The Bank of Words

Robert Southey said: “It is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

Short fiction – good short fiction – can have an emotional impact and resonance not found in quite the same way in longer fiction. That is why I love it. The trouble is, it’s fecking hard to do well.

Contrary to a common perception, writing short stories is not the writer’s easy option. In my opinion it is one of the trickiest genres to get right. My previous post Write True, Write Cheap briefly touched on the concept of the Bank of Words, and I promised one of my followers that I would write more about it at a later date.

Welcome to a later date.

For the concept of the Bank of Words I am indebted to author Scarlett Thomas. Much of what follows is a paraphrasing of what I learned in a workshop she ran at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival last month.

Imagine you have a budget for your writing. This means that every time you use a word, you have to pay for it. Some words are cheap, some are expensive. How can you stay within budget and still say what you want to say?

In the Bank of Words, concrete nouns, verbs and adjectives are free, abstract adjectives (muddy, faded, curtained) and modifiers (really, very, quite) are $5, abstract nouns (justice, friendship, horror) and abstract verbs (loving, feeling, deciding) are $10, adverbs are $20 and clichés are $50.

For a 500-word passage, say, you have $100 to spend. For 100 words, $20. The aim is economy – not just cutting words, but using the best words. (And of course, dialogue, speech and anything written “in character” has to be evaluated slightly differently. Most of all, it is crucial that each word seems true for that character.)

As part of her workshop, Scarlett handed out short (100-word) extracts from a number of famous books and short stories, and we had to cost them up to see which writers are more economical with their prose.

It was hilarious, and eye-opening.

My partner and I spent a knicker-wetting few minutes analysing a paragraph from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our neighbours tackled a passage from The Da Vinci Code. Both blew their budget to a rather alarming extent. (And oh, the clichés. Made my eyes water.) On the other hand, passages written by authors such as Kafka, Nicola Barker, Arundhati Roy and Katherine Mansfield all came in well under $20.

The first two authors are stonkingly famous and rich. They draw out alarming amounts from the Bank of Words, but they tell ripping yarns. And there is a place for those kinds of stories. (In my opinion, at least in Dan Brown’s case, that place is the rubbish tip, but I’m sure this concerns Dan not one iota as he lights a cigar and steers his super yacht towards the Bahamas for the weekend).

But here’s the thing. As Scarlett pointed out to us, there are thousands of “writers” out there – Lord preserve us – scribbling away in the manner of Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling or E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey). Those people are still eating stale cornflakes out of the packet and scrubbing floors at the local burger joint as they dream of that elusive three-book deal. They will probably never “make it”. But there are very few people writing like the under $20 club (Roy, Plath, Kafka, Hemingway etc.) who don’t make it, because they are true artists, and the world can’t help but recognise them as such.

So. Want to be a true artist? Look carefully at what you spend. I would urge you to take a 100-word passage from your latest story and cost it up. If you have to scrape yourself off the floor and have a stiff drink afterwards, you may want to try a rewrite.

I seem to measure up OK, but I don’t think it’s because of any particular brilliance on my part. I was trained as a radio journalist so I’m used to distilling stories down to the absolute bare minimum. Now that I’m writing fiction those skills have rather handily crossed over. And I just love the tussle, the challenge, the puzzle of trying to say something and yet…not say it, which I think is the real power of fantastic fiction, short or otherwise. What is not said…the ghost that whispers to me, just out of reach, just beyond the page…that is what stays with me long after I have finished reading.

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