Thinkin’ on Thursday: Thinkin’ Lean and Mean

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

I suppose plenty of writers have first drafts so lean I might call them “skimpy”. They go back and pad — in college my friends and I called this “pad it and fake it.” I am not one of those writers. What I need to do is stop over-writing: saying everything two or three times to be sure I’ve been understood.

Even the best of writers can get caught up in that trap. Years ago, Irving Stone had a stop-over in SLC, and was kind enough to speak to the League of Utah Writers just after his book, The Greek Treasure, came out. He told us the story of publishing The Agony and the Ecstasy. He’d offered it around many times, but it was always a “no” from editors. He took it to a secretary he knew, asking her to take a look and tell him what was wrong. She said she knew nothing about writing, but he insisted her fresh eyes might be a help.

After reading the manuscript (can you imagine how long it was? It’s a huge book still!), she said to him, “You’ve said everything three times.” She went through it, trying to see which time he’d said it best. He (they?) slashed it mercilessly and sent it out again. It sold right away. He took the advance and used it to marry her, and she edited all his books after that! Gotta love a love story!

But how to go about it on your own?

I know I love every golden word I put down. But maybe if I look at small bits at a time…? I’m talking sentences, phrases, words … maybe even syllables.

Cut redundancy.

Redundancy is irritating because it contains no new information. It might also make the reader lose trust in your story. Trust your reader. And trust yourself to be able to write with clarity. Don’t lose the readers’ trust in your authority.

Deliberate repetition, for an effect, can be good. Just be sure it adds impact to the plot on an important point. Repetition just for the sake of repetition is . . . redundancy.

Get rid of over-explanation.

If you feel you have to explain or excuse something, it’s probably not on the page. In what ways do you “defend” your choices in the midst of a critique group? Instead, assume that the reader is at least as smart as you are and can figure things out. It can be tough figuring out what most people know or don’t know, but consider your target audience: if you’re writing historical romance, is the word “farthingale” going to throw them off without explanation? Probably not. In any case, they’ll probably figure it out through the context in which it was used.

Pick up the pace.

“Pace” can be thought of as how much new information a reader can absorb per page, or per 100 words. Fat-free paragraphs should be clean, crisp, quick. Getting them slimmed down may even cut your verbiage by half, or more.

Think of that as taking a novel from almost 170,000 words to 90,000. Look carefully at your mss. and cut every word you can — it will teach you what makes “good” writing.

Get over yourself, when it comes to “literary effect”.

Finally, cut for literary effect (I often think I’m writing for literary effect, when I’m probably over-writing and obliterating the “effect” part!). Instead of cutting the fat, this means omitting connections where you’ve pointed the way, so the reader can puzzle those connections out for himself. Get readers involved, and they’ll likely keep reading. This takes careful analysis on the writer’s part: focus on the most climactic incident, or the moment of realization. How can you cut the actions down which lead to that result in order to force the reader’s deduction of what those actions were? Is that a stronger, more enhanced version of your story?

A Caveat or Two

These guidelines for cutting don’t apply in the same way to dialogue. Your dialogue characterizes, not only by content, but by form. Your character may be a repetitious person, someone who over-explains. S/he may be pompous, insecure, lonely — and such dialogue will help to show his/her real nature.

Remember, too, that some very successful books are heavily padded. If they were/are truly successful, they obviously have something else to offer: exciting action, thrilling characters, intriguing ideas, etc. Yet it never hurts to offer the reader clean, crisp prose, which can make the difference between sales and rejections — especially important for as-yet unpublished authors.

See you next for Spellbinding Saturday!

[Note: last Tuesday I offered some Tom Clancy ideas from an old issue of Writers Digest. Many of the ideas here came from an article in the same issue by Nancy Kress called “Wielding the Scalpel”.

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