Lifting the Lid: Sweat The Small Stuff

(Slowly) making my way through sort-of second draft edits on Coals of Fire: Ash at the moment. It’s interesting, the difference between writing fantasy and thrillers. I’ve never written a thriller before, so the experience is a new one, and I’m learning every day.

One of the main lessons I’ve learned can be boiled down to one word: terse. Actually, taut would do just as well, or tense, or thrumming — in fact, any word that begins with ‘t’ and conjures up wound cables on a suspension bridge. Bottom line, the higher the note it gives when you pluck it, the better your narrative thread is. If it flaps, you’re in trouble.

Now, I know this applies to all genre fiction. We genre writers can’t afford to waste words on our readers, who are expecting to be pulled through a story at a fair old clip. But in thrillers I think it’s especially noticeable. If you let the pace flag in a thriller, you’re dead in the water. Words are the equivalent of lead ballast in the ship of your story, and so the rule of thumb should be: the fewer the better. Your story should skip along the tops of the waves, not wallow into each trough and climb each peak with mind-numbing tedium.

So where do we cut words? And which words do we cut?

As you should all know, the answer is: whichever words do not add to, or in some way benefit, the story. This is the mantra I live by (well, one of them, and only in my writerly life).

This does not apply to:

  • Scenes of (necessary) character development. A common mistake made by film studios these days. They assume that to liven the pace all character development can be immediately canned, as it serves to only slow down the story and bore the audience. On the contrary (as you know) I hold fast to the maxim: Plot is character, character is plot. Lose character development, and you lose the plot. Lose the plot, and you’ve lost your readers. Stands to reason, right? However, be careful not to load all your character development into one place (i.e. right at the beginning of chapter one, and yes, I’m looking at you, there in the back row) as this will kill your story faster than a well-timed karate death-chop. Also, no unnecessary character development, please. Balance yourselves.
  • Crucial plot points. Again, another mistake I see all the time. Some people seem to have a complete mental block when it comes to tying up all the loose ends of their plot. They start something, realise the story is sagging, and abandon it. Or else they rip out the few plot points they can see and leave the rest. For pity’s sake, people, if you start something, finish it! Don’t leave me dangling on an unresolved issue because you feel your prose is getting a little top heavy. This can be avoided by proper planning and structure. If a plot thread gets away from you, go back and excise it. With a knife. A sharp one. Don’t leave bits lying around your story. Tidy it up.

This does apply to:

1. Overlong descriptions of appearance.

Now. I have a bee in my bonnet about this one. Nothing bogs down a story more than beautiful, well-intentioned prose, either or people or places. Usually this happens because we’re trying to get a sense of place ourselves as we write, or an image of the character in our head. However, this manifests itself on the page as a paragraph of physical description where a line (or a word) would do.

I’m trying to find the place where I read about this recently, but I’ve failed. In a nutshell, a writer described a character in one word (it could have been ‘greasy’). Now, when I read the word ‘greasy’ a whole person pops into my head, fully-formed. It may not be the same person who pops into your head, but that’s ok! So long as the sex, age and profession are clear, everything else (unless vital to the plot) can be happily left to the reader’s imagination.

Please, please, please don’t introduce your main character by writing: “Jessie was a thirteen-year-old teenager with black, frizzy hair tied up in a ponytail, and a thin face that made her look like she was sucking lemons. Her eyes were green, slightly set apart, and her lips were the colour of ripe strawberries. She wore a green dress with white spots, slightly torn around the hem where she had been playing in the dirt on Saturday, and the was a drying scab just above her right elbow. Over her left shoulder was slung a faded leather satchel containing her schoolbooks; she stooped under the weight of it, as if she carried a world of worry on her shoulders.”

There’s a world of wrong in that paragraph, but the cardinal sin is length. We would be better served by condensing it down to the essentials:

A name (where appropriate) — in this case, Jessie.
A sex — female (girl, woman, bimbo, babe?) — although in most cases the name or pronoun are enough.
Important physical characteristics — and make them emotive. In our case, we might want to accentuate Jessie’s social awkwardness and immaturity, so she could be “skinny” and “grubby”, maybe mention the scab a paragraph or two later, and leave out the dress unless it’s absolutely vital.

Combine the description with action, but don’t fall into the trap of creating action for the sake of delivering description. It all amounts to the same thing in the end, and helps no-one. Drip-feed description into the story, where necessary. If it’s not necessary, leave it out.

The “world of worry” is simply gratuitous, and a cliche at that. By all means make your character stoop, but leave the “world of worry” as implicit, otherwise it’s embarrassing.

Also, first-person characters delivering long physical descriptions of themselves come across as tedious at best, and idiotic at worst. Don’t do it. We never find out what the cameraman in a movie looks like, and no-one complains. If physical appearance is essential, by all means include it. Otherwise, abstain.

2. Overlong descriptions of setting.

The key words in this category are ‘telling details’. I love my telling details. Telling details are, unremarkably, those details which tell you something: about atmosphere, about plot, and about character. Readers don’t want every single detail of every part of the scene you have creates in your head. More often than not they only want to know what’s happening. It is a story, after all, so fair game to them.

If a detail helps the story, then give it. If your story is going to unfold in one major setting, by all means describe it. Just rein yourself in, and beware of tautology. Do we really need to be told that rain is grey? Do the colour of the bricks really matter? Are the leaves anything other than green? Is the sky anything other than blue?

I will hold my hands up here and proclaim my guilt in this area. I think it’s something to do with fantasy writers. We’re so excited about the world we’ve made in our own heads that we just want to share every single tiny detail of it with everyone who ever lived, ever.

I know this is a tricky one. I’m not advocating no description at all. I’m just arguing the case for putting a little thought into the process. There will come a point where a paragraph has outstayed its welcome. Touch the most important details, and move on.

