Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pulling Weeds, Smoking Guns

What I'm reading: An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

So, the landscaping is finished. We did lose one nice sago palm along with the native shrubs, but a potential buyer won't know it's gone. It was a case of not pointing it out to the contractor when he took stock of what to do with our yard, so the crew simply looked at the overall result, not the specific individual pieces.

Like our sago palm, there were valuable passages in my manuscript. However, at this point, I'm the only one who knows they were there. When I submit the finished piece for consideration, an editor won't know I cut a very well written scene simply because it didn't fit well enough with the overall storytelling to justify its being there.

And sometimes, it's a matter of replacing a plant that isn't doing well for a new one. When I write, I don't want to waste time finding the perfect descriptive words. In edits, there's time to go back and replace the words that aren't holding their own, or doing the best job they can. Why say, "he walked carefully across the floor" when he can creep or tiptoe or inch across the floor? Those "ly" adverbs usually wave red flags at words that need too much help. Yank them out and plant new ones.

With my manuscript. I'd done my major landscaping, getting my word count down to a more appropriate level by uprooting unneeded threads and scenes. "Chekov's Gun" states "any object introduced in a story must be used later on, else it ought not to feature in the first place."

Keep Reading...

In my manuscript, I had a perfect example. In a scene, one of the characters comes into the diner and tells my cop that she thinks someone's in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There's mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP.

If my character notices she's forgotten her cell phone charger, which IS a plot point, but isn't going to have time to plug her phone into it before the end of the book, then there's no need to spend time showing her actually fetching it. Enough to mention it in passing and move on.

And, like Chekov's gun, things on the page should be portents of things to come. If you haven't read Lee Child, you should. Anything he mentions will show up again, and more often than not, in a critical scene. I noticed the same kind of technique in the Roxanne St. Claire book I read recently. All the details are entwined. I'm still learning to pay attention to this in my own writing, and the second (or third) drafts are good places to make sure the details aren't pure window dressing.

Once the uprooting of established scenes is done, it's time to get out the pesky weeds that crop up no matter how you try to keep them away. Over the weekend, I went through the entire manuscript searching for my crutch words. Doesn't matter that I know what they are. They fall off the fingertips without any brain involvement.

Here's a peek at a few of my most intrusive weeds:

Just: 187
Really: 73
Very: 31
Much: 99
Only: 103
Sorry: 43
Almost: 39

After weeding:

Just: 43
Really: 15
Very: 10
Much: 42
Only: 54
Sorry: 23
Almost: 30 (Note: when I was running the numbers between drafts 1 and 2, I noticed that "almost" went from 39 to 48. Why? Because in my culling of "just", "almost" crept in as a substitute. This happens a lot. Am I done? No. I'll go back and make sure each instance is absolutely necessary.)

You might have noticed I use an excess of qualifiers, like 'really' and 'very'. Most of the time leaving them out doesn't make any difference to the read. They insist on showing up the first time, but I get out the trowel and dig them up on the first editing pass. I use maybe, probably, and seemed a lot, primarily because I write deep POV, and one character cannot know what another is thinking. Again, I have to decide if these words start jumping off the page at the reader, or are logical parts of interior monologue. Or dialogue, which is another consideration. When we speak, we use 'filler words' to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they're not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Then there's the "appropriate to the character and situation" vocabulary. Hence my search for "sorry." My police chief would not use the word when he's giving orders to his officers, but he would use it when he arrives at a citizen's house at dawn to make sure everyone is all right.

Another weed to check: Dialogue tags. They should be used only as a way to keep the speaker clear. In a scene with only two people, it should be easy enough to tell who's talking without tagging every sentence. Since I'm a 'cut and paste' editor, I often move things around and mess up my tags, either eliminating critical ones, or leaving in more than I need. I've discussed this in much more depth in my "Dialogue Basics" handout, which is on my website under "Links".


Watery Tart said...

And here my eyes thought I was coming to see you talk about smoking weed... *snort*

Seriously though, I love your analogy... no one else knows it's gone... you will, and may mourn, but future readers won't. It's true.

One thing I've tried really hard to do with my diminutives and exaggerators is to look at them paired with the verb to see if changing to a stronger or weaker verb would allow the verb to do the job WITHOUT a really, slightly, or barely. I probably have a fair amount more cutting to do, but that trick always makes me feel like i'm not only cutting, but improving the writing.

Terry Odell said...

Bonus points if you can identify the Arlo Guthrie reference in yesterday's post, WT. Today's title is also a play on one of his songs, but it's not one he wrote, so it doesn't count (I automatically typed "really count" which shows how reflexive those unnecessary words are.)

Most of the time, my work reads as well ("just" as well) without those extras.

And definitely -- you ARE improving the writing, because if you don't need the word, it's not helping the story.

Carol Kilgore said...

I'm glad you're ahead of me in the writing circle. I'm on the downhill side of the manuscript heading toward the end. Yet reading here is pumping up my subconscious for the edits to come.

Terry Odell said...

Paying it forward is what it's all about. Today's "weeds": All right and okay

Harl Delos said...

Here on the Group W bench, we were too busy playing with our pencils and trying to figure out how to keep our guns lit to worry about implements of destruction.

My thought, when I read yesterday's post, was that you must be older than you look, or else exceptionall culturally literate.

Did you know that your CAPTCHA sometimes generates obscene (although obscure) words?

Terry Odell said...

Harl- it's not MY Captch; Blogger generates those words -- guess it's like monkeys typing Shakespeare: eventually a "real" combination will arise.

I'm exactly as old as I look - at least I figure that I look the way someone my age SHOULD look. (OK, I'll admit that my son did my website head shot, and he wrote the instruction manual for Nikon's Capture NX software.)

It's my kids who are very up on the cultural references you mentioned. I brought them up right. They all play the song on Thanksgiving Day at their respective homes.

And it's good to know you caught the reference. When I worked at a company where my boss was the same age as my kids, if a colleague didn't know what the Group W bench was, I knew we would have communication issues.

Mary Ricksen said...

I tend to put too much landscape into my stories. I get it.

Great analogy.

Terry Odell said...

It's all about learning what the genre conventions are. One of my CPs writes fantasy, and he says readers expect long, flowing passages of description. It's not going to work in a suspense or mystery, though.

Drue Allen said...

Terry, I feel your painful landscaping (err, editing) . . . I always keep those cut passages, just in case my editor should want something stretched in a passage. But usually our instinct is right, and it should go. ((sigh))

Thanks for the post!

Terry Odell said...

Right, Drue - when I got the rights back to one of my books and contracted with a different publisher, I showed the editor one of my 'other' endings and she liked it better than the one it had been published with originally. I have every version of my manuscripts because I save them daily under new names.

Sheila Deeth said...

I love your analogy. It gives me something to smile about while removing my own reallys and verys, which do tend to creep like weeds into my writing.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila, I don't know where those weedwords come from, but they do crop up.