do what you will." We met a professional Irish story-teller in one of the pubs, too. Fascinating character. You must go, David. And pack a bag for me. And thanks for making me feel missed.
    PS – I love your description of "echoes."

    Louise – cell phone novels? I've never heard of them. Please tell me it's not the next big thing. Are we now a haiku nation, like the great China of yore? The difference, however, is that we only have time to read the haiku, we don't have time to contemplate it.

    Gar – I know – I could have saved thousands of words if I didn't post the photos (um, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words…)
    I actually write a whole hell of a lot like you do, Gar. I basically write the scene as dialogue first, unless it is obviously a scene of pure description, like establishing a setting or an action of plot. But when it comes to two or three people in a room I just write the dialogue, which gives me all the motivational beats. I don't deal with any of that other crap – the "business," as actors call it. " He picked his teeth with a fingernail," "She caught the scent of muskrat in the air," etc. That drives me crazy. I come back for that in the third or fourth pass. Except for architecture, for some bizarre reason. I wish I could talk about architecture the way Woody Allen did in…what was it, Annie Hall or Manhattan? I wish I knew anything about style – clothing, furniture, architecture. I'm clueless.

  7. Lisa Alber

    Hey there, did you visit The Burren, County Clare? The first image sure looks like it to me. I visited the area three times for novel research. Couldn't get enough!

    Go lean: so true. Just cut the crap (I hope!) out of a manuscript, and it felt great!

  8. Timothy Hallinan

    Gorgeous, Stephen — and great to see you back and the whole family looking so happy a couple of days back.

    I'm not worried about getting my current book shorter at the moment. I'm worried about getting it finished. Shorter can come later. Although I find in rewrite that the question, "What are we looking at?" — first asked of me by my first editor — arises frequently, and that answering it inevitably adds to the word count, making it even more urgent to cut out the deadwood.

  9. Jenni L.

    Wow! Stunning photos – just absolutely beautiful. And I share the sentiment – you came back??

    I enjoy both types of writing when done well. I've enjoyed some Michener novels, but I like crisp, lean writing that fully uses every word. Nice post.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – yes, that first photo is at The Burren, which was absolutely gorgeous and other-worldly. We had a spiritual experience there. You've probably been to that very sight – it's a 5,000 year old Druid burial ground. We got there just as the sun was setting.

    Tim-baby – so good to see you the other day, too. I find it hard to imagine you writing "dead wood" at all. I'm amazed how you tend to see the story, the page even, fully-realized in your mind as you write. At least that's the impression I get when I listen to you talk about your story – I see that light in your eyes and I can tell you're walking through each scene as it will appear on the page.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jenni – yes, it was REALLY hard to come back. I just wanted to disappear there. The fact that my American dollar had 40% less value than the euro made the decision a little easier. I wish I could live in Ireland and get paid in euros…that would work for me!

  12. lil Gluckstern

    Just beautiful, and it seemed a wonderful time, weather wise to visit. Somehow, the stones, and the sky grab the soul. I have check out Bellman and True. Welcome home.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks, lil. We caught the tail end of a hurricane when we first arrived, but after that it was smooth sailing, except for the occasional torrential rain storm, wind and freaking cold weather. But well worth it. Double rainbows everywhere!

  14. Mike Dennis

    Great photos, Stephen. What was inside that castle, anyway?

    You missed a good Bouchercon. Maybe I'll post photos of downtown St Louis to make you envious.

    See you somewhere down the road.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Mike – I'll go tit-for-tat on your St. Louis photos to my Ireland photos. No matter how many pictures you show me of that big arc, it just isn't the same.
    And inside the castles (by the way, those are all different castles, we visited about six or so) is a bunch of old stone. One of them is the Blarney Stone, in fact. But amazing stone, at that – incredible stairways and fireplaces and dungeons and dining halls and king's quarters and more. The sense of history is everywhere. Makes you feel part of the great continuum.

  16. Jonathan Hayes

    Good post, Stephen.

    I was thinking just today that, when it comes to working on the skill of writing concisely, Twitter is a great exercise. It really is astonishing just how much you can get into 140 characters – and I don't use texting abbreviations.

    And now I'm thinking that Corbett's family comes from County Cork, MY family comes from County Cork – we could be freakin' related!

  17. Allison Davis

    Ireland is on the list of places for the sabbatical I had to postpone until next year…and I also got folks from County Cork. Your photos seal the deal, I gotta go to Ireland.

    Your advice here you've told me before and I've taken it to heart — i discover that I need to write out the backstory to know it, and then delete it from the manuscript. I have to edit afterward and let the first draft spill out unbounded by space and then tighten it up on the next round. But the red pen is unmerciful.

    Now maybe now when I think of editing, I'll connect it with Ireland and it'll be a pleasant green thought.

    Speaking of tight, Blue Angels outside my window.

  18. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Alafair – I've only got about 2,000 more photos to show you!

    Jonathan – I'd bet your ancestors and Corbett's ancestors were bitter enemies. His family owned the castle and yours cleaned their dungeons. Now would be a great time to get back at him.

    Allison – that's a great visual for "tight" – those Blue Angels. A great way to think of your work: we marvel at the beauty and skill it takes to fly so close, but if they get too close they'll collide. You can't get so tight that you lose sight of the thing. You still have a story to tell, and that requires a little meat on the bones. Everything is a balancing act, ain't it?

  19. billie

    I posted early this morning but forgot to do the verification thing! Gorgeous photos. I am so envious – I really want to spend some time in Scotland and you have captured the reasons why in all these photos!! I am living vicariously for now. 🙂

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    As I type this, your photos are STILL loading on my not-very-speedy broadband connection. Damn, guy, how big are they?

    Glad you had a great time in Ireland, and didn't get too rained on – there's a good reason it's so green, y'know … It's a fabulous place, though – the vast majority of it a long way from the violence shown on the news reports. We love it over there.

    I like short and sharp. The last pass I always make to a t/s is to ruthlessly cut out as many extraneous words as possible. Mind you, I'm a skip reader, too, so maybe that helps. Just impatient, I guess.

  21. Mary Quite Contrary Phillips

    Another Corker here; very nice photo of the sheep, Stephen. I was there about 10 years ago and asked a local farmer why all the sheeps bottoms were painted different colors. He turned quite a few colors himself and walked away without reply. I later learned it's to do with hooking up, ie, breeding. Genius method with sheep…thank <insert deity of your choice> we don't practice the same.

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