I’m in the Revision cave atm, working on draft 2 of Book 2. So while my head is in the space, I thought I’d write down some of the sins I commit in first drafts and some of the tricks I use when revising, that you may avoid my magnificent suckitude. I know in last week’s post, I said thinking your work sucks is a good thing, because it’s a catalyst for improvement. This is all still true. But if it actually sucks in RL, as opposed to in your head, that isn’t so awesome.
As always, YMMV.
Dialogue tags – I used to think I was a Very Clever Writer™ when I replaced ‘said’ with something like ‘rasped’ or ‘growled’ or ‘gasped’. And yes, there’s certainly times when a more evocative dialogue descriptor will help. But don’t be afraid of ‘said’. Don’t think you’re a Bad Writer if you use ‘said’ – it still usually does the job better than ‘exclaimed’ or ‘guffawed’ or another ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a Very Clever Writer™” word.
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with ‘said’. Most of the time. Just sayin’.
Ninja dialogue – The important thing about dialogue tags is that they’re meant to be invisible. They serve two main functions – to tell the reader who’s talking, and to describe how the words are being said IF you can’t do it with punctuation. Try avoiding dialogue tags and using motion/action to indicate who’s speaking. This really helps in a conversation with more than two participants – when you’re constantly having to tell readers who’s doing the talking, but ‘Curly said’ ‘Mo said’ and ‘Larry said’ are all getting older than the concept of Reality TV.
“Those are extraordinary trousers, old bean,” said Mr Bingley.
“You flatter me, sir,” Darcy bowed.
Wickham looked up from Mr Collins’ twitching corpse. “Damn his trousers, man, pass the cleaver.”
Overused words – Everyone has a handful. I throw around the word ‘slick’ like cheap hooch at an Irish wedding. And ‘splayed’. If I had a dollar for every time someone’s slick hair was splayed over their face in this sequel, I could totally buy me some beachfront property in Fukushima right now.
Make yourself a list of the words you overuse. Seriously. Write them down. Do a ’Find’ on them in MS word. More than a few hits? Back to the thesaurus, you must go. (Note: in the awesome On Writing, Stephen King says any word you chose in a thesaurus is the wrong word. But maybe his vocabulary is better than mine.)
Extraneous words – There’s a couple of prime suspects here. ‘That’ is Lord of the Extraneous, ruling alongside his beautiful concubine ‘Was’ and their malformed twins ‘Began to’ and ‘Started to’.
‘That’ succeeds only in cluttering your sentences. You can almost always do without it.
The trousers that all mortals feared.
The trousers all mortals feared.
‘Was’ makes your sentences weaker, particularly preceding a verb. ‘Began to’ and ‘Started to’ just delay your reader from the point. There’s usually a better, shorter way of saying the same thing.
Mr Elton was running down the street with no trousers.
Mr Elton ran down the street with no trousers.
Mr Bennet began to put on his trousers.
Mr Bennet put on his trousers.
Note: ‘Was’ works if you’re providing a snapshot of a scene your PoV has stumbled into, ie “Emma was in the process of sniffing Knightley’s trousers when I entered the boudoir.”
Redundant anatomy lessons – there are some Very Famous Writers who are guilty of this one. I speak of the terrible sin of adding body parts to a verb that can only really be performed by one part of the human body.
She nodded her head.
She pointed her finger.
She pouted her lips.
You can’t pout your shoulders, right? You can’t nod your legs. And yes, while you can point with many parts of your anatomy, some might get you arrested, and pointing does have a default body part associated with it.
If your protag kicks someone, we’re already assuming it’s with their foot. That’s all I’m saying.
Assuming your reader already knows – I do this one all the time, assuming my reader already knows how something sounds/feels/looks/smells and not bothering to describe it.
Eg, I catch myself using the phrase “The sound of…” – “The sound of thunder”, “The sound of engines” “The sound of me hitting my delete key over and over during draft 2”. Maybe I’m the only one. But I do it so often, it rates a mention.
“The sound of thunder” doesn’t tell us anything. It’s lazy writing. Thunder booms, rolls, crashes, it shakes the dust from the eaves, it makes the earth tremble, it fills the sky. It does so many interesting things, your passage will probably be more evocative if you spend one or two words describing it. And while sometimes you just need to get to the point, SFX be damned, doing this too often is wasting opportunity.
Beating around the bush – I do this all the time, too. Taking too long to actually say what I mean. Draft 1 was riddled with the following construct: The [noun] of the [noun]. Sometimes it can add gravitas to a statement. Most times, it’s just me being a tosser.
The Lord of the Trousers.
The Trouser Lord.
The trousers of the King.
The King’s trousers.
Other times, I just waste timed getting to the point, using four words where one will work just as well (often better)
His trousers were filled to the brim with happiness.
His trousers brimmed with happiness.
Ten percent – I try and cut at least 10% of word count between D1 and 2. Is this an arbitrary figure? Yes. Is it hard to cut that much? Yes. Is my writing tighter after applying this arbitrary rule to what should be a free-flowing, take-as-long-as-it-needs love-fest of verbiage? YES.
Read aloud – Honestly, if you never believe anything else I say (can’t blame you), believe this. Reading your work aloud helps you spot repeated words, typos, passive voice. It’ll help with flow and rhythm. Most importantly, reading insipid prose aloud will embarrass you, and you’ll want to make it better. (reading 80,000+ words aloud hurts though, you might wanna have a Swiss masseuse or at least some lozenges on standby)
That’s all I’ve got.
Looking through the above, most of these rules boil down to one asset that I’m trying to cultivate: Brevity. In most situations, shorter is usually better. Don’t state the obvious. Don’t waste words. Get to the frackin’ point and get out before you send them to sleep.
Unless you write bedtime stories, I guess…