Monday, July 22, 2019

It's not bad writing, but...

As I work through quite a few queries and pages from ThrillerFest, one thing I've noticed is a tendency for writers to stop the narrative and settle in for a bit of description.

It's like a quarterback pushing pause to discuss the team colors with the offensive line, rather than running with the ball. Or better yet THROWING the damn ball.

[Yes I have been watching too much of All or Nothing and no one is more surprised than I.]

Description has its place.
In the middle of a conversation is often not the right one.

Example:
Her Grace the Duchess of Yowl emerged from the afghan to find Thumbs typing at the table, not preparing her overdue tuna.

"Thumbs!"
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"It's lunch time. Why aren't you slicing up my tuna?"

Thumbs was seated at a table awash in discarded sections of the New York Times, crossword puzzles with one or two blank squares, several stained with blood.  A coffee cup hid behind an orchid. The orchid was ethereal, clearly above the fray.

"Sorry Your Grace, I'll get right on that. I just need to ...'
"Are you suggesting something is more important than my lunch?
"Ah, no Your Grace. Never. On it."

The description of the table isn't needed, and the bit about the orchid is really out of place. It stops the narrative cold.

Now, stopping the conversation is not always a bad thing. Sometimes your readers need a brief pause.

And, description CAN move the plot forward.
Example:
Her Grace the Duchess of Yowl emerged from the afghan to find Thumbs typing at the table, not preparing her overdue tuna.

"Thumbs!"
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"It's lunch time. Why aren't you slicing up my tuna?"

Her Grace glanced around her royal suite. Crossword puzzles were stacked untidily on the coffee table. The scent of that foul liquid Thumbs couldn't seem to live without in the morning still hung in the air. Thumbs herself was slow to obey.  It was so hard to get good staff these days.


The trick here is to recognize the difference.
The ONLY way to do that is to revise with a calculating eye: does your reader need this info? Is this info in the right place? Does it develop or reveal character, or move the plot forward?


This is the kind of problem you probably won't see in editorial notes because what I see as I read is pacing problems, NOT why you have the pacing problems.

Finding this takes HOURS of work and thinking.  I can do about five pages in one sitting of 30 minutes, and only about twice a day. You may be able to work faster since it's your book, but you can NOT finish  this kind of revising in a week.

The reason it takes so long is it you can't just read for this. You have to stop at the end of every sentence and assess.

Well, I have to do that. Maybe you don't. If you don't, please share your secret!



When people revise too fast they're thinking I'll lose interest if they wait too long.
The EXACT reverse is true: revise too fast and I have diminished (if any) interest in reading it again.

21 comments:

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I'll be saving this post. Colin, to the Treasure Chest!

Kitty said...

...a tendency for writers to stop the narrative and settle in for a bit of description.

This has been a major peeve of mine, as a reader, for years. It's particularly infuriating when the story/mystery is good.

Mister Furkles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E.M. Goldsmith said...

Confession, I am still seeing this exact problem in my finished WIP. None of my beta readers caught it. It's fixed in almost 90% of places, but after a couple of weeks of letting the book sit, I can easily distinguish the chapters that were revised 7-20 times vs the ones that were revised only 3-5 times. This is why I am not querying until September. Reading out loud helps see pacing problems A LOT. Reading from back to front helps with other problems - missing commas, those stupid homonyms (their, they're there), wrong words (the not he).

And yes, I always think I can revise in a week. That's funny. A week a month - is there a difference? At most, I can get through a chapter an hour and I run out of steam after about 5-6 hours of heavy editing. And I have a day job. So on week nights, I get 0 to 3 hours at most writing/editing/query plotting done. This is the reality of the thing for me. I think most writers are faster and better at this than I am. Also, how do you know when you are really done done? I believe with all my heart there is never a point where there are not small improvements you can make.

At some point, after dozens of revisions, you are finished. Just finished. You have to let the pages go. The best I can do, I have decided, is to make sure those first few chapters are as close to perfect as I can make them because those are likely what the agent will see before requesting more. I can't think that a writer can do more than that or they will never finish that first book. And let me tell you, those rodent wheels ain't cheap.

Brenda said...

And some writers need to slow the action down when they revise.

Theresa said...

This is a very valuable lesson. Thanks, Janet.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey Janet! You with the thumbs.

When the hell are you going to write YOUR book? I know this site is chock full for all of us attempters and achievers but how about BLTing it between a couple of covers. Food for thought.

