Monday, November 26, 2012

Tighter Writing and What I Didn't Learn in College

I wish I could say that I learned how to edit and write tighter fiction in college, but it didn't happen that way. I'm not complaining. I went to a great college and had some excellent professors who taught me many valuable things about writing. But I learned more about real editing from good editors in publishing houses than I ever learned from unpublished English professors. I've also learned a lot from reading authors like Anne Tyler.

The most important thing I learned is this is all highly subjective, so when you read this post keep that in mind. The debate between what is considered good writing and bad writing has been going on since the history of the novel and I don't see that ending any time soon. So when I talk about tighter writing, I'm not necessarily talking about good writing or bad writing, because that would be dumb. Whenever I see someone willing to define good writing I step back and hold up a wooden cross. I'm only talking about a few tricks I've learned from some excellent editors. And these tricks are usually more technical and they are geared more toward keeping a story moving and keeping readers involved.

Here's an example of fiction that could be made tighter, and more relevant. I'm sure some would say it's fine the way it is, and most readers probably wouldn't even notice. But readers might be distracted and not even know it when they read things like this. And while I'm editing that's something I always keep in mind because I don't want to take that risk. In fact, I often ask for specific editors with the publishers I work with because I trust their judgement and I know they understand what good editing is. I didn't say good writing. I said good editing. And a good editor who knows what she's doing is hard to find.

This would be an example of how I might change something during edits:

Betty Jane, Kevin's nineteen year old sister and only sibling, was stretched out on the floor with her book centered over her face.

At a glance, there's nothing wrong with this. But I would change it to this:

Kevin's nineteen year old only sibling, Betty Jane, was on the floor with a book over her face.

If Betty Jane is Kevin's sibling, we know she's his sister. That's a given...unless his mom and dad got creative with names. There's no need for the word sister. And if she's on the floor with a book on her face, I would assume she's stretched out and the book is centered. It doesn't take much to picture it. If she were face down, her face would be buried in the book, not over her face.

He threw his backpack on the kitchen table with obvious vexation and more carefully set his pork roast on top of it. “I thought you were going to a movie or something with whatshisname, the guy who owns the gas station.” After pulling off his jacket, he went into the family room.

Here's what I'd change:
He threw his backpack on the kitchen table, set is pork roast on top of it, and sent her a glare. "I thought you were going to a movie with that dude, the owner of the gas station." He yanked off his jacket and joined her the family room.

First, who uses words like vexation nowadays, especially when writing about young people? So I don't find that word relevant at all. Second, if he threw the backpack he's obviously pissed off and there's no need to use big words that take the reader out of the scene. As for the dialogue, I think dude works better than "whatshisname." That sounds like something an older person who is out of touch would say. 

 Grudgingly, as if it were an imposition, Betty Jane sat up. “No. His name is Michael.” She  squinted at Kevin. “What the hell are you wearing?”

One last time, this is how I would change it during edits:

Betty Jane sat up and frowned. "No. His name is Michael." She leaned forward; her eyebrows arched. "What the fuck are you wearing, dude?"

I'm not a big fan of adverbs, especially "ingly" adverbs, so I try to stay away from them at all cost. And if two teenagers are alone in a house, I think they would use the word "fuck" instead of "hell." At least the ones I know would. But that's debatable, I know. Also, I switched "squinted" to "frowned" because I would hate readers to think she's having issues with her eyes unless it's relevant to the story.

None of the examples above are actually incorrect, and I'm not saying that the way I changed them makes them better or worse. I'm only saying that there are ways to edit and ways to condense. If you are an older author, taking the age of the characters into consideration is important, too. You don't want teenagers (or new adults) sounding like middle aged women, so it's important to listen to the way real teenagers speak. They usually think the same way.  

And remember, there is no right way or wrong way. Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of style. But I do think looking into word economy and tighter fiction is at least something to consider. The only need to impress your readers with big flowery words like "vexation" is when you're writing about a character who actually speaks with big flowery words like "vexation."  I know these things are small, but it could be the difference between keeping readers interested and losing them along the way.   




Lisa Lane said...

I agree. A good education is important, but it's only a foundation (mechanics, grammar, structure, literary theory, etc.). Life experience is the only way to take what you learned in college to a higher level.

ryan field said...

I love the old Rita Mae Brown quote that went something like this..."Sometimes too much school ruins more writers than too much booze." And she's a professor who teaches writing.