Avoiding Suck

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…

32 Responses to “Avoiding Suck”

  1. Sam says:

    The huge, obvious and jarring thing about all of this for me is…ME. My words, spoken, written or well…those are the only two…are NEVER able to qualify under your primary guideline of brevity.
    You know this. I know this. Because of these two knowledges and my extreme self obsessed arrogance I am going to assume this was written specifically as a warning to me. Did I mention the self obsessed arrogance? Twice now? Probably a bit arrogant.
    Seriously though…thank you. I discovered reading out loud accidentally because whenever I write then read out loud I find an error, even if I read it twice in my head first. Good stuff. The other things though are style things I never really thought of and now will. Thanks.
    In the paragraph above I deleted 3 “that”s, one “by”, a few “it”s and a “for this”. It is now much better.

  2. I will use the word “trousers” in conversation whenever possible today. I am a Brit now languishing in California and “trousers” is my default setting, and superior (by far) to the American word “pants.”
    Also, Stephen King’s book on writing is the best I have read of its kind.
    Thanks for sharing your insights; hopefully you’ll help me and other writers avoid typing cringeworthy prose.

    • I think I’ve loved the word ‘trousers’ ever since Hugh Lawrie played the Prince Regent in Blackadder.
      Something about the word has been inherently hilarious every since 🙂

      • Now you’ve firmly attached Prince in Regent in my head for the day. Thanks! But seriously, these tips are fantastic. So obvious, but need to be said. Thanks for sharing your hard earned wisdom! cheers,

        • Hey, if you’re gonna have anyone in your head, you’d be lucky to have Prince George.
          Lucky lucky luck-luck. Luck luck luck LUUUUCKluckluckluck LUUUCK luck luck.
          You’re welcome!
          Yours, with the deepest respect etc. Signed, George. P.S. Woof, woof!

  3. I used to hate reading my work aloud. Then I forced myself to do it and realized WHY I hated reading my work aloud. But boy, did it force me to rework!

  4. Even more confronting: have someone else read your work to you. That can really hurt.

  5. This is a very useful post, however, when I first got onto your website and saw the bloodsucking picture I was like AHHHHHHHH. Maybe I should click the close button. But I conquered my fear and read on, surprisingly it wasn’t about Halloween. Phew. But the picture sure is creepy! Nice post.

    • I originally had a picture of the Battlefield Earth movie poster, but I figured that’d scare more people away than poor ol’ Nosferatu.
      Glad you enjoyed it, hope it helps in some way 😀

  6. I don’t know, dude. I point my boobs at lots of stuff. If you write a book about me (and why wouldn’t you?), you might need to clarify which part of my body is doing the pointing. Other than that, this was super helpful (read paranoia-inducing) as I sit in my own revision cave gnawing on my fingers, the walls slowly closing in around me.

    • Zomg, I rescued your comment from the spam filter. You totally owe me your firstborn male child now.
      Fear not – Boob pointing will feature heavily in my “McCormick Templeman – International Super Powered Crime Fighting Time Traveling Lady of Mystery” series.

  7. This is all just making me want to watch “House”….I mean Blackadder. :-p

  8. Yes, avoiding suck, always a good idea. It’s funny to find the repeated words that we are unconsciously fond of. Mine have been (and these are fairly cliched to boot!) ‘gasp’ ‘scream’ ‘blink’. Apparently people are suprised a lot in my novel!

  9. Avid says:

    The hell with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – I want Price and Prejudice and Mister Kristoff!

  10. “Kill your children,” is fine advice that a lecturer once gave me on the art of essay-writing. If you have a favourite word, a particularly well-formed turn of phrase that you think works marvellously… well, chances are that the reader will notice that re-used word, as you use it again and again and again. And that turn of phrase? You probably built the paragraph around it, not the other way around, so now it looks just odd and wrong and doesn’t read well. So, kill your children, and embrace economy of phrase.

    • You’ll sometimes hit a turn of phrase that completely blows your mind and you can’t bear to part with it – that’s totally cool. Economy is good, but you aren’t just telling your story, you’re trying to tell it *well*.
      But if you have more than a handful of them in any given piece, you could be overdoing it and stepping into “Hey look at me, I’m a writer!” territory.

      • Oh sure, I should revise that to “don’t kill all your children, but if one of them starts looking wonky don’t be afraid to feed it to the backspace-wolves.”
        There are times when you want your writing to be obvious, of course. To paraphrase Palahniuk quoting Tom Spanbauer talking about Amy Hempel, ‘burnt tongue’ is a purposefully wrong way of saying something that forces the reader to read close, read twice, to slow down the eye. Most of the time, though, you want the reader to enjoy the flow of words without stumbling over phrases or wading through the Bog of Eternal Prepositions.

  11. Ooh, I used to have the same mindset when it came to dialogue tags! As long as I substituted a fancier word for ‘said’, I was gold. Until I read on multiple sources that sometimes, it just isn’t necessary.
    There are some amazing tips here.
    The ‘anatomy lessons’ pretty much slayed me.

  12. zoraida says:

    The Trouser Queen wibbled.

  13. Max says:

    Thanks for writing this! Although I have yet to complete a novel–let alone completing half of one–I went back to a story after reading this, and realized that I really needed to have an editing session soon. I do have a habit for overusing ‘that’ too much . . . >.<

  14. Kalliope says:

    I love how all the comments are well written – it makes even more of a point about how often you unnecessarily add words to your writing.
    I have a special place in my heart for literary criticism. It makes me feel all warm and happy inside. Appreciate the tips – I hate slowing down while reading because something didn’t look or ‘sound’ right.
    I had a ‘genre studies’ teacher (what is a genre studies teacher?) who made us write a summary of short stories (which sucked on its own) and then cut it down, down, down, until it was one sentence. In my opinion, the summary changes from a summary to a theme. I hate themes. They are anathema to me. Suffice to say, I didn’t like that class all that much. However, I did learn a lesson; your writing gets better once you dissect it like a fascinating unknown creature.
    Now to whip out my old writing and edit.

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