Posts Tagged language

Self-editing masterclass snapshots: the words are only the skin

guardThis week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write  and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.

Editing is not just tweaking the language

One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.

Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.

Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance

How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!

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7 ways to cut a novel without losing anything important

2009_1101oct09chillingham0030‘Help, an agent has told me I need to cut 25,000 words from my novel!’ I get a lot of emails like this – from writers understandably wondering where on earth to start.

What is too long?

In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.

Too long for who?

You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.

So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.

1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.

sidebarcrop2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)

3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.

4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?

5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?

6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersml7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)

NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)

Back to important matters….

Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Four tips for writing good prose

Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.

First of all, what is good language?

I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.

But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:

‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

 ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

Tip 3: Suit the material

The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.

More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.

Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Using notebooks

In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.

Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr

How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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