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Monday, August 3, 2015

Writing Like a Spaniard

The Castillo de Manzanares looks like a great place to write.
It was the family home of the famous author, the Marqués de Santillana. 
My editor (yes, I have an editor now!) tells me the Seven Noble Knights revisions are going well. There are three aspects to the revisions as I see them, but today I'd like to focus on the one I have most under control, which is use of adjectives.

I went through Seven Noble Knights some time ago to extricate unnecessary adverbs, and it appears I did a good job, because those pesky words haven't been mentioned. But I have been told to go through and get rid of adjectives that don't help. They tell me I have some lovely descriptions, so I shouldn't take all the adjectives out, but I should delete the ones that can be better expressed with a stronger verb or that are already implied in the rest of the text.

This is good advice for any writer of English. English likes to present itself as vigorous and agile, without a lot of heavy ornamentation. It views minimalist writing as a moral imperative. In general, my style is so spare that the members of my critique group ask me to add, so subtracting is new for me.

At first, I thought I was using many adjectives because Seven Noble Knights is set in medieval Spain. Specifically, the history texts in which the story survives were written during the first blossoming of Castilian prose. These writers had a lot of brand new words at their disposal (and weren't afraid to make them up if needed) and they wanted to write them all down, as if they would escape into the ether if they didn't. Bless them for that! That tendency led to an ornate descriptive style that could seem bloated to a modern reader.

Those medieval writers had a lot of influence on my writing. But then I realized that I read widely in modern Spanish and in English translations from Spanish. I don't know if I happen to select all the right books to prove this, but it seems as if the style hasn't changed much from that first burst of exuberance. Take these sentences from the first chapter of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón:

At last my father stopped in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows. ... A smallish man with vulturine features framed by thick gray hair opened the door. His impenetrable aquiline gaze rested on mine. ... We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.

This is a high concentration of adjectives, to be sure. But I find that these sentences give me a crystal clear picture of exactly what the narrator is experiencing. I find that if I take any one of the many adjectives away, the effect is changed for the worse. The use of lots of adjectives feels useful here. It makes me question the Anglo-Saxon assumption that the immorality of a writing style is directly proportional to the number of words.

I might end up with just as clear a picture from a passage originally in English, but I would have to do more detective work to get there. English and Spanish may have completely different expectations of the reader. And so, as I revise a novel written in English about medieval Spain, I feel the pull from both literary traditions. Resolution: From that tension, greatness will arise. I will do the impossible and take out every other adjective while maintaining my "lovely" descriptions. Just wait and see.