Dealing with Cruft

crufty

Cruft krʌft
noun

  1. (computing, informal) Anything old or of inferior quality.
  2. (computing, informal) Redundant, old or improperly written code, especially that which accumulates over time.

Cruft is a computing term–

WAIT! DON’T GO! I promise this will be about writing, even if I occasionally delve into computers for an analogy.

In computer coding, cruft is the buildup of useless or redundant programming language, usually caused by incomplete editing, often resulting from tight deadlines. Let’s say you’re writing a program to automatically email a response to someone who leaves a comment on your website. You have two ideas as to how to go about this. You try one, but you’re not happy with the way it works. So you disable the first try–you don’t delete it, just in case your second try is worse–and try plan B. Plan B works great, so you save it, and you’re on your merry way. But that first attempt is just sitting there in the code, not doing anything, but taking up space.

The remnants of that first attempt is cruft. The program will work, and the end results may be just as effective as if you go back and get rid of all that redundant code. And that code just sits there, deactivated, taking up a small amount of space on someone’s hard drive, causing your website, or your computer, to run just the tiniest bit slower. A little bit of cruft is no big deal. But if too many of your programs have tiny bits of cruft, the cumulative effect can be noteworthy.

In creative writing the same process occurs. Let’s say you decide you need to delve into your protagonist’s reason for doing what she does. So you write a scene with her psychologist. The scene is well-crafted, and you love how the the snappy dialogue turned out–it’s actually one of your favorite scenes in the story. But now that you’ve moved on, you realize that her motivations are well laid out in the action of your story. But you don’t want to cut the scene because you’re proud of it–especially the great dialogue.

That scene is now cruft. It’s something that isn’t advancing your story–just taking up space. Now of course, this is a simplistic example. Maybe that scene still has a purpose. Maybe the fact that she can open up to her therapist but not her girlfriend is helpful to the story.

When editing, determining what is cruft and what still has purpose is one of the most difficult skills to develop. It’s only the most useless of description or scenes that has no purpose whatsoever. The harder line to walk is to know whether the bit of story is important enough to the plot, or the character development, or the texture of the writing to keep it.

It’s the difference between bloated writing, and tight, crisp prose.

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Software review: “Editor” by Serenity Software

I’m working with a piece of software that might be of interest to those who self-publish. It’s got the catchy name of “Editor”, a product of Serenity Software. (I bought it retail and have no sort of relationship with the company.) I’m using it to go over my novel. So far, I like it. PC World gave it four out of five stars. Since I’ve started using it, it’s pointed out some mushy text that benefited from being changed.

The software scans the text for the following (click the image to enlarge it):

Editor - usage

Notice that this goes well beyond the spelling and grammar check that’s part of MS Word. Fortunately, I haven’t yet had any of my prose flagged for “pretentious term”, but I have gotten flagged for weak constructions such as starting a sentence with “It was…”

Editor scans the prose, numbering each sentence. It then checks each sentence for potentially incorrect, odd or clumsy constructions, punctuations, spellings, etc. The basic version of the software then gives you an output listing each sentence in which it found a potential problem.

This is the first part of the output for Editor’s scan of my book, “Verbosity’s Vengeance”. It’s telling me what it sees as potential problems with sentences 49 through 219. To fix these, I scroll through the amended OUTPUT version of my file, looking at the sentence numbers it’s inserted. Here’s what the analysis output looks like:

FIX

      –finds many mechanical errors and lists words and phrases
      that are often incorrect in novice writers’ work.

  <49> [sentence structure]
         MISSING COMMA? SENTENCE FRAGMENT? [x]
  <52> onto – the
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
  <58> eloquence… you
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
  <62> “- struggle
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
  <62> which
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; use “that” or insert leading comma [G]
  <62> use – entirely
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
  <62> you – as
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
 < > [in paragraph ending with sentence 65]
         QUOTATION EXCEEDS FORTY WORDS [Q]
  <69> is me
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR: in formal English, “is I” [I] [G]
  <81> There are
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <127> Full stop
         POSSIBLE BRITISH SPELLING OR USAGE; (if punctuation) period(s) [B]
 <154> had of
         PROBABLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; omit “of”? [G]
 <154> was him
         POSSIBLE GRAMMATICAL ERROR; in formal English, “was he” [I] [G]
 <155> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <159> lever – a
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
 <159> retort – he
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
 <167> ?!
         EXCESSIVE PUNCTUATION [p]
 <176> maintaining . . . escaped
         GRAMMATICAL ERROR; dangling or misplaced modifier? [G]
 <177> [sentence structure]
         MISSING COMMA? SENTENCE FRAGMENT? [x]
 <177> ..
         INCORRECT ELLIPSIS; too few or too many spaces or periods? [e]
 <182> It was
         POSSIBLE POOR USAGE; often a weak beginning; rewrite? [U]
 <198> free – I’m
         INCORRECT DASH OR HYPHEN [f]
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 209]
         QUOTATION EXCEEDS FORTY WORDS [Q]
 <219> more pain-suppression
         AGREEMENT FAILURE [A]
<  > [in paragraph ending with sentence 250]
         QUOTATION EXCEEDS FORTY WORDS [Q]

How about that? There’s a grammatical mistake in sentence 69.

