I spent the last couple of days in Oxford at a Fiction Writing for Philosophers workshop (at which I gave a talk arguing that plot is argument and argument is plot; more on this in another post here within a few weeks, I hope). Thursday morning the keynote speaker was James Hawes, who gave us a brief writing assignment part-way through.
We were given the opening paragraphs of Heminway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.
"Is that the mill?" he asked.
"I do not remember it."
"It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass."
He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant's smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.
And then we were told to rewrite it, but using our own story and own characters. By "rewrite", we were instructed to follow the structure of the sentences one by one: The first one beginning with a pronoun (not a name! not a description!) and an action, with a specification of the action, and a description of the setting. The second sentence needed to be an expanding on the description, and involve a passive action on behalf of the initial character. The third sentence needed to be more description, but slightly more poetic and fancifcul, with a repetition of the action. Then the first character had to ask a question; an unnamed character had to answer; the first character reply; and the second elaborate. The first character then needed to do an action with a prop, and the second character act and then be described.
The point was to show how through quiet economy of language and setting of scene, one can evoke sympathy for a character by starting at a bird's eye approach and then zeroing in to the details, with some action.
I found the exercise infuriating.
My first thought was that I would try this task with one of my current short stories being drafted, because I have been struggling with it and thought maybe this might get me unstuck. But that was a resounding "no" from the very first word, when I would have had to decide between "He" and "She". See, one of the things I'm doing this story is seeing how far I can get without ever explicitly confirming the genders of any of the characters. So the Hemingway-route is right out for that story.
My next thought was that I would try rewriting the prologue of The Novel in this style, especially because the prologue already has some superficial similarity in initial structure. That was also very quickly a "no": First, because the prologue is in the present tense (for a very specific reason), and changing it to the past just isn't an option. Second, because there is no dialogue in the prologue, and this is again for a very specific, plot-governed, world-building reason.
Since the prologue didn't work, I figured I'd try rewriting chapter 1, since in that chapter things actually happen, there is a location and an action and two characters and a discussion. I followed the template, and what I came away with was so awkward and static and so unexciting. In the actual chapter, Luneta comes sweeping in to Duska's office and spreads her maps on the table with a flourish, announcing that they are finished before Duska can even inquire. There is a sense of vibrancy and action and vitality. We do not know why it is important that the maps are finished, but we do know that it is important that they are.
In the end, I wasn't all that surprised that my Hemingway-esque rewriting fell so flat, because I actually think the original opening is pretty flat. What I found most useful about the exercise was articulating why Hemingway just doesn't do it for me. (It's not just this chapter; I haven't read Hemingway since university, but I remember being mostly unmoved by him then. A Moveable Feast I remember being better than the others, though.) (1) The omniscient perspective doesn't allow me any access to the character's heads, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. I am not intrinsically motivated by the actions of men, so simply having them converse does not make me interested in them. (2) Description. All the description. The light glinting on the water and the wind blowing through the trees and the brown leaves...I don't need it. I realized at one point while drafting The Novel that there was a marked lack of description in it (unless we are talking about ecclesiastical architectural details). One of the main characters has zero physical description; the only thing that is ever said explicitly about him is that he is young and he is male. When I realized this, and I realized I wasn't writing it because I didn't know what to describe or where to put the description, I started paying attention to where and how description appears in the books I like to read, to see if I could get guidance from that. And I found something very interesting: I don't actually read description. If it's more than a sentence or two, I just skip over it until I'm back to the characters. It just doesn't interest me, and there are two reasons for this: (a) I just don't see it. For the most part, the sort of details that are being described in descriptive passages are details that I just do not see when I navigate through my (actual) world. (You can ask my husband about the sheer quantity of things that I do not notice about household details -- whether we have skirting board, what color it is, what type of profile it has, what color the door frames are, etc., etc., etc. I just don't see it). (b) I can't generally reconstruct a mental picture from a spoken description, whether this is a description of a person or a place. So both coming and going, description doesn't do it for me, for the most part. (3) The general lack of urgency about any of it. I have been given absolutely nothing in this opening to make me excited about the characters, or to make me worried about them -- which is funny, because this was given as an example of an opening that gets the reader emotionally invested from the start.
The final interesting thing that came out of this exercise was the number of other people who participated in it who also said that Hemingway does very little for them!