Last week we discussed the essential elements of good scenes. This time, let’s talk about writing that’s not doing its job.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at ways to identify and weed out dead weight in your writing.
Crummy First Drafts
Any discussion of editing needs the reminder that when you draft (that is put down your story for the first time) you’ll be less frustrated if you do not edit as you write. That’s right, get the story down with no regard to how “good” or bad the prose is. If you try to edit while you create, you’ll not only slow your progress but you actually stymie the creative process. The creation of new work requires positive energy, the kind that believes the sky’s the limit. The creative writer’s brain searches for connection, invention and discovery. The editing brain (in the same person) focuses on winnowing out all but the best–editors must analyze for weakness, confusion and lack of movement, among other things. Even if you’ve been writing a long time, reminding yourself to crank up the creative writer brain when you draft–where anything goes–is often a welcome breath of fresh air. When you edit, bringing out the exacting, objective, by-the-book writer-self will keep you from suffering the delusions of grandeur your creative writer self encourages. Good and great writers rely on both of these roles to produce their best work, yet seldom allow them out of the closet at the same time. For pro writers, the creative process is often fast-paced and carefree, while many edits, revisions and rewrites (taking lots of thought and time) are typical. A mentor of mine once said,” Write (draft) in a white-hot heat. Revise at leisure.” Sound advice.
Speed the Slow
A scene that unfolds too slowly kills tension, UNLESS it’s really really important. New writers often get this backwards and allow long detailed descriptions to suck the life out of relatively unimportant passages. Avoid “chunking” (long paragraphs of lists or other details about the scene) without making sure tension is maintained and rising. Provide details your POV character takes in only as the reader needs to know them. In life, we notice certain details in a quick once-over. Then we make judgments.Let your characters do the same with the setting and the other people in the scene. Cut out all unneeded modifiers, descriptions and concentrate on the action and purpose of the scene.
Kill the Darlings
“Kill your darlings,” advice attributed to William Faulkner, often refers to axing a phrase, sentence or more that the creative-writer-drafter thinks is the best thing ever written. Most times, this stroke of genius can’t stand up to the harsh light of the editor-writer. Often, a darling is just too precious, too literary, too purple or too TOO. In scenes, you can also identify darlings, passages you’ve written solely to intro characters, show off a fabulous exotic setting or use some of that mountain of research you’ve done. If readers are looking for the next step in the story, they’ll be frustrated if a scene gives fabulous details but nothing really happens. Sometimes they’re called “marching in place” scenes because of the lack of story movement. Beware of scenes with only one character on stage–they tend to be excuses for back story. And watch for too many scenes gathered about a table. During edits, cut out all scenes that march, ooze or veg–even if the research is fascinating.
Omit the Obvious
A writer’s biggest challenge is to get the reader to experience the same (or similar) things and events as the writer. In trying to recreate a world on the page, it’s not difficult to micromanage in order to be sure readers GET IT. Most of the time, these attempts fail to make the scene any more vivid and actually irritate readers instead. If you repeat words and phrases where it’s unnecessary, you’ll only succeed in telegraphing the idea that you think readers are not very smart. There are times when repeating is vital (as with pronouns where it’s unclear who is who), but once you’ve told the reader your character is going to drive to work, there’s no need to break down the process into minuscule actions, even though we know the actions are required. Thus, she opened the door of her car, put the key into the ignition, turned the key, ad nauseam, can be simply, “She drove to work.”