As a homeschooled writer, I'd learned to improve my craft one layer at a time.
My first WIP was a stack of notebooks, pages of endless prose that I'd written one summer. I wrote it for fun, an imaginary escape, without the least care for grammar or structure or plot. It was a technical wreck but I wasn't worried--because no one but me would ever read it.
My second…that was different. I knew I wanted to share that story. I also knew I had a lot to learn about writing. I began to amass my writer's library and scoured the internet for articles and discussions and workshops, all in the hopes of improving my writing. I spent years learning how to be a better writer--and will spend many more years learning, too.
Recently, I came across those notebooks of my first attempts at writing a novel and was shocked to see what my style was like when I wrote it eight years ago. I think the aspect that struck me the most was how much I rambled.
It wasn't that I wrote endless chapters of setting or backstory or dialogue. My problem was that I wrote the way I spoke--and I spoke with a lot of extra words.
Extra words make your sentences flimsy. A reader wants the heart of the story--and extra words get in the way. Readers crave hooks and action and a thrilling pace but extra words can cause the story to stumble.
My WIP had a lot of extra words. When I read back through those pages, I found myself skimming. That's the ultimate sign that I lost my audience--and my audience was me. How bad is that?
Tighten Those Lines
When I started homeschooling myself, I'd picked up loads of tips on how to improve the mechanics of my writing. Without realizing it, I began to write smarter because I wrote tighter. Of course, I was learning as I went--and applied most of my new skills through editing.
Editing is a technique that should always be done in layers--sentence, paragraph, scene, and story. You can tighten your writing at each of these layers, resulting in better craft and a better story.
Extra words like to hide in sentences, adding bulk without substance. You can use the "find" function on your word processor to hunt out those words and eliminate them. The biggest culprits? Words such as really, very, and just, to name a few. You don't need them.
And not just single words-- entire categories such as adverbs and adjectives will loosen your sentences. If you need to enhance a noun or a verb, it may mean you didn't pick the right word in the first place. Find a stronger word and kick the enhancers to the curb.
Another tip to tighten your sentences? Skip the obvious. "He put his hat on his head." Unless he often puts his hat on a different body part, you can skip telling us where he put it.
You can also skip the obvious by eliminating things like "she could see" or "I heard"--because you follow those phrases with whatever is seen and heard. And gerunds? You probably don't need them--if your character grabs a gun and has no intention of swinging it like a club, you can drop the "to shoot" that might follow.
When looking to tighten a paragraph, I look for sections that feel like telling and not showing. I'll add a line or two that shows the action and then go back to eliminate the telling part.
Okay, you may be thinking, how can that be tighter? You're adding words!
Yes, I am…but they are healthy, vibrant words, packed with wholesome story goodness. I eliminated the empty calorie words. End result? Better writing and a stronger story.
Example: I could tell she didn't believe me.
The fix: With a sharp shake of her head, she jabbed a finger into my chest. "You do this every time! I tell you that I'm finally happy, and you concoct some stupid story about why I shouldn't be."
Yep, more words…but now the reader sees the disbelief and doesn't have to take the narrator's word for it. I added action and dialogue. That original line "I could tell she didn't believe me" is now fluff to be eliminated. Bye bye, extra words.
Sometimes your sentences are tight but your scenes aren't. Maybe you've got too much going on.
You can tighten your scenes by watching for unnecessary elements--any character or prop or intention or action that doesn't move the scene forward can be removed because they are distractions.
What if one of the characters wasn't present? Is someone worrying about an issue that is keeping the scene from being streamlined? If you can change a character's thoughts or attitude before the scene occurs, would you ultimately improve the flow of the scene itself?
Watch for elements that seem stagnant or present obstacles to your action. Removing them will tighten your scenes and your story.
Sometimes the element is an entire scene. Try deleting it and see what it does to improve the story.
Take a step back and think about your story as a whole. How can you tighten it?
List your plotline and sub-plotlines. Do you have sub-plots that do little to move your story forward? If the little stories don't contribute to the plot or to the character's growth, you may be hindering the big story. It's time to send those extra words on their way.
And the characters that are window-dressing? Send them home. Extra people mean extra words. If they don't work the story, there isn't a reason to keep them around.
Make the Cut
You may be intimidated by the prospect of cutting scenes and storylines and even characters from your story because of the damage it will do to your word count. Keep in mind that readers only want the words worth reading. You can always go back and add to the real story, using strong, vibrant language.
And think of it this way--you'll save an agent or editor the trouble of asking you to revise those same issues. Extra words keep your work from attaining "shelf-ready status". Be brave and do what's best for your story. You and your story and your writing craft will be all the better for it.
(Image courtesy of nkzs.)
Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit Ash's blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com for news on her newly released urban fantasy "Bleeding Hearts: Book One of the Demimonde" (Pink Narcissus Press 2012).