Things every writer should know…from the pros who’ve done it.
No, this article is not a check on the progress of your New Year’s resolution. It’s a reminder that our writing, too, can get a little…paunchy. English lends itself to wordiness. And as word lovers, we are often tempted to trot out our favorite vocabulary and loath to let any of it go. But when it comes to writing – as with so many things – a little dab will do. Or, as I tell my students, readers will thank you for lean, clean writing. No one wants to slog through entangling vines, no matter how pretty. Here are some common offenders.
These are the simple constructions – there is, there are, it is – that push the subject further down in the sentence. Sometimes we want this for effect; most often, these expressions spill unconsciously onto the page. So, rather than write the previous sentence as There are some times when we want this for effect…, I began with Sometimes.
After writing, as you ponder the words that have fallen from your brain to the page in wordy constructions, you discover ways through which you might tighten the prose through eliminating the abundance of prepositional phrases. Whew! That was an awfully plodding sentence, wasn’t it? Check out the prepositional phrases in that first sentence: 1) After writing, 2) as you ponder the words that have fallen 3) from your brain 4) to the page 5) in wordy constructions, you discover ways 6) through which you might tighten the prose 7) through eliminating the abundance 8) of prepositional phrases. More simply stated, and with fewer prepositions, we have: Tighten your prose by eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases. We’ve gone from eight prepositional phrases to one – and from 36 to just eight words!
Microsoft Word has a handy option called Find (in most versions, it’s on the far right of the Home tab). When you enter “and” into the search bar, it will highlight every occurrence of the word in your manuscript, allowing you to search for unnecessary pairings of words. Long ago, English speakers began adding foreign words to their speech. They thought it elevated the language; unfortunately, it rarely added meaning. Some common examples linger on; for example, first and foremost. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to this as a “strengthened phrase.” That’s fine for the 16th century, but to modern readers, it is simply redundant. Each and every is another. If you are to pick each strawberry, you must pick every strawberry. True and accurate has a similar problem: Can something be true but not accurate?
Another doubling of ideas often comes with unnecessary adjectives. Have you ever had an impersonal opinion? When it’s the court’s opinion, say that; when it’s an individual’s, it’s simply an opinion. Ever plan for the past? Of course not: All plans are future plans. Heard any true facts? Advance warning, free gifts, general public – the list goes on. Adjectives may also state the obvious. We expect green grass and blue sky, so no need to state color unless the grass is citrine and the sky indigo. Superfluous adverbs are also problematic. Consider carefully scrutinize, identically alike, and originally created. Despite what our elementary school teachers insisted, packing in lots of adjectives and adverbs is more likely to create cluttered writing than descriptive language. Strong verbs and nouns usually do a better job.
Two categories of adverbs and adjectives require special attention. Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup call them “hedges” and “intensifiers” in their book, Style. Hedges, aka qualifiers, are words and expressions that water down (I almost wrote tend to water down, but that would be a hedge) your message. Usually, possibly, and perhaps are examples of these adverbs. Adjective examples include most and many; verbs include could and might. Obviously, these are sometimes needed to help us avoid overstatement. But often they are little more than verbal tics signaling a reluctance to make a stand. No one is “sort of” pregnant. Say what you mean without hiding behind these modifiers.
Like hedges, intensifiers do the job their name suggests. Without them, I couldn’t have written Obviously above. Like hedges, they come not only as adverbs (very, of course, and – my candidate for the most abused word of the year – actually) but also adjectives (basic, major) and verbs (prove, show). When you’re full, adding completely doesn’t make you more full. I find I write very all through my manuscripts; before publishing, I edit nearly every one out. It’s essential to discover your own “tics” as a writer – and then use Find to ferret them out.
