Tag Archives: creating lean prose

#amwriting: too many words

My Writing LifeI have been accused of using too many words to say what I mean—and my critics were right. For the last four years, I have been on a quest to learn how to convey a story and keep my reader involved. I’ve had some successes and also failures. The successes keep me going, and every failure inspires me to figure out what went wrong.

Most of the time it was my love of playing with words that derailed my story. Today’s example is a passage from an early work of mine. I will be rewriting this book over the course of the next few years, once the three books I am currently working on are published.

When I rewrite this book, I will eliminate the verbosity. I won’t change the basic story, only pare down the wordiness. This book was written for my first NaNoWriMo and was completely unplanned. I had no idea of what I was going to write until 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 1st, when I began writing it. In the back of my mind lurked Fritz Lieber’s great character, Fafhrd, although he’s not represented in this tale. Yet, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser influenced this tale.

It still shocks me that over the course of 21 days, a 92,000 word story about a group of mercenaries in a medieval Alternate Earth emerged from my subconscious mind.

The original manuscript is a great example of everything that is both wrong and right about a  stream-of-consciousness first draft.

  1. Positive: It has a great, original plot,
  2. Positive: It has wonderful characters,
  3. Positive: It (surprisingly to me) has a basically good story arc.
  4. Positive: It ends well.
  5. Negative: I led off with an info dump.
  6. Negative: I used no contractions (Doh!)
  7. Negative: I made way too free with my adverbs and modifiers. This fluffed up the word-count by about 15,000 unnecessary words.
  8. Doubly negative: I used hokey phrasing, because I was trying to write well.
  9. Negative: Oh, and another info dump was inserted toward the end.

The example:

“I’ve brought along something so that we shall not have to boil the water to drink it,” ventured Lackland as he uncorked a bottle of wine. “Chicken Mickey was right about the trots you know, but I will never tell him that; the old thing enjoys mothering us so. It would take away the joy of nagging us to death if he thought we were able to care for ourselves.”

What? We shall not? From what hell hath this beast arisen? Still, once the hokey crap is pared away, something worth reading can be found.

SO, let’s take that unwieldy, 70-word behemoth of a paragraph apart and trim it down.

“I brought something so we won’t have to boil water to drink.” Lackland uncorked a bottle of wine. “Mick was right about the trots you know, but I’ll never tell him. It would take away the joy of nagging us to death.”

_72982736_vikings courtesy of BBCI trimmed it from 70 words to 42, and made it stronger without changing the meaning or intention. I changed the way Lackland refers to an absent friend, Chicken Mickey, the Rowdies’ supply-master. By this point in the ms, there is no need to use his full mercenary nickname every time he’s mentioned. Everyone knows Mick’s nickname and why he has it (he retired from the Rowdies to be a chicken farmer for a while, but that didn’t work out) so going with the short version of his given name, “Mick,” immediately helps that paragraph.

In the process, I axed one of my favorite sentences: “The old thing enjoys mothering us so.” It’s redundant as the sentiment is expressed in the sentence that follows, which also shows Mick’s character despite his absence.

Also of great benefit is the cutting away of unneeded words: along, to drink, ventured, as—these are words that can “go without saying” in the context of that paragraph. The reader understands they are there as silent partners: unwritten but understood. At this point, I feel that no dialogue tag is needed because Lackland has an action to perform, showing both who speaks and setting the scene.

Using contractions makes dialogue more natural. Some people would go even further than I did, and make “It would” a contraction. I don’t like the way “It’d” looks or sounds so I won’t do that—and that is part of what I think of as my voice. It is a deliberate usage choice, one that I prefer.

When I wrote the first draft of this manuscript, I was at a different stage in my writing development than I am at now. I had never been involved with a writing group, and I had never studied the mechanics of writing. The rudimentary skills I had were developed from trying to copy the styles of my favorite authors, but I had a limited understanding of the mechanics of writing fantasy fiction. The only writing I had done was for myself and my children, although I had done a lot of that.

While I had a standard high-school education and some college and had done a bit of writing in the course of my work, I realized I was woefully uneducated about the craft of writing. I made it my business to get an education, via the internet. It’s free and available to anyone who wants to learn. You just have to want to learn.

I began attending seminars, and writer’s conventions. I scavenged garage sales for books on the craft of writing and I joined local writing groups. I found other writers and made life-long friends, learning a great deal from them.

Nowadays, I have my own voice and my own style. I write far leaner prose in my first draft than I did in those days, and the editing process is not nearly such an ordeal as it was the first time I had one of my manuscripts edited professionally. I continue trying to learn the craft, updating my education constantly.

leonard elmore quoteChoose your words carefully, so they express what you want to say clearly, and in as few words as is possible, while still conveying the atmosphere and mood.

  1. Nothing can be included that does not advance the plot.
  2. There can be no idle conversations “just to show they’re human”: conversations must advance the story.
  3. We don’t need a chapter detailing the history behind the core conflict. Let that emerge as needed.
  4. Never use three words when one suffices.
  5. If you’re in love with a passage you wrote because it’s “great writing,” it probably should be cut.
  6. Ax all redundancies. It only has to be said once, unless the character has forgotten it, and that “forgetting” is a core part of the plot.
  7. Adverbs are important. They need to to be chosen carefully and used sparingly.
  8. If you occasionally love to wax poetic, go ahead and write poetry—just not in the middle of your political thriller. You have permission to love action-oriented genre fiction written with lean, mean prose, and still appreciate (and write) poetry.

What I didn’t know when I first began this journey is this: deleting the excess verbiage will add up to large gains, reducing the overall length of the book, increasing readability and (hopefully) the reader’s enjoyment.


