Editing, February Style
Ah, February. The shortest month of the year. Yet, its twenty-eight days are chock-full of events. There are groundhogs, cupids, and presidents to celebrate. February is Black History Month, Children’s Dental Health Month, Library Lovers’ Month, and yes, even Grapefruit Month. Within its mere four weeks, you can celebrate Burn Awareness Week, Consumer Protection Week, Friendship Week, Cardiac Rehabilitation Week, and Pancake Week. Even the days are special: Kosciuszko Day is February 4th , Super Bowl Sunday on the 5th in 2006, Clean Out Your Computer Day on the 15th (must write that one down’), and Banana Bread Day on the 23rd .
There’s a lesson for writers in all those events. How do you give your reader all the information necessary, in the shortest amount of space, without garbling your prose?
We’re all guilty of excess in our first drafts. As Nora Roberts says, "I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one." So let’s fix that bad page by emulating February. Let’s learn to balance detail with brevity.
Backstory: Every character brings his/her own history to your story. But how do you know if your character is spilling too much, or playing it too close to the vest? One simple rule: Only include information that impacts the scene. If you’re writing a historical, for example, don’t fret that your reader probably doesn’t remember all the details about the signing of the Magna Carta, unless your hero and heroine are there with King John. Many editors will mark heavy-backstory areas of a manuscript with the phrase, RUE, which stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. Too much explanation and you’ll RUE the rejection letter you receive from an agent or editor!
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises, "Remember that backstory is, for the most part, more important to you, the author, than to your reader."
If you’re unsure if you need particular information in a scene, try reading the scene without the passages detailing that information. Did you lose anything in the translation? Was the scene hindered in any way by its absence? If the answer to these two questions is "no," take the backstory out. Save it for another time, if you need to use it at all.
Description: You know that old saying, "The devil’s in the details." Well, he is. And we don’t need him there.
Let’s say your heroine is a pilot. In your opening chapter, her plane is going into a tailspin. Is now a good time to describe the control panel in the plane? Or worse, the color of her hair and eyes? For example, "When the Cessna pitched to a ninety-degree angle, a curl of Paige’s auburn hair fell into her sky-blue eyes’" Awful, isn’t it? That fast, you’ve lost the reader. Which reminds me of my simple rule from earlier: Only include information that impacts the scene.
Unsure if you need something? Follow the same exercise as earlier. Do redheads crash faster than blondes? If not, who cares what color Paige’s hair is? Ditto for eye color. No doubt, you’ll find a place for such information in another scene in the manuscript. Maybe Paige’s hair reminds the hero of his mother’s. Maybe her eyes are the exact color of the sapphires in her ears. Great! And maybe, just maybe, you won’t find any place to put in hair or eye color. Leave it out. If it doesn’t impact the scene, let your reader envision Paige in any fashion (s)he likes.
Adjectives and adverbs: Now let’s look at the salt and pepper of your story. Sprinkled in with a light hand, adjectives and adverbs add zest. Too much, and you’ve ruined what could have been a true masterpiece. In The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman advises writers to cut excess in three places: "‘(1) places where you use more than one adjective or adverb." Keep only the strongest. "‘(2)Look for places where you’ve used commonplace or clich’ adjectives’" For example, "cold as ice" could be pared to a simple "icy." Finally, cut "‘(3)where you’ve used any unusual nouns or verbs." The theory is that if the noun or verb is strong enough, you won’t need the adjective or adverb to clarify. "Ran quickly" can become "sped," and "hot, humid, sticky" can become "humid" or "stifling."
Modifiers: These are cumbersome words that add nothing, yet we rely upon them to clarify, for some odd reason. We all have our favorites. Are any of these familiar to your work?
Just Actually Rather That Really Quite Usually Almost Only
Use the "Find" tool in your Word program to see how often you fall into the modifier morass. Delete as many of them as you can. Remember: Only include information that impacts the scene.
Contractions: "Cannot" becomes "can’t," "will not" becomes "won’t," "who has" becomes "who’s" and so on and so on. ‘Nuff said.
Dialogue: I love dialogue. When I’m reading, I usually skip paragraphs of prose to get to the dialogue. (And yes, sometimes I have to go back and read the paragraph to catch what I missed.) Dialogue is the easiest way to show rather than tell information. But you have to avoid the pitfalls.
The most dangerous pitfall is the "As you know’" trap. See if you can find the problem in this example:
Jenna flounced to the couch and collapsed in a heap of white tulle. "I don’t want to marry Stuart. I wish we’d stayed in New York."
"Now, Jenna," her mother soothed. "We had to move here for your father’s health. The soot and grime of the city was too much for his lungs to handle. He has severe asthma, you know."
Did you notice the problem? I’m not providing the reader with dialogue to move the story forward. I’m using the dialogue to drop in backstory. The reader is probably more interested in what’s going on with Stuart, but the author (ahem--me!) felt this was the perfect time to introduce a little biographical information. Wrong! Keep your dialogue focused on the pertinent.
Another pitfall of dialogue: the mundane conversation. Don’t bother showing us the "Hi, Mike. How are you? I’m fine’" parts of the dialogue. Go straight to the meat.
Dare I say it again? Only include information that impacts the scene.
When using dialogue tags, stick with the simple "said," "replied," and "asked." Avoid "responded," "opined," and "queried." A basic rule of thumb is that if "said," "replied," or "asked" works in the scene, use them. Sometimes, those three magic words don’t fit the impact you want to impart. In such a situation, tags like "interjected," "exclaimed," and "explained," might do the trick, but be sparing with the fancy stuff.
A basic rule of thumb is that if "said," "replied," or "asked" works in the scene, use them. Sometimes, those three magic words don’t fit the impact you want to impart. In such a situation, tags like "interjected," "exclaimed," and "explained," might do the trick, but be sparing with the fancy stuff.
With luck, using some of these tricks, you’ll not only tighten your prose, you just might learn to appreciate February a little more.