Note that I considered this book finished enough that I’ve been querying it to agents for months, yet in the first five minutes, I’ve gotten three dozen relatively subtle suggestions for improvement. These are things that I missed, that my beta readers missed, that my test reader missed and that MS Word missed.

Another form of analysis within Editor offers stylistic suggestions. Here are some potential issues with sentences 2171 through 2186:

<2171> I’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2174> man
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM: do you mean “humanity”? [M]
 <2176> I’ll
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2182> toast
         SLANG EXPRESSION if you mean “finished” or “done for” [O] [L]
 <2183> great
         POSSIBLE EMPTY INTENSIFIER [E]
 <2184> if
         COMMONLY MISUSED TERM; rule of thumb: if “whether” fits, use it [M]
 <2184> hasn’t
         CONTRACTION [k]
 <2184> lifestyle
         JARGON TERM OR BUZZWORD; way(s) of life? [J]
 <2186> you’ve
         CONTRACTION [k]

So I might have used the empty intensifier “great” in sentence 2183? That’s good to know.

Another part of the Editor software looks for word repetition patterns. Have you ever read a book where the author used the word “gleaming” twice in one sentence? Or repeated a phrase he or she apparently loved, like “her eyes flashed darkly”? Phrases like that can pop up only a couple of times in a book, but they stick in the reader’s mind. This software looks for all repetitions of all phrases up to 6 words, throughout the entire book. This is VERY useful for weeding out those scenes that got moved, but not completely deleted from the original location.

In another analysis mode, Editor numbers the paragraphs and tells you which words get repeated in each and how many times. Here is the analysis of paragraphs #965 through #974:

#965.  The miasmic fog projectors . . .
     Words in paragraph: 75
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) in(3)

#966.  Around the ring of . . .
     Words in paragraph: 106
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4) to(4) he(3) it(3)
       mean(3) only(3) was(3)

#968.  The Grammarian’s eyes scanned . . .
     Words in paragraph: 141
     Words used 3 or more times: he(6) of(6) to(6) his(3)
       room(3) that(3) was(3)

#970.  Professor Verbosity hadn’t been . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: to(4) be(3)

#971.  He looked around for . . .
     Words in paragraph: 119
     Words used 3 or more times: of(5) from(4) he(4) in(4)
       been(3) floor(3) part(3)

#972.  He grimaced. Anyone… including . . .
     Words in paragraph: 74
     Words used 3 or more times: was(5) he(4) that(3)
       verbosity(3)

#973.  A thought formed in . . .
     Words in paragraph: 66
     Words used 3 or more times: himself(3) of(3) to(3)

#974.  The rest of the . . .
     Words in paragraph: 28
     Words used 3 or more times: of(4)

Repeating of, to, he, it, was, that, etc. might not be a problem, but I see that I also use the word “himself” three times in paragraph 973, which is relatively short at 66 words. Worth taking another look at?

The slightly more expensive version of this software comes with a plug-in for MS Word. It will analyze a .doc file on the fly, then walk you through it sentence by sentence. You can make the corrections on the spot, decide to ignore the suggestion or flag it for a later rewrite. I’ve only just started using Editor, but it has already shown me a number of ways my prose could be tightened, sharpened and cleaned up.

Is this software a substitute for a talented human content editor, copy editor and/or line editor? No. It assumes that you are already saying essentially what you want to say with your prose. It won’t tell you that the plot is too slow in the middle third or that your hero is an ass or that you spend too much time describing the food your characters are about to eat.

However, it is several important steps up from the spelling and grammar tools loaded into MS Word. The high end version of Editor is $75, a moderately significant chunk of change for an indie writer, but it’s much less than what you’d pay a decent copy editor to proofread your work.

Presuming to Edit Neil Gaiman

Let me get this out in the open: I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing, I like his style, and I like the apparent ease with which he not only navigates the alabaster halls of writerly fame, but is polite and supportive in his interactions with his fans. He bestrides the narrow world like a colossus; I am, at best, a zed, an unnecessary letter. These are neither fanboi gush nor false modesty, but simple facts.

All of which makes this blog post a bit troublesome for me to write.

When I started posting stories on my website, one of the first things that was pointed out to me was a tic in my writing that I wasn’t even aware of. Having written, re-read and edited the stories, I posted them with this linguistic tic in place. It took someone else to point it out to me. Ever since then, I’ve been sensitive to it, like a man stung by a jellyfish will develop a hypersensitivity to it. I look for it in my own writing and, compulsively, in just about every piece of fiction I read.

When I see it in my own writing, I revise it. When I edit other people’s writing, I flag it. When I beta read for friends, I point to it.

I saw it here on the Today’s Author website and was all set to write a blog post discussing why writers should always be on the lookout for this, why you should check your own work to make sure this doesn’t crop up. Then, to my chagrin, I saw Neil Gaiman do it and it gave me pause. Here’s a guy who CLEARLY knows how to write, someone who has autographed more books than I’ll probably ever sell… but there it is. He did that thing I was all set to tell people not to do. A cat can look at a king, but who am I to edit Neil Gaiman?

