By Laura Drake
"The secret of good writing," says William Zinsser,
"is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components."
This is one of the first lessons I tried to tackle as a writer. And I needed to. I’ve been known to get a bit carried away with the words, if you know what I mean (my fellow WITS bloggers are snickering – do you hear them?)
I think one of the coolest things about writing is that learning it is like trying to get to the center of a rose that’s opening. Every time you master one layer, there’s another, more delicate and subtle than the last.
It wasn’t until I tackled a problem with my latest novel that I discovered this next layer. I had a wonderful idea for a story – no, really, it was brilliant! Except for the fact that it sold as a romance, and the hero and heroine didn’t meet right away. So if this was going to work, I needed to crank those first chapters down to their pure essence.
I learned several nuances about writing tight from this exercise:
- I don’t need all the scenes I wrote. When I went back and analyzed my beginning, my first scene was a couple of pages of description of the world I’d dropped the reader into. I took my Exacto blade and cut it down to one short page of the most important stuff; the sweat from the hot day, the dust from the cattle’s hooves – stuff like that. I learned that a short cameo that leaves questions in the reader’s mind can be a good thing.
- I’m in love with my words. I get so carried away by my descriptions that I can go too far. They may be pretty, but the reader doesn’t care. They want to see what comes next, and I was slowing the action. Say it once – the best possible way, and then move on.
- Sometimes what you leave out is more powerful than you can write.
My heroine gets unjustly fired from her job in the second chapter. I had her confronting the person who caused it. It was pithy. It was clever dialog. It felt good to vindicate my character! Then I cut it. As good as it felt to write the scene, it just wasn’t critical to the plot. One of my critters pointed out that by not writing that scene, it made the reader root for the character more. The character was now the underdog, mistreated, but undaunted. I didn’t know that!
Sit down and have a face-to-face with reality; no dodging, no excuses. I looked at my chapters not by how well it was written, but instead, was the scene, paragraph, line essential? Because I didn’t have room for anything that wasn’t. And I was surprised at how much wasn’t!
I had an epiphany! (Don't worry, I went home and changed clothes afterward.) The difference is, instead of writing as I wanted and then cutting the fat, I wrote down the bones, and added muscle. I guess both ways work, but I know I'll only write bones and add from now on. I found it very powerful.
So, did I get it tight enough so the H/H meet fast enough? No. They meet on page 40! I’m going to save it to sell as a Women’s Fiction instead of a Romance. But I’m so glad I tried, because I learned so much from the exercise.
And man, those 40 pages are tight, gripping, and kick some serious a$$!