3. Pretty much any description of action.

We have verbs for a reason: to indicate action in speech and writing. We have adverbs for a reason: to test the limits of our readers’ patience.

Adverbs are all very well and good, when they are absolutely necessary. At any other time they are like a crowd of large and particularly obnoxious double-glazing salesmen getting between you and the action, or the annoying elderly aunt who sits next to you on the sofa and tells you exactly what is happening the entire way through your favourite film: “He’s not half running down that corridor, is he?” “Cor, this ‘ain’t ‘arf exciting, innit?” “Look at ‘er go! She’s like the wind she is!”

I defer to Stephen King in this matter, who basically exhorts writers to use vivid verbs rather than bland verbs plus vivid adverbs. Overuse of adverbs informs your reader that, a) you are lazy, and b) you have no confidence in your own writing. The same goes for overuse of metaphors and similes. Characters tugging on their socks ‘like a dentist pulling teeth’, or trudging to school ‘like an old man struggling through quicksand, his every step fraught with pain, his shoulders sagging with the weight of a thousand troubles’, aren’t really. Neither do they tug on their socks angrily, or trudge to school wearily. They usually tug or trudge, and the connotations of those words are enough to let us know their mental or emotional state.

What I have learned is that it is best to leave your characters alone. Let them say, walk, sprint, leap, spin, dash, heave, thrust, smash, kick, shove, topple and glide all in their own time. Don’t burden them by having them do so, quietly, quickly, swiftly, soundlessly, hurriedly … You know, I spent about three seconds coming up with my list of verbs, and gave up after ten seconds with my adverbs.

Lesson: the verbs are enough. Just say no to adverbs! (Unless you really, really need them — and even then you’ll probably lose 90% of them in rewrites.)

By the way (and I know this has been repeated the length and breadth of the Internet) ‘said’ is good enough. Please bear this in mind, and remember that no-one in the course of human history has ever expostulated anything.

* * *

This has turned a bit ranty. I apologise. I think the best thing to take away from this is that brevity is a precious thing. I’m working on it, and it would be nice if we could all work on it. Let’s not weigh down our prose with unwelcome adjectives and adverbs. Let’s not weigh our characters down with unnecessary physical features. The soul of the writing is what’s important: the story, and anything that serves it.

Take a moment and think what your story is about. Think whether everything you have written serves the story. Go back again, cut and cut until you can cut no more. Make it lean. Make it mean. Make it lithe and graceful, a razor rather than a cudgel (see, I did it: that razor was ‘flickering’, and the cudgel was ‘clumsy’ in my first draft). Use short paragraphs. Don’t state the obvious. Say things once, then leave them alone.

And always, always, always sweat the small stuff.

Happy writing,

Edwin.

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16 thoughts on “Lifting the Lid: Sweat The Small Stuff

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  1. Just to prove your point I pretty much completely skipped through 90% of the description of Jessie. As I would in most books the seem to have that problem. And I see it in more books than I’d care to think about. It’s a little too common isn’t it? Nice points though.

    1. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, as always! All of these are things I’ve done in my first drafts, improved upon in subsequent drafts, and almost-but-probably-not-completely-excised by the time I’m more-or-less-but-probably-not-completely-happy with my almost final draft. But it’s nice to polish!

      1. Of course :D. Yeah I have to admit I think I use adverbs a little more than my editor would like, but thankfully she’s not afraid to cut them out.

      2. Right? It was kind of funny because I was reading this post the other day, something basically along the lines of younger people who are new to the industry may not be prepared to have an intensive edit (basically stating that it would be tearing their book apart) and I really didn’t feel that with the firs took. Everything my editor changed I felt was completely valid and necessary.

      3. I guess it just highlights the two types of writers that are emerging on the Internet in the self-publishing ‘revolution’:

        1. Bandwaggoners — says it all, really!

        2. Those who are prepared to do anything it takes to produce a fine piece of work, who take pride in what they do, and who love writing and will write no matter what!

        I feel proud to fall into the second category, as, I think, are you …

  2. It’s very true. I’ve wanted this for most of my life now (at least the last decade) if I’m not putting out my best work then what the hell is the point? I mean I admit there’s some mistakes in there and I try to correct them as I found them. I think that’s definitely the key too, being willing to make changes to problems as you notice they come up.

    1. I’ve come to realise that the whole process of revision and editing is a very humbling and challenging one. It takes a lot of ego for us to declare that our work is fit for general consumption (and rightly so!), and when that belief is challenged by someone who questions the creative choices we have made it is easy to become defensive.

      But, as I think we’ve both learned, taking that advice and being brutally objective is the best thing we as writers can do. Challenging ourselves in the editorial process is what will make us grow into successful writers, and give us the best shot at reaching the widest audience with our stories.

      Because, in the end, the reading public is slightly less forgiving than a shoal of piranhas on Atkins …

      1. Haha! Pretty much. I’ve actually been rather lucky that a lot of the people that have read it thus far have REALLY loved it, even in spite of some of the editorial mistakes. Meanwhile trying to get people to post reviews is like next to impossible.

      2. *Sharpening his scalpel no. 6*

        Huh, what? Me? Never!

        😉 I like what I’ve read so far, if that helps!

      3. Haha. Omg I’m terrified. But that’s at least good. Meanwhile working hard on book 3. Waiting on the editor for book 2. That is perhaps the hardest process. I’m not a big fan of waiting.

    1. Hehe. Me too. We can all throw paper planes of our first drafts at each other and scrawl ‘JA Konrath is a swot’ on the undersides of our desks …

      An acquaintance of mine who wrote scripts for a BBC radio sci-fi series said the first thing his producer did when he handed in the first draft was to rip off the first page and throw it in the bin.

      I have adopted the practice with first chapters 🙂

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