Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How I Fix a Wilted Salad

Or "Pass the Italian: An Overview of How I Edit."
As I work on my craft, I've identified one of my writing quirks as the tendency to insert cliche', redundant and/or unnecessary words and phrases into WIP language because it flows unfettered from head to paper or keyboard. I call this my "wilted salad draft"--tired sprigs (phrases) that sully what should be a crisp word salad. These droopy ingredients add little to the action, mood or plot development and only serve to make the offering less appetizing. They need to be picked out and sent on a quick date with the garbage disposal.

My guess is, for many writers, it's instinct to write like we talk. That's great for a first draft, where the goal is to get 'er done. Not writing with your internal editor turned on is often more productive, less stressful and can open doors to creativity. But at some point in the process, it's time to weed out the stale garden greens.

It's easier to illustrate this with examples (none of these were extracted from an actual manuscript):

Wilted salad draft: I had no idea where to go next, let me tell you. The thugs were ahead of me and the hell dogs were behind me--how far I wasn't sure, but they were there somewhere. If I'd told Jim once I'd told him a million times not to walk down dakr alleys in Scatoggo and here I was, finding myself standing here with no way out.

Picking out the dead stuff phase: I had no idea where to go next, let me tell you. The Thugs were ahead of me, and the hell dogs were behind me, how far I wasn't sure, but they were there somewhere. If I'd told Jim once I'd told him a thousand times never to walk down dark alleys in Scatoggo and but here I was, finding myself standing here with no way out.

Fresher: I had no idea where to go. Thugs ahead of me, hell dogs behind me. I'd told Jim never to walk down dark alleys in Scatoggo and here I was, with no way out.

In this case "and here I was" was left because it's needed to make a logic bridge between telling Jim not to do something the character just did. No, we're not done. A further rework is in order to attack this and eliminate the "was" if possible.

In addition to being clunky, the phrasing is flat. It needs a more active and direct verbage. It should put me in the character's shoes instead of feeling like the passage is being related to me. More mood-setting description and employing the senses will help ramp up the tension and immediacy. I opt to take a different tact.

Hadn't I told Jim never to walk down dark alleys in Scatoggo? I covered my nose to block out the stink of decaying refuse. Overhead, scuffed brick walls leaned in on me. No way out.

I use "stink" here rather than "aroma" because it's grittier, less pleasant. Aroma is lovely for flower gardens, spices and baking bread, but not rotting refuse. I use "scuffed" rather than "brown" or "dark" or "hard" because those are what we'd expect of brick, but "scuffed" paints more of a picture--that the surroundings are in disrepair and somewhat battered.

Then I go back and shoehorn in a 'lurked' to add mood to those thugs who are lying in wait ahead of me and "baying" to those vicious hell dogs closing in on my trail.

Here's the before and after:

Original wilted lettuce: I had no idea where to go next, let me tell you. The thugs were ahead of me and the hell dogs were behind me--how far I wasn't sure, but they were there somewhere. If I'd told Jim once I'd told him a million times not to walk down dark alleys in Scatoggo and here I was, finding myself standing here with no way out.

Fresh(er) salad version: I had no idea where to go. Thugs lurked ahead of me, hell dogs bayed behind me. Hadn't I told Jim never to walk down dark alleys in Scatoggo? I covered my nose to block out the stink of decaying refuse. Overhead, scuffed brick walls leaned in on me. No way out.

Nope, we're still not done. We've got to reduce calories. Is there somewhere we can cut back on the ingredients by substituting one word for two? A panicked thought for a longer phrase?

How about "stifle" in place of "blocked out?"

How about "Now what?" in place of "I had no idea where to go."

Now what? Thugs lurked ahead of me, hell dogs bayed behind me. Hadn't I told Jim never to walk down back alleys in Scatoggo? I covered my nose to stifle the stink of decaying refuse. Overhead, scuffed brick walls leaned in on me. No way out.


The freshened version uses fewer words to add more meaning and emotion to the paragraph. The character's sense of panic at being caught between two dangers is better portrayed without the character ever thinking "I am trapped." The character's thoughts of what they told Jim suggests they are a guardian or role-model who failed to follow their own advice. It suggests a character flaw. Do as I say, don't do as I do.

The alley is drawn as a gritty and unpleasant place to be trapped. If this paragraph is a hook, it's done a pretty good job of providing information through situation and character circumstance--show don't tell. Even pulled from the middle of a scene it gives enough information that the reader isn't left puzzled, or worse yet frustrated wondering who, where, what and how? A sense of each of those questions is translated in this paragraph.

Is there still room for improvement?

There's always room for improvement. But perfection isn't the goal, only polishing your prose to the point a reader can get lost in the words and never realize they're reading.

Croutons, anyone?
~*~ ~*~ ~*~

6 comments:

  1. Terrific exercise, Laurie!

    I'll add something one of the Golden Heart winners once said over at the Ruby-Slippered Sisterhood blog. As you edit your manuscript, try to incorporate some unique/interesting wording into every single paragraph.

    Obviously it's just a guideline, because sometimes the simplest, barest paragraphs have the perfect impact. ("Her heart stopped.") But I've found that keeping this advice in mind has helped to improve my writing.

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  2. Nicely done! To use another analogy, knowing how to chip away at that block of stone to find the masterful David within is one, hard-earned skill. Illustrating it as you have so succintly done is another. Lovely!

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  3. Great advice, Sharon. Finding fresh ways to phrase is challenging, but well worth the effort.

    Good analogy, Donna, and another way to look at the editing process--starting with a rough block of words and honing it to smooth, seemless, flowing, well-formed text.

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  4. Nicely done, Laurie. I am such a fan of using twenty words when one will do!!! Luckily I have crit partners who set me straight.

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  5. Thanks, Barbara. Huh, I've always thought your writing was tight, clean and never long-winded, but maybe you've already done some chopping before it gets to your beta-readers.

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  6. Great article, Laurie.
    My last novel edited for publication had whole plot threads extracted to the tune of about 7k and the story when I was done, had 10k more when I started. Sometimes the book requires whole chapters to go. Sometimes it requres the addition of chapters or both. That's a lot of lettuce. Hold on to those jewels, those cuts that don't make it. They make great promo-fodder. I love to toss the cuts out for the readers to see what didn't make it into the book right before the release or shortly after. Sometimes they're suprised to see what didn't stay. Sometimes it's a matter of the segment that was cut not taking you in the direction you wanted the story to go. It's not bad writing--just not the right words for the story you're working on.
    I've also tweaked and been known to recycle for a better suited story.

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