It’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.