All the Broken Parts that Chocolate Can’t Fix

brokenvaseIt’s a problem we all face: the extra words that contribute bupkes to our story. We need to get rid of them, killing them softly but surely. I’ve deleted sections and chapters I worked on for weeks but finally admitted they’d been the wrong trajectory for the work in progress. They just didn’t contribute to the story. I’m from the camp of write the details, all of them, except for the chaff you need to exclude.

Remove, delete, exclude. Less is more, more or less. We diffuse the vigor of our words when we overwrite, when too many words dilute the power, like overwatered punch.

Our writing critique group met last night. We discussed the work of a strong writer with varied interests and craftsmanship skills that make her stories a pleasure to read. Before the meeting began I’d chomped down a chocolate bar to give me the strength to critique her work. How could I have otherwise faced this woman who’d given so much of her effort to a story of her heart? Because: she has a tendency to find every possible way to describe things. Not a fluffy cloud, but a fluffy pink cloud filling the sky with gauzy shapes to remind us of childhoods filled with the wonderment of lying on hillsides calling out the attributes of various clots of condensed water vapor. Even though the story was about searching for evidence of political wrongdoing among the landed gentry, we got a description of clouds to beat all other descriptions of clouds. And we read similar expansive details about pocket watches, ship building, and the hidden benefits of secondary education, chunks of writing that broke up the story. That broke into the story and left a mess.

Sounds like the work of an amateur, which to a degree it is. She is not yet published but she, like me, is trying hard and has every intention of getting her work in print. We’re all trying to write the story readers want to read, the one that makes people stand in line to buy, even if it’s standing in line at Amazon. Every writer works to produce a saga extraordinaire, but many of us miss the target. Including me.

Yet I’ve read published books in need of a big pair of scissors and a pint jar of white out that I wonder, how did they do it? Get a book published that obviously needed an attentive editor and a round of intense rewriting? This past year I’ve read so many books that fell short on my love this book poll. Not only has not one of this year’s books excited me enough to recommend, but several have elicited my camel imitation: a huge spray of gloppy spit. I’ll talk about one, in a roundabout way. I have no desire to expose a writer whose work is in print, because that might create an enemy when all I want is to improve the quality of the written word.  I have no desire to thrash someone who labored to produce a book close to excellent but still short of the goal. So I’m going to be snarky about identifying the writer and the title of the book.

The book is historical fiction, one of my favorite categories. It’s about a culture rarely evident in novels, characters rich with life force, and conflicts that dramatically stymie plot resolution. Sounds like everything a story needs. Except the writer began with a prologue. I generally like prologues. Done well, they’re intriguing glimpses into the crux of an issue without giving away the whole story. But the prologue in this story did exactly that: gave away the ending. We learned in two pages what was going to happen so the entire book read like a flat aftertaste. Every moment of suspense was deflated because I already knew the outcome. Nothing hung by a thread, my curiosity was never piqued. And it was entirely unnecessary. The book is stronger without the prologue but I couldn’t unlearn what I’d read in those first two pages. Chocolate wrappers on the floor.

Lessons learned: Foreshadow but don’t expose the final ballot. Describe but let the reader fill in some of the blanks. Remove, delete, exclude, and generate a muscular story.

Really, folks, you have to help me out. I can’t eat any more chocolate bars. My scale is about to crash.




10 thoughts on “All the Broken Parts that Chocolate Can’t Fix

  1. I know what you mean, though it’s almost counterintuitive. We’re told as new writers to describe–put readers in the middle of the room. Sometimes, that’s better done with less.

    I’m reading the Anna Pidgeon series right now, about a Park Ranger who solves murders while saving nature. I loved the premise–forests, deserts, lakes, tromping through nature–but she spends so much time telling me about the twigs and valleys I lose the plot. I’m sad because I want to like this series.

    • It’s the difference between high school English where our teachers wanted every possible adjective and adverb put into our stories, and mastering the craft. We know how what mastery reads but writing it is a different challenge.
      Thanks for the comment, Jacqui.

  2. In my weekly blog posts, I often write 1,000 words and then remove half, leaving 500 great words. I’ll help you out and eat my own chocolate. 😉

  3. As an admittedly wordy writer, I find this purging of words to be possibly the most difficult aspect of writing of all. I don’t do the long-winded description of a tree or blade of grass, but instead I do make the speaker – be it a narrator or a character – much more “conversational”. It tends to almost be like they are shooting the breeze. Ultimately the job gets done and the words get cut, but it’s a whole lot of painful incisions that go into that process.

    • Rob, that’s a great way to plant a reader in time and space and let them know if they should break out the rain boots or the sun block. Still, we have to make sure our characters are yakking conversationally and not giving a lecture. And as for the painful incisions – I’ve made lots of those.

  4. Bravo, Shari. There’s a best selling author who does this same exact thing. I refuse to read her books after attempting the first one. The writer you talk about here may be trying to mimic her, heaven forbid. I’m talking about the famous Danielle Steele. Way long ago, so far back that I can’t even put a decade on it, I learned “one, two, three–enough of the adjectives”. One or two to describe something is preferred but three is acceptable. Adjectives can throw you off the track in a heartbeat, slowing down the story so much that you fall asleep before three pages are read. I will admit that I have to try hard to restrain myself though when I’m describing a setting. What can I say? I like describing surroundings.

    • Thank you, Glynis, I appreciate the cheer. I’m not sure if she’s channeling Steele but I doubt it. I think she just can’t let go of all the wonderful, fabulous, exciting, creative, exemplary, delicious ways to describe a muffin. 😀

      I’m a nature girl myself and love to try to get readers to see my scenes. Still, one apt adjective or one amazing metaphor.

  5. It can be hard to know what is enough and what is too much for a writer. You need to put your characters into a scene because you can’t have them wandering around aimlessly in nowhere land talking to a cardboard cutout somewhere (because the reader can’t relate to their situation) – but you can’t allow the scenery and sense of place to overtake the story either. I’ve been accused of using too many metaphors by some readers, yet most readers seem to love the metaphors and scenery because when I cut these back in some of my books they say they miss my metaphoric style. I think it all boils down to different reading tastes and writing styles – which makes for a very interesting and varied world of books 🙂

    • I so agree with you, Dianne. I like books that pull me into the atmosphere of the story. I savor words. Writers who employ metaphor to enhance the story add another dimension, another level of context that makes it so interesting to read. The current trend among some is to write almost like a journalist – the basic facts and little else. But then there’s the writer who immerses me in a world different from the real one that holds me to earth. That’s the writer I try to be.

      I have great respect for journalists, especially those who effectively present the world about which they write. Theirs is a tough job – write the facts, but make people want to pay attention.

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