(Ha, "food for thought". See what I did there?)

Irene Troy said...

Wow, the timeliness of this post is exactly what I needed! I do some writing and photography for a company that provides content for in-flight magazines. When writing about places and experiences, I sometimes find myself becoming lost in description. I'm writing about people and their experience in a place and suddenly I'm inserting details about the place that just ramble on and on with no real purpose. It's good to be reminded of this fault and why it matters. I think I'll clip and print this post and post it on the board above my writing desk.

Colin Smith said...

Sharyn: Wow... I thought you'd all forgotten about the Treasure Chest. I recommend it as the first place to go to before searching the archives, or asking a question of Her Sharkliness. I have added this article to the "Gems" page as requested.

julie.weathers said...

Moses, Mary, and Joseph. Something else to look for.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

The orchid, clearly, is a darling to be killed.

Joseph S. said...

While I believe we all overwrite (often knowing at the time the sentence, paragraph or passage will be deleted), I also believe breaking up the narrative with description is a to-each-his-own choice.

To illustrate, in the novel I'm currently reading, the authors often stop the narrative and insert long descriptions. In the chapter I read this morning, for example, a confessed murderer is locked in a church overnight waiting to be hanged in the morning. A woman enters. Here’s the first three lines of dialogue (I’m leaving out names).

“Miss ___?”
“Hush, ____.”
“I thought perhaps some of the people could not wait for dawn and were here to hang me now.”

Then comes a nine-line paragraph describing the inside of the church. The little church is too small, but loved. The walls and low ceiling are painted with Biblical scenes and of the saints of Tigray, Madonnas, and Christ with olive faces. There’s a picture of St George in a local warriors’ regalia slaying a dragon with rippling emerald scales. St. Christopher holds the Christ child casually on his shoulder. The figures seem to move under the lantern’s light. (I’ve summarized nine lines into five lines.)

Then the dialogue resumes:
“No, ___,” ___said. “I have decided you should go free.”

As a reader, I was completely drawn into it.

Lennon Faris said...

Yes! Getting the POV right is the difference between reading a good news article, and living & breathing as the character.

DoY wouldn't care about no stoopid flower. Unless it directly affected her, or slowed Thumbs down.

I am finding this a lot in my WIP's edits.

Karen McCoy said...

Like Irene said, your timing is spot on. You must have telesthesia with those thumbs.

I will be going to a conference soon, and this is a very helpful reminder to not rush through revisions. Thank you.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

The Duchess of Yowl emerged from her blanket fortress to the smell of some foul liquid that was not tuna.

After stopping to pee on a crossword puzzle book that had fallen off the cluttered table, she said, "Thumbs, what we have here is a failure to communicate."

"I'm not sure I understand, Your Grace."

"Oh, I am sure I understand that there is no tuna in my bowl."

"A thousand pardons," was all the human said as she disappeared into the kitchen.

The Duchess of Yowl settled on the seat cushion for a leisurely grooming when she noticed the black string hanging from the typing box that was responsible for her lack of tuna. In a moment, the string was on the floor and the box went dark.

"Maybe now my staff will be more attentive."

Craig F said...

I did this in two places of the book I am about to go back to trolling through the trenches. Both times are in places where the schnitzel hits the fan and blindsides those talking. It works in the right time and place.

The other problem in fast revising is in how easy it is to mow down the source of the magic. It can sometimes be some obscure point that titillates the reader for unknown reasons.

Be careful of that precious morsel.

Jenn Griffin said...

Terry Lynn Coop: That was perfect!! Except I wouldn't personally appreciate the pee on my crossword puzzle!

LynnRodz said...

Janet, I've said it before and I'll say it again, I agree with 2Ns, when are you going to put pen to paper?

Terri Lynn Coop, a great addition to Janet's already hilarious post.

I will echo the others who find this info coming at a perfect time. Even though beta readers have my MS, I will comb through it and see if changes need to be made.

Great post, Janet!

John Davis Frain said...

I so wish this post wasn't true. But alas, it's spot on.

One thing I'll add--when you nail this in your ms, it feels sooooooooo good. For three minutes. Then, you wonder where else you need to fix this in your ms, and you see your time slipping away to the editing gods.

NLiu said...

I also want to read what Reid will write. As well as Writing Without Rules, we could have "Chomping Upon Fools: how I terrorise writers and get thanked for it". I would definitely take the bait.

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