Stephen Foster struck a chord with “In the merry, merry month of May” in 1862, but today it sounds flat. If you can’t come up with something fresh, at least be lean. You may have noticed how familiar many of the above phrases seem, as if they could be plucked from the air and plunked into your masterpiece. They feel right and true to your ear. Resist. Readymade phrases are usually both clichéd and wordy. In light of and due to the fact that can both be replaced by because. In the event that is better replaced by if. Don’t waste your readers’ time with four words when one will do.
Give readers credit for understanding. They like to participate in constructing meaning; when we rob them of the opportunity, we insult their intelligence. For example, in a previous piece I wrote for The Writer (“Through the Looking Glass” from the April 2017 issue), I dropped the ending of my original first-draft phrase, “sometimes that tongue is so deep in the cheek sleuthing is required,” to make it “…sometimes that tongue is parked deep in the cheek.” I realized readers would understand from the context that I’m advising them to examine sources for credibility.
Similarly, I dropped “in their fields” from the end of “these articles have been examined by experts,” because where else could they be experts? Next, I cut the passive voice to tighten it further: “experts examine these articles…” made for much tighter writing.
Then I caught myself stating the obvious in the phrase “What scientists believe is true today…,” when I realized I could simply say “What scientists believe today.” It’s just as unnecessary to call June a month or blue a color. Paradoxically, even though the problem is stating the obvious, the need to revise such passages may not be obvious – we’ve become so accustomed to hearing redundancies that it’s hard to identify them in our own work.
Having to adhere to a strict word count is helpful as it forces you to question each word and phrase. (So, by the way, does writing poetry; I recommend it as an exercise even if it isn’t your preferred genre.) Cutting excess may allow for more ideas. Even when you don’t have a word limit, challenge yourself to cut 300 words from a manuscript of 1,000 without losing content. Make it a rule to substitute a word for a phrase – and be sure that word is necessary. In “Through the Looking Glass,” I changed “You and I see the same movie” to “We see the same movie.” I cut the sentence “We may choose not to believe it all we wish; we might even start a movement arguing that Dodgson’s pseudonym was Louis XIV” in two places. First, I dropped all we wish because it is empty and clichéd. Second, I used the substitution rule to replace start a movement arguing with campaign. The result: “We may choose not to believe it; we might even campaign that Dodgson’s pseudonym was Louis XIV.” Stronger, yes?
Targeting and removing excess is an essential revision activity – but worrying about it as you compose can choke the flow of thoughts. Because we are used to speaking, seeing, and writing excess, it usually takes multiple passes to notice and cut the fat in a manuscript. These passes are best done over several days, so each scan feels fresh. If you can set the manuscript aside for a month, all the better. You will naturally become sensitized to some of these problems over time and commit fewer of them. But every manuscript needs careful combing. Ask any editor.
Trapped in the middle of your manuscript? Here’s how to move forward.
Image courtesy of Dmitry Natashin/Shutterstock.
You started your manuscript with such enthusiasm. You wrote 20 pages in ONE NIGHT. Your brain was popping with ideas. Scenes flowed. You were sure you’d be done with the whole thing in a month. And then, one quiet morning, you sat down at your keyboard and nothing happened. Your fingers felt heavy. You started reading over the last few paragraphs. Awful! You clicked back a few chapters. Dear God. What were you thinking? You don’t know how to go forward, you can’t bear to go back. You’re stuck.
It’s a terrible feeling, and it’s one that almost all authors confront. As a longtime teacher for Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, I see this phenomenon a lot, and it can be devastating. Some writers just quit and take up needlepoint. Others spend years revising one chapter, trying to get it just right. Everyone who’s been in that rut, myself included, feels frustration and self-doubt.
But the good news is that being stuck is not a permanent situation. There are a number of techniques for propelling yourself out of that sinkhole. Here are 12 of them.
