Three Dirty Birds, chirping in your ear about Story Trumps Structure. This time we’re talking about polishing your prose until it glows like a plasma arc reactor.
Ana: I’m just going to sit in a corner because this chapter picked on all my… or a lot of my ESL insecurities.
Zoe: The only thing I didn’t love about this chapter was how short it was. 🙁 It made me want to crack open Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work again and do all the exercises.
Kate: Something I harp on a lot–get a thesaurus. Or use thesaurus.com. Even if you have a huge backlist. Because if you’re having a down day, you default to your crutch words because your brain is dealing with more important stuff. And you very last pass through the manuscript (aside from checking for missed words and spelling) should be with an idea of condensing as many words as possible. Why use three when you can use one? James says in an earlier chapter: Make it as easy as possible for your reader to follow the story. You do the hard work so they don’t have to. That goes for making the story as short as you possibly can. Who wants to read something that’s bloated (and thus slower) than it needs to be?
Ana: Good point. I’d just advise not to use a thesaurus to find words you’d never use to make yourself seem clever. I just recently read a book that made me look up unknown words every couple pages, and I don’t have a small vocabulary.
Zoe: Yes, and use the thesaurus to find the best word, not just a different word.
Kate knows that one of my favorite things is condensing words. The fewer the better! Don’t put roadblocks in what you mean to say. Get the clutter out so the reader doesn’t get bogged down by unnecessary baggage.
Kate: And I agree with Zoe and Ana. Unless the new and exciting word can be figured out easily from context, or is necessary for the story, there’s probably a more straightforward way to say it. And the fewer words a reader has to read to get the same amount of story, the faster the book seems to move for them. They get to the end and think, “Wow! That just sucked me right along to the end!” which is what you want your story to do.
Ana: As opposed to: That just sucked.
Zoe: Ha. Yeah, you don’t want your readers getting to the end saying, “That was so much work.”
Ana: And then don’t be the writer who goes, oh, you’re just not smart enough for my books. I had a semi-big fight with a writer friend who expected her readers to work for their enjoyment. I tried to tell her that readers would just find another book that didn’t require as much effort, but to no avail.
Kate: Ugh. Books are supposed to be relaxing. If I want to learn something, I pick up non-fiction, but I still expect it to be accessible. If I want to develop the sudden urge to drink all the alcohol in the house, I pick up a professional resource from the day job. I don’t go looking for a novel.
Zoe: All ‘Three Ways to Write More Concisely’ that he gave are things that I deal with when I’m revising, all the time. (And I probably could have added thirteen more tips. And if it weren’t so early in the morning, I would.) He says to delete or shrink strings of prepositions—turning “He walked over toward me” into “He approached me,” for instance (though I’m not in love with that edit); combine verbs and adverbs into one stronger verb; and don’t show readers something and then tell them what you just showed them…which I see all the time in my first drafts, but I think that tendency is a natural side effect of wanting to make sure I get what I’m saying across. Then I can edit out the “telling” part in rewrites.
Kate: I think, when you’re writing a first draft, you don’t really have time or brain left to do the kind of close evaluation you need to see if the words should be there. That’s why we go back in afterwards and make every sentence plead for its life.
Ana: Yeah, I don’t pay much attention to it in first drafts. I know writers who do, but I’d never get anywhere. I also find the more you write the more it becomes automatic, to a degree.
Zoe: Me neither. I know I’m going to be making bigger changes in the rewrites anyway, so why screw with the little stuff at the start?
Also, can I give a big “HELL YES” to the “Hint at Your Character’s Emotions” section?
Ana: Haha, I thought it was a ‘show don’t tell’ thing.
Zoe: It is, but sometimes it still needs to be pointed out. (And pointed out, and pointed out, and maybe someday I’ll stop falling asleep when people Don’t Get It.)
Kate: Maybe that’s why they don’t get it–you fall asleep before the point hits home. *offers Zoe coffee* I, too, think it’s a basic part of Show, Don’t Tell.
Zoe: I think it was good to have it pointed out specifically for character emotions, because some authors get to these and don’t see them as the same thing as other parts of the story. But show me how they’re feeling, so I can infer it for myself. I love that. Let me be actively involved in reading the story.
Kate: Yes. I’m not a child, stop telling me things. I can figure stuff out. actually, kids are pretty darn good at figuring stuff out–sometimes too good.
Zoe: One story I read a little while back…I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like, “I must have made him mad because he gave me the cold shoulder,” and I just screamed. I wanted to see him mad. (Or see what clues she was using to decide he must be mad.)
Kate: Yes, you feel kicked out of the story when the author doesn’t make the effort to let you watch. Like when you come upon a group of friends recounting a hilarious incident that you weren’t around for, but when you ask what happened, they simply say, “Oh, Harry did this, and Susan said that, and you really had to be there.” Well, thanks, dudes. I feel like a part of the group now. /sarcasm
Zoe: There’s a magic that happens when readers figure things out for themselves by the clues presented in the scene.
Ana: Yes, because then you get to be there.
Zoe: Yes! You’re in on it.
Ana: I think good books can be that same kind of experience where you try to tell other people about what you read but it’s just not as good because they weren’t there like you were.
Zoe: I’m looking forward to the next chapter—Dilemmas: Creating Moral Quandaries for Your Characters. (But I always say that, and then the chapter turns out to be not what I imagined.)
Kate: Yeah, I’m hoping it’s a good chapter. I’ve always subscribed to the Lois McMaster Bujold School of Plot Stuff–what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? Let’s do that! I’m looking forward to seeing if he has anything to add to it.
Zoe: We only have two weeks of these left, plus an odd chapter all by its lonesome.
Ana: Well, what’s the worst thing we could talk about after?
Zoe: Oh man. I haven’t had breakfast yet.
Kate: Trail mix? *offers bag*
Zoe: *picks out all the dried pineapple so Ana won’t have to eat them*
Ana: Very kind of you.
Kate: Okay, so next week, we’re on the horns of a dilemma. Or several.