Wednesday, June 1, 2011

“Less” Is the New “More?”

I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s well-told story: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In her introduction, she assures her readers that this is, indeed, a work of nonfiction—nothing is made up—which warmed my heart as an author who scrupulously sticks to documented and verifiable facts. It started me thinking about the difference between writing nonfiction for adults and writing nonfiction for children. Certainly, the subject matter of this story—the establishment of a line of human tissue culture cells from the cervical cancer of a poor black women, who died from her disease in 1951 at the tender age of 32, might not be considered appropriate for children (although I understand that a version for young people is in the works). But the most obvious difference between adult and children’s nonfiction is the length of the book— this one was almost 400 pages with no pictures to break up the text. Rebecca Skloot tells a comprehensive story, using techniques of novelists: detailed atmospherics, physical appearances of the characters along with their back stories, and foreshadowing of events to create narrative tension. Maybe it was a tad too comprehensive but I’m a good reader; I can take it.

It’s our job, as authors for children, to wade through enormous amounts of material, to curate the facts most pertinent to the story we want to tell, to figure out a structure for the story and to make the prose as lean and muscular as possible. This discipline makes us excellent writers for the uninitiated of all ages. (Best kept secret: If you want to learn something new, read a kid’s book on the subject.)

In an ideal world, the length of a book should be determined by the author, who would use exactly as many words needed to create a compelling narrative and not one word more. But print formats determine price and so we have constraints that dictate word count. In addition, I hear from a colleague who teaches children’s literature to current and future teachers, that often teachers reject certain children’s books they deem “too wordy” for today’s readers.. Obviously, that message is reaching publishers because I’m currently revising two books published about twenty years ago with the objective of cutting the text so that the redesigned books look less “text dense.” This is forcing me to rethink each sentence, rethink each concept and ruthlessly discard language that I agonized over so long ago. I don’t know yet if the new version will speak more clearly and powerfully than the old one but the effort is worth it if it keeps the books alive for another twenty years. And the shorter version just might be an improvement.

Yet, I have some questions about this. A long book with a page-turning story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, renders the incomparable experience of “curling up with a good book.” Kids discovered this experience with the Harry Potter books. Some might wonder: Can a work of nonfiction ever be a page-turning book you curl up with? (Yes, read the Immortal Life.......) On the other hand, many adult nonfiction books are over-stuffed (for my taste) with too much information. Is a true story more powerful when written shorter? When does a reader want to know a subject in depth? When is padding a book a self-indulgent ego trip by the author? In short (pardon the pun) what makes a subject or a story worthy enough to be book length? Is “less” truly the new “more?”

The decisions about these issues, as made by authors, are part of what distinguishes literature from ordinary writing.


Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Great post, Vicki. I think about this all the time when I write picture books about history because being able to write as many words as I want would be a supreme luxury. But my (our)job is to cram many years of 100% accurate history, biography, philosophy, and storytelling into a very limited number of words and pictures that kids can grasp - and enjoy!! The goal is to make a book that they can't put down. So distilling our words down to the fewest and best ones we can find is kinda like writing haiku. It's a challenge, but that's what makes writing fun, right?

Steve Sheinkin said...

In the history textbook world, where I thankfully no longer work, editors were always talking about making sure the pages were "open" - code for "not too many words, cause kids don't want to read." It was maddening to have to explain complex ideas in a set number of lines, but great training for me as a writer. Still, I think story is the thing, and as a guy who just wrote a 330-page book about the rise and fall Benedict Arnold, I'm kind of hoping non-fiction stories can be page-turners.