1. Go back to the beginning.
Often a story stalls because you just haven’t given your protagonist enough to do. Making an adjustment at the beginning can vault you forward in the middle. For example, imagine you’ve decided to write a romance. Your protagonist is a young woman named Molly who lives in New York City. She goes on some dates, she falls in love, and she gets married. You could probably write some fun scenes here, but you might find yourself running out of steam by about page 140. It’s all a bit meandering. What if we charge things up a bit? What if we start the story by writing that Molly wants to get married? She’s the same Molly, but now she has a specific goal. Now she has to do something. We could also give her a timetable. Let’s say Molly wants to get married by the time she’s 30. And her birthday is next month. Immediately I’m feeling more anxious. What will happen if she doesn’t get married by her birthday? How is she going to find a man so quickly? What is she going to do? Do you see how one small quest invigorates the whole story? Now, instead of a string of anecdotes, we have a quest. What does your protagonist want? Maybe the Iron Throne? Maybe world peace? Maybe to fit into a size 6 dress?
2. Look at your protagonist’s backstory.
Your characters’ histories offer rich veins of material. The more you know about your character, the more you have to write. For example, why does Molly want to get married when she’s 30? Because her sister got married at 30, and she’s always felt less loved than her sister? Because she promised an old friend she’d marry him on her 30th birthday if she didn’t have anyone else, and now he’s waiting for her, but she doesn’t really want to marry him? Because her mother has reserved a reception hall for Molly’s 30th birthday? Because she doesn’t think she’ll live to be 31? Recently I was reading Tracee de Hahn’s mystery novel Swiss Vendetta, which is about a woman trying to solve a murder during an epic Swiss snowstorm. Tracee’s protagonist is a young and inexperienced detective, and she’s struggling to project authority. But, about a third of the way through, she discovers something unsettling about her husband. It doesn’t necessarily relate to the case, and yet it bothers her, and offers a whole new and exciting vein of material to explore. What sorts of secrets is your protagonist concealing? What is she afraid of? What does she feel guilty about?
3. Throw obstacles in your character’s path.
Ask yourself: What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to my character right now? And then have it happen. This is something Stephen King does so well (though, quite honestly, I don’t think he ever gets stuck). In King’s novel, Mr. Mercedes, the protagonist strikes up a friendship with a young neighbor. The neighbor has a cute sister who wants to go to a concert. Suffice it to say, that girl gets into terrible danger, and King draws it out so that by the time the whole thing is over, you’ve just about chewed off your fingernails. But you don’t need to be writing horror to do this. Let’s go back to our romantic Molly. What’s the worst thing that could happen to her? Maybe she meets a man right before her 30th birthday, but it winds up being her best friend’s new boyfriend. Or he’s about to be shipped overseas. Or (because I’m a mystery writer) he’s a killer. Or he has red hair and she’s always sworn not to marry a man with red hair. Or his mother’s in jail. I could go on forever. Just keep in mind that the more you raise the stakes, the more things you throw at your protagonist, the more quickly the story will move forward. Not only are obstacles interesting, but they also make characters change and grow. They inspire us. They inspire the writer. You’ll be amazed at the things you can come up with when you put your character in a corner.
4. Introduce someone new.
This is a great way to spice things up. If you are stuck on page 140, which is often where people get stuck, and you are feeling just a bit bored with your characters, why not have someone new appear? In my first mystery, Maggie Dove, I have a romantic interest appear around the halfway point. (Of course, a good thing about being a mystery writer is you can always kill someone off when things slow down. But my mystery takes place in a small town, and I can only kill off so many people.) Going back to Molly, what if she gets a new neighbor? Or what if her mother calls and says she’s coming for a visit? Or what if she finds a stray dog, and when she goes to return it, she finds out the owner is a really nice man. Or a really nice woman, and she realizes she’s not looking for a man at all? In real life, people have a way of popping up unexpectedly. You get an email from someone you haven’t heard from in years. Make use of this unexpectedness in your fiction. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself.
