I have a tendency to overwrite. I know this. My natural tendency has always been to lose myself in the detail and tumble along in a torrent of adverbs, surfacing only at the end of a paragraph to blink, gulp in some air and then dive straight back in.
Like I said, I know this. But I’ve been getting better. My rounds of edits of Another Man’s Poison have made it tighter and tighter, and I’ve been approaching recent short stories almost as writing exercises in which I refuse to allow myself to elaborate any more than is absolutely necessary (one such story, Still, I submitted for the Bridport Prize, so fingers crossed for that; another story, The Restoration Man, is available as part of the Extinct anthology).
I’ve found, in fact, that making the descriptives in the narrative far more sparse has almost made the narrative seem more colourful. Perhaps the paucity of descriptors creates more room for the imagination to fill? I don’t know. Either way, it’s strangely liberating.
As an example, I just wrote the following passage as a piece of backstory for the protagonist of the novel that I’m working on, and I think that the few descriptors that I’ve put in do enough to set the scene without going into massive detail:
When I was fourteen I started learning to box. I’d go to the tiny gym in Wilk Street after school, secretly at first, and in winter it was too cold and in summer it was too hot and it stank of sweat and resin and emollients. The man who trained me was called Buster Flynn. His name wasn’t really Buster, it was Paul, but that was what everyone called him. I don’t know why. He was a thick, solid man from Streatham with heavy hands and calloused, fossilised knuckles, and he trained about half a dozen wiry little kids like me to the point where we could knock someone back onto his heels with a jab, or duck under a hook and throw one back to the floating ribs, or bust up a lip and taste blood and just keep on coming.
Yet I still read novels by authors who overwrite to a level that would shame even me (the old me, that is; the blinkered, self-indulgent, adjective junkie me). Umberto Eco is one, certainly. Louis De Bernières is another. David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, at least). Salman Rushdie.
The thing is, however, these are all writers whose novels I’ve enjoyed. Indeed, in some cases I’ve specifically enjoyed the density and circuitous nature of the prose. So it makes me wonder: could there be a place for purple prose after all?