If he put it there, it had to be deliberate. Since he knows what he’s doing (to put it mildly), that deliberation is worth rethinking my own reaction to it.Grumpy cat is not amused by textual repetition.

I’m talking about opening repetition, using the same words in the beginning of a paragraph.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes repetition is used deliberately, as I did in the sentence above (“When I see…”, “When I edit…”, “When I beta read…”). It establishes a rhythm for the words, an underlying chord progression that supports the changes in the sentences. That kind of intentional repetition is poetic and can be quite powerful. Neil Gaiman used it to good effect in the May tale in his Calender of Tales project.

However, in Kim Ellington’s piece, The Thrill of Chills, is a different kind of repetition. (I hope Kim doesn’t mind my drawing on her work for this illustration. After all, she can now safely say that she writes the way Neil Gaiman does, at least in this one way, which is pretty good company to keep.) A consecutive series of Kim’s paragraphs open with:

I grew…
I loved…
I didn’t know…
I prefer…

This is the kind of repetition that, had I written the blog post I set out to write, I would have suggested warranted a second look in order to vary the sentence structures. Maybe change the opening of the second paragraph to “Oh, how I loved…” or “What called to me…” or some other construction that would have the same meaning, but would avoid the repetition.

But then I read this set of openings in a set of successive paragraphs in the March tale of Neil Gaiman’s Calender of Tales:

She was dressed…
She fell…
She left…

So much for my hypersensitivity! I hit that sequence and fell out of the story as my internal editor was challenged by this repetition. What does that say about this aspect of writing? Or about me as a reader/editor? I tend to avoid even one successive repetition, lest the reader stumble on the opening of the second paragraph and be pulled out. Am I wrong? Is even three repetitions OK, but four too many? I once beta read a book for a friend that had (as I recall) twelve of the first sixteen paragraphs start with:

Bob ran…
Bob opened…
Bob took…
Bob gave…
Bob looked…
Bob angled…
Bob closed…
Bob walked…
Bob climbed…

This was too much and I said so. As I had been unaware when it was first pointed out to me, so was my friend unaware that it had taken such strong root in that book.

So, now that I’ve held up Kim’s and Neil Gaiman’s writing as exemplars of repetition, what can I do now but invite them to comment? (For the record, I contacted them both with a preview link before submitting this post to the Today’s Author overlords.) Guys, was this intentional? Was it part of an impulse that made the words sound the way you wanted them to? Do you look for this kind of thing when you self-edit, as I do? Did you intend to leave this here or did it slip through the cracks?

Also (looking for anyone’s input here), am I crazy for paying attention to this? Am I overthinking things again?

When Helping Hurts!

The overused knee brace

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of moderating the National Novel Writing Month forums is the wide variety of skills, talents, and abilities of the participants. From published authors like Brandon Sanderson to the first-time novelist who has never written for fun before, you will find writers who are seeking or offering different things to the community.

One sort of writer that stands out to me, though, is the kind that lacks all trust in their own ability and seems incapable of solving even the most basic of problems on their own. They reach out to the rich community hoping for help and support, but seem to get addicted to that resource. They become hobbled by the easy availability of those who seem to know more than they do. They seem addicted to asking questions about the tiniest details of their work. Nothing is original and all details of their novels are decided by popular consensus.

How do you grow if you never trust in your own abilities? One of the toughest skills a writer must learn is how to make their own decisions. I have seen too many good writers crippled by their constant need for validation and support from others. Writing is generally a solo art; the proliferation of the internet has opened doors to us that our spiritual ancestors could never have dreamed. We have become used to the social nature of the beast.

I have known writers who become absolutely crushed by the feedback of their beta reader. When they get negative feedback, or receive none at all, they are paralyzed by this lack of positive feedback. They become addicted to fan fiction communities (where near-constant feedback is the norm) and abandon their own original work. Like the athlete who uses a brace too often, and weakens the muscles instead of healing an injury, writers must learn not to lean too heavily on their own support systems.

If one ever hopes to succeed at being a writer — whether or not professional publication is your goal — you must find your spine and learn to stand on your own two feet. It’s a fine balancing act– don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help if you need it, but you must understand that your own writing must stand on its own and all that feedback means nothing when it’s time for the editor to look at your precious manuscript. It’s you who has to trust your own instincts and put in the blood, sweat, and tears needed to whip it into shape. Your critique partners, beta readers, and other support people may often have feedback that doesn’t fit with your vision. It’s okay not to include it all! I’ve run my novels through critiques before. Much of the feedback was vital, but some just didn’t fit. I didn’t use it all.

The point is that you must learn to accept some things, and do things without needing your hands held at all times. You will never grow into a writer without understanding how to work through plot problems, how to characterize, or just how to work the audience. Can you learn these things from others? Absolutely! Working with others is a critical part of the growth process.

But when it starts to hold you back, you may need to sequester yourself from all that support for a while. Don’t allow the easy access to support to become your crutch preventing you from learning to walk on your own!

Have you ever become too reliant on feedback? Have you found that the easy availability of support sometimes holds you back, or are you more balanced in your approach to feedback?