5. Unsettle your character.
We all, characters included, have a particular way of seeing ourselves in the world. We believe we are good mothers, for example. Or good people. We think we’re smart. Savvy. Loved. But what happens if something challenges that belief. In Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, one of the major characters considers herself a good mother. Her husband deserted her when her daughter was little. She formed a special bond with that daughter and has always believed that she would be her daughter’s favorite parent. She deserves it. But then, her ex-husband and his young new wife move back into the town where Madeline lives, and, to her horror, her daughter actually prefers the young wife. Suddenly Madeline is not the person she thought she was. Instead of being the good mother, she finds herself becoming the angry, bitter mother. Some of the most touching parts of that book deal with Madeline’s efforts to figure out who she is. So maybe Molly’s always thought she could get married whenever she wants, and now she’s having to confront the fact that at 30 years old, in New York, she’s on the older end of the dating spectrum. (I hesitate to call anyone who’s 30 old, but New York City is tough.) What does your character believe about herself?
6. Jump ahead.
Recently I was working with a student who was very enthusiastic about a scene that she expected would take place around page 240. The problem was that she was on page 140, and she wasn’t sure how she was going to fill those 100 pages in between. So I said, just write the scene you’re excited about. See what happens. She wrote the out-of-order scene, and buried within it was an idea for something that had to have happened earlier. Suddenly it became clear to her how she was going to fill those 100 pages. Try shaking things up. If you have two characters who’ve been separated, write their big reunion scene. Write the climax. There are a lot of writers out there who do just that. They like to have the ending mapped out. So much of being successful as a writer has to do with finding what works for you. If you’re a person who writes backward, go for it!
7. Consider the weather.
Weather has a huge effect on our lives. Heat waves make us testy. There’s a reason the murder rate goes up in the summer. Good weather makes us joyful, unless it makes us anxious that we’re not feeling joyful. Hurricanes unleash dangerous forces into the ordinary routine of our lives. What would your character do if she found out a hurricane was headed in her path? Would she evacuate or stay? Would she save her pets or leave them? Is she prepared or not? These huge forces of nature force our characters to reach inside themselves and find out what they’re made of. Last summer, as Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, a man I know from New York decided to get on a plane and go to Miami. He had some business properties there, but mainly he just wanted to see what the storm was like. I was dumbfounded. Up until that moment he’d seemed like a perfectly ordinary and pleasant person to me, but it turned out he had this intense risk-taking side, which I never would have known about except for this storm. What unexpected side might your characters reveal in the face of bad weather? An added bonus to the weather is that it can come out of nowhere. If your character is stuck with nothing to do, give him a major snowstorm.
8. Don’t forget holidays.
Valentine’s Day is coming. Or Christmas or Thanksgiving. These are occasions that bring expectations. We want to feel loved on Valentine’s Day. We want to be with family on Thanksgiving. Or we don’t want to be with family. One of the things that makes holidays so resonant is that they force us to reconcile the reality of our lives with expectations. They also bring us together with people we might only see once a year. Weddings and funerals can also set off drama. They force people together. Secrets may emerge. Feelings are running high. That cousin of yours who seemed like such a loser is now the CEO of a big company. Or perhaps a man comes up to you at your mother’s funeral and tells you that he always loved her, and that they’d been in touch for years. Or maybe on Valentine’s Day, an unexpected present shows up on your doorstep. Who sent it? If you’re feeling stuck, look at the calendar. What holidays are coming up, and how might your characters react?
9. Give yourself a deadline.
Probably the number one reason students sign up for my novel-writing workshop, or any workshop, is to impose a deadline on their writing. When you know that 14 people are waiting to receive your manuscript on March 14, it focuses your mind tremendously. You have to get it done. It doesn’t need to be perfect; you simply need to get out the pages. Maybe it’s that quest for perfection that slows a lot of people up. That obsessive tinkering, that hope that you will get it exactly right. There’s something freeing about knowing that you can’t revise your work 3,000 times. YOU MUST HIT SEND! So take a workshop. Or join a writers’ group. Or submit to contests. There are a lot of them out there, many of them mentioned in this magazine. NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November, is a great way to just force yourself to put words on a page. You have a month to write 50,000 words. I do it every year and am surprised at how that deadline forces new ideas out of me.