Filed under Publishing, writing

#amwriting: creating lean but descriptive prose

wordsSome work is written so starkly it may as well be a phone-book. This tells me that author X has really taken to heart the much-bandied, amateurish idea of no adverbs and adjectives, ever.

That concept is flawed.

It is true that when we carve away unneeded modifiers, we move from telling the story to showing it, which is the goal of every author. But the key here is the word ‘unneeded.’

Some modification of your verbs and nouns is necessary, or you have a ‘Dick and Jane” novel.

See Jane. See Jane run.

Even if the concept for the plot has some merit, a stark, completely bare-bones approach won’t make it worth reading. The idea behind the novel might intrigue me, and I could be curious as to where the author is going with the idea.  But despite being curious, if I don’t enjoy reading the narrative I won’t finish it.

gibberish-american businesses onlineWe all know fluffed-up prose (A.K.A. ‘purple’ prose) is daunting and hides the action, but don’t let a knee-jerk reaction to a bad beta-read by an armchair critic make you go the route of completely eliminating modifiers and descriptors. A well-written narrative is sparing with descriptors and modifiers, this is true—but modifiers and descriptors do exist within every good narrative and are there for a reason.

Sometimes a thought requires a little description: An old man carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This idea could be told several ways, and here are two, off the top of my head, one less wordy than the other. Both use modifiers and descriptors:

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

There is a reason that descriptors and modifiers exist in the English language. They add flavor, spicing up a flat wall of words.  Just like salt in the soup, too much is too much and too little is not enough.  We are looking for that happy medium where the prose flows in such a way that the reader forgets they are reading and lives the story.

I read a lot of work that begins with a great concept, but has no substance. If only the author had been had been brave enough to tell a good story these novels could have been great. Instead I was given a laundry list of characters acting and reacting to events with no passion or emotion.

It could have meant something to me as a reader, but it didn’t.

Good prose requires choosing words that convey your ideas in the least amount of space. Modifiers and descriptors do that for us, but need to be chosen carefully, and used only when nothing else will do.

i read because memeIf you are writing a novel you want the reader to live your story and react to the ideas and emotions that you are conveying instead of stumbling over limpid pools of velvet blue eyes or falling flatly into skeletal accounts of boredom. It’s our task to find the middle ground that exists between purple prose and lack of soul.

We want to get the reader immersed in the story, and make them forget the real world for a short time. As a reader, I love it when that happens.


Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Achieving a Balanced Narrative

395px-Ellimans-Universal-Embrocation-Slough-1897-AdI was involved (as a horrified bystander) in an online dispute over how much description is needed in today’s genre fiction.  I walked wide of that mess, as it was clear that one author with an online pseudonym was in assassin mode. The other, whose prose had been harshly critiqued, also using a pseudonym, had called in her flying monkeys, all of whom proceeded to tear the argumentative ‘troll’ to shreds.

Ugh.  What a waste of time for all of us, bystanders included. It should have been a civilized discussion about using adjectives and achieving balance when showing and not telling your story.

Sadly, in this case the troll was right, but his attitude was so arrogant, he negated the value of his opinion, with normally sane people reduced to begging him to just ‘shut it.’

The prose in question was far too florid for my taste, forcing the reader to watch every excruciating, drawn out second as the the main character slowly curved his lush, full lips into a sexy, white smile, his pink tongue just touching his full, trembling, lower lip.

Pardon me, I must go barf now.

I prefer to read work written with in a lean style, as too much showing gets in the way of the story. It becomes a matter of the author forcing his vision onto me, as the reader, and is just as unpleasant to read as a narrative that tells you how to feel.

This is my view on the subject of description in the narrative: when you write about a room, any room, you don’t describe the details of room. You tell the character’s story as he enters the room.

What does the character see? What does he or she do in response to those things? Do they use the old wall-mounted telephone? Do they open the drapes? Perhaps he picks up the newspaper, and continues into the kitchen. Each character is different, and will see and do different things, and through those actions your room will come into focus in the mind of the observer–the reader.

Describing emotions is done the same way as describing the setting. We have all been told over and over again that in narrative, the most intimate way to show a feeling is to show the state of the protagonist’s body.

But how do we do that?  Let’s take humiliation:

Her face turned bright red in embarrassment.  

This sentence is what we call telling–the author has baldly told you how the character feels and why. This separates the reader from the sense of being the character. While the character may feel that her face had flushed, it’s unlikely that she would know the exact shade of red she had turned. To make it from the protagonist’s point of view and keep it simple, just write what happened.

Her face burned and she turned away.

Here is my  thought on this subject: we don’t need to get crazy, and give the minute details of her burning flesh heating up until she could see her nose glowing like Rudolph on steroids…we just need simple descriptions that point the reader in the right direction. If our character is really humiliated you can add one more descriptor, but still keep it simple:

Her face burned, and nauseated, she turned away.  

This is as much humiliation as I would put a reader through in one sentence. Realistically, the protagonist would feel the burning of her face, and would feel the nausea. The reader will taste the nausea if you describe the sensations with too much detail so keep the details to the bare minimum.

With that said, it is crucial that you give SOME clues as to what the character is feeling, as the reader will be completely lost without some sort of visual cues.

640px-Bicycling-ca1887-bigwheelersTake a look at what the protagonist’s body might be doing. What did it feel like when you experienced the same emotion? What did your body do? What did you feel inside? Was there a heaviness in your chest? A lump in your throat? Did you feel light-headed or weak-kneed? Did your face burn? Close your eyes and think about how you experience an emotional moment and allow your senses to take over.

With that memory in your head, write it down.

Just remember that it is crucial that you don’t over do it. Just like riding a bicycle, you must have balance in your descriptions: there must be enough description to intrigue the reader, but not so much it overpowers the story.



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