Writing is the fruit of our labor and, like making a great apple pie, benefits from paring the tasteless bits. I’m not much of a baker but I know something about wordsmithing. I write, I read, I critique. One of my big bugaboos is wading through clumps of words that don’t contribute to story. It happens even in professionally published work but less experienced writers flub more often. First drafts are especially susceptible, resulting in boxcars of useless words. It compares to the yakking of a Valley Girl.
Brandy twirled a wisp of her platinum hair. “So, like, I said to, um, him, ‘Like, when should we like do it, like, I mean, I wanna, you know, like, get to know you better before we, like, make a big deal out of this, like, um, you know?’”
Not much said here though it might be great birth control. This is so obvious a vacancy of thoughtful dialogue that you’re rolling your eyes. Me too. But there’s a lesson here in how to tell when to excise surplus keystrokes from suspenseful action or insightful narrative. In short, how to make your book pound instead of dribble. Unless Brandy is an important character in your book, kill this baby. If she’s a person you just gotta have in your community, limit her vocalization to a paragraph no longer than the one above, and sprinkle the book with as few, but expressive, examples as possible. Readers will get the picture as soon as she bedazzles the page.
Dialogue is a challenge. We want our stories to be peopled with folks who sound like they’ve been raised on a dairy farm in Minnesota, “I spoze ya dint bring in da meelk, deedja?” Or work in a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama, “I mi-aght could carry you the can o’ beans but I don’t got a mi-and to do tha-et juss yet.” The strength of these examples is the trope and accents that pinpoint Minnesotan and Alabaman culture, imparting richness to the human landscape of your story.
Even in ordinary speech, a writer must limit words to propel the action of the story while still saying everything essential. Where to pare demands editing skill. Here’s a simplistic example of editing to improve content.
First take: It’s also the thing that makes me scared. The sentence drags and is loaded with word stuffing.
Second take: It’s also what makes me scared. Pared down, still bursting with fluff.
Third take: It also makes me scared. Getting there.
Fourth take, sharpest knife: It scares me. Now it’s powerful.
We all know about the word “that.” Everyone sprinkles “that” as thick as Beijing smog across their book. Computer search the word and you’ll identify all one thousand instances of this sneaky interloper, and can excise them as quick as a flick of the delete key. I did exactly this over the summer and rid my book of over 400 “that’s,” none of them doing anything significant. Not every “that” is an intruder, so read as you go to make sure you leave the ones that articulate meaning.
I often encounter vacuous dialogue when reviewing the unpublished work from my critique group. It’s the function of our members to help fellow writers build the suspense and insight that create a good story, so even if my book is not being critiqued, I learn much from listening to the assessments about other works. Recently we read a chapter from a book that’s long been in the WIP stage, the writer struggling but determined. Interestingly, even the newer members grasped the essential problem with the story. I’ve paraphrased the following section.
Ernie dialed his son. “Hello, son, this is your dad.”
“Hey, dad, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine, son, how are you?”
“Oh I’m OK. Getting ready to move in to the new place.”
“That’s good. Did you get the package I sent?”
“Yeah, that was nice.”
The cat jumped onto the table. Ernie scratched her neck as she rubbed his arm. “Well, got to run. I’ll talk to you again later.”
“OK, bye, dad.”
The son is being released from prison. His father hasn’t seen him in a year. The book attempts to ascertain where the young man’s life went so wrong. It hints at the lack of substantial connection between father and son and the ineffective parenting that let him drift away from a promising life into criminal conduct. But the story beats around the real drama between parent and son and presents empty dialogue in place of true insight. Those six sentences could have been a scene exposing the conflict between the two and the chasm into which the son fell.
Ernie tugged at the bridge of his nose while he dialed the phone. He heard the irritation in his son’s voice as soon as he answered.
“What’s up, dad? I’m awful busy, trying to get settled in my new place.”
“Sure, son, that’s why I sent a few things to help you out.”
“Really, a pack of socks? You think that’ll do it?”
Ernie had been hoping for a gracious thank you, but this was so typical of his kid. He tried to find an acceptable response that wouldn’t raise the boy’s ire, but the son rushed into his next complaint.
“Ever think you could send me some cash so I can buy what I want? Or maybe put in a word with that buddy of yours at the auto shop and help me get a job?”
“He doesn’t know about you getting out…”
“Course not, none of your buddies know I been in the joint. You never talk about me, do you? Less you make up crap about how I’m away at school or whatever shit you say.”
Ernie’s jaw ached with pain shooting up to explode the top of his head. “I’ll send some money in the next letter. How you feeling now, being out of there?”
“Out of the joint, dad, out of prison. Why can’t you say it?”
His son was right. Ernie couldn’t face that he was out of prison because he couldn’t face that he’d been incarcerated in the first place. He whispered because he had no strength to talk about his boy’s actions that led to criminal behavior. “I care about…”
“Sure you do, dad, talk to you later.”
His son’s slammed phone cranked the pain in Ernie’s head no matter how gently he put down the receiver at his end. He knew nothing about his boy.
The passage is more than six sentences, but it gives a sense of the conflict and miscommunication between father and son. And, no, I shouldn’t re-write someone else’s story, but I wanted to suggest how drivel can be turned into drama. Apple fruit, not parings.
Paring apples is a perfect autumn activity. Sharpen your knife and get to work. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this month, skip until December, but keep that paring knife handy. You’ll need it.
This is so true. A writing teacher once told me, “Write your first draft, then go back and cut out half the words.” I don’t do exactly that, but my first editing pass is almost always a word reduction exercise. The question I like to ask when editing is, “do these words advance the plot or provide information the reader needs?”
Andrew, that’s a great question to ask yourself, bound to lead to stronger work.
Good article, Shari. I’ve been pondering tight writing as I read a few books that weren’t tightly-written. Ann Hillerman (who took on her father Tony Hillerman’s native American series when he died) annoyed me by phrases I thought could be skipped because they were too obvious. And the debut novel of Margaret Mizushima that included many sentences like: “Mattie’s cell phone range and she answered it.”
In both cases, by the time I finished the novel–much to my surprise–I was OK with the syntax sentences. They added to the voice. My conclusion–which takes nothing away from your point–is good writing shines regardless. Nevertheless, I will continue to chop away at my writing–much as Andrew suggests.
I was taught (in correspondence class through Writer’s Digest) that a writer needs to be concise. This doesn’t necessarily mean chopping away but to make sure the words stick to the point. Most people don’t want all the fluff and it sure isn’t needed.
Yes, Jacqui, some of the ‘extra’ is needed for the story as a whole.
Glynis, that’s good advice for a writer. It’s determining what’s slush and what’s power that’s tough. One swamps story, one builds it.
Thanks, Jacqui. I read much more critically now that I’m also writing. I’m sometimes amazed at what escapes an editor’s knife.
One of the things I never knew I struggled with was the word “that”. “That” was sprinkled all over my works so much so that (see?) it was taking up a lot of word count. It wasn’t until an editor actually pointed it out to me that I noticed. Now the word “that” jumps out at me even while I’m writing the first draft. Often I’ll leave it in just because it keeps the writing natural for me, but when I go back to edit the work, the cutting blade moves fast and furious across all of the “that”s it can find.
Sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? Cut, cut.