10. Look inward.
Many of us write about topics that are painful: loss, heartbreak, mental illness, family breakdowns. Often we’re drawing on our own experiences as we write, which can mean reliving painful associations. We can get stuck not because we have nothing to say, but because we have too much to say, and don’t want to say it. This happened to me when I was writing my first novel, The Fiction Class. It’s the story of a woman who heals her relationship with her dying mother by teaching her to write. I knew, from the moment I wrote the first page, that the mother in the story had to die. It was built into the story. And yet, as I got closer and closer to that scene, which was toward the end of the book, I just could not bring myself to write it. Every time I started, I froze. My own mother had died not long earlier, and I was devastated, and writing that scene brought me intense pain. It was like losing her over and over again. The fact was, I didn’t want to write that scene. But I was under contract and I had to do it. So one night, I poured myself a glass of scotch, locked myself in my office, and raced through the scene. And I’ve never read it again. The book came out and often people have told me they like the ending, and I’m sure it’s very nice, but I’ll never look at it. I got it on the page, and that was enough. So think about what might be stopping you. The one comfort I can offer is that when you write something difficult, it does offer a form of healing. It can provide a way forward for the book and for your life. It can also help other people going through the same thing.
11. Step away from the desk.
Sometimes, trying to force words is the worst thing you can do. You stare at your computer screen, determined to get it all done, but the words come out sullen, and you know you’ve written something awful. At times like this, the best thing to do is walk away. Not forever! Just for half an hour. Do a crossword puzzle. Watch House Hunters. Take a nap. Go for a walk. Let your mind relax. I’m always surprised at the ideas that pop into my head when I’m doing something else. Quite often, I’ve had whole plots pop into my head when I’ve been walking my dogs. You can trust your mind to do some of the work without you bossing it around.
12. When all else fails, try to remember why you started to write this in the first place.
What drew you to the story? Did you want to write about growing up on Long Island, or what it’s like to serve in the war? But maybe you got side-tracked. You began writing about the teacher who was always mean to you, and the story has evolved into an empty revenge story. Try and tap back into that original energy. What is it that you want to say? Try to recapture the feelings that made you want to write in the first place.
You can do this!
Now, please excuse me while I go off to write a story about Molly.
Whether a successful published novelist or a creative writing student, all writers should try their hand at short stories at least a few times in their lives. Writing a successful short story – which I’ll define as executing a captivating, engaging narrative arc in roughly 3,000 to 5,000 words – is a great way to hone your skills in narrative structure, character development, and setting, all rendered in elegant prose.
So where to begin? Well…with the story, of course. Short fiction is an art form that differs from, say, telling a story at a dinner party, but it starts from the same seed: the story. So sit down and, in one sitting, write out the story. Don’t worry if it sounds terrible or meandering – this is only your first draft.
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Next, identify your main character. One rule of short stories is that there’s generally only space for a single protagonist within the piece. So if your story is about a traffic accident that involves two couples in two cars and a police officer, your protagonist will be the single person who moves the narrative along. Once you know who the story is really about, rewrite it from their point of view.
Now, write and rewrite your first sentence. It should compel, contain conflict, and introduce an “itch” the reader must scratch. For example, I just opened my Raymond Carver collection and read these two first sentences: “I knew it was a mistake to let my brother have the money”and “I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor.” There’s a reason he masters the form, eh?
Then sharpen everything. There’s no room for lazy dialogue or repetitive scene descriptions in a short story; every word counts.
Last: share it. Enter a competition, post to an online forum, self-publish, or submit. Don’t stick it in a drawer; offer it up for criticism. Only then can you learn and improve.
Dionne McCulloch, U.S. managing editor, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. cornerstonesUS.com