www.whyville.net Apr 27, 2008 Weekly Issue

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Emmy's Logo Here: Ruthless Writing

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I can't always lie, you know.

I try to do my best at being honest when critiquing people's writing, but I generally try to put things as nicely as possible, and point out the good things before I start thinking about improvements. That's just the way I am.

"Tell me what you really think, Emmy!"

I try! I really do! But I don't enjoy tearing people down, I don't enjoy judging a piece of writing so harshly that it's not the thought behind it anymore, it just becomes words. In a sad attempt to redeem myself, I decided to write an article on it instead. I've written one other article with tips for fiction writing before,( Back in November, I believe) and I am going to do it again, with a new approach and some new hints that I hope will help you improve your writing.

My intentions aren't to drag this article out three pages, I promise, but I have so much I'd like to cover and only a small amount of your attention span. Where shall we begin?

Overly Wordy Sentences: Pick up a Stephen King book, Ernest Hemmingway, any great author, really, and you can see the difference right away. One of the keys to their success is how uncluttered their writing is. Their sentences are simple, clean, precise and tidy. Accomplished writers are always looking for parts of their story that they can cut, because if a chapter, or even a small scene isn't going anywhere, they could lose their readers. One of the most tiresome things when you are reading is when authors use overly wordy sentences. You don't need to explain everything. If you take anything away from this tip at all, let it be this: Readers are smart. I know! Amazing, right? But they are. They can figure out things on their own.

One thing readers don't want is the author right there in the book with them, explaining this and explaining that. Readers want to hang out with the characters, they want to be right there with them. If you, as an author, stop to interpret what a character means by saying this, or doing this, then it plucks the reader out of the scene. You do not want that. Hence, overly wordy sentences: Explaining things, putting unnecessary words in here and there to make the reader understand something. Cut, cut, cut. If it is not CRUCIAL to the story, if it does not play a part to help the story move along, keep exciting or humorous or help the plot develop, CUT IT.

Dialogue-Cut the Adverbs!: Dialogue is truly what makes a story. Dialogue is the #1 way to develop a character. Good dialogue makes the characters seem more realistic, keeps your story moving and gives you a lot of creative freedom. My favorite part about fiction is writing the dialogue. You can make it so much fun, so humorous, so different. Remember, when your character is having a conversation, make sure to keep the conversation flowing. Don't stop and add in one of the characters thoughts or even something small like "she said nervously." Just "she said" will work fine. The dialogue itself should show if the character is nervous or not. Adverbs like nervously, dejectedly, angrily, happily, wearily and so forth just stop the flow of the dialogue.

So, Adverbs: Get rid of them! They don't add anything to your story except clutter! It's hard in the beginning, but good writers learn to work without adverbs. There are so many more creative ways to show what a character feels besides the use of adverbs.

Showing, Not Telling: Showing, not telling. It's one of the biggest things Carly (Who is a professor who lives in California who I send parts of my novel to to look over and revise) stresses over. This hint ties in with the first and second: Readers are smart, you don't need to tell them everything. Show them. Show them that this certain character's mother died 6 years ago and the anniversary of the event is coming up in a week. Show it through dialogue, maybe a diary entry, or a clever hint, but do not tell readers flat out.

Example #1(Telling): Chester was having a tough week. It was the anniversary of his mother's death coming up on May 10th, and he was dreading it.

Do you see how boring that is? There's no intrigue. "Fiction is a progression of events that leads to a climax," as Carl told me once. In that example, there was no climax. You're just telling the reader what happened flat out, and that is really no fun, for the author or the reader. It might seem the easiest way to go, but it's not the most interesting.

Example #2:(Showing): "Come on, Chester. Abby has invited us out to dinner at six. We're going to be late." Eric stood in the doorway of Chester's small room.

Chester frowned a bit and concentrated on the patterns and swirls on his ceiling. "She invited you, Eric, not me."

"I'm not going to leave you here. It's been five days since the anniversary, why can't you just get over it?"

Chester leaped out of his bed. He could feel the temperature rising in his face. "I'm sorry, Eric, but it seems you still have your mother. Mine is laying under the earth somewhere, and I never even got to say goodbye! No . . . I can see why I'm not over it."

Eric took a step back from the doorway. "That was six years ago, Chest," his voice wasn't more than a whisper.

But Chester wasn't listening anymore. He had fallen back into his bed; "the tomb" as Eric had called it. His eyes resumed playing with the patterns on the ceiling . . .

Do you see how much more thought-provoking that was than the first example? In example 2, you're showing the event through dialogue. As you can see, it was much longer, but sometimes you need a longer paragraph to get a feeling or idea across.

Don't Write the Characters a Resume: I remember talking about this a lot in my November article. I referred to it as "description blobs". The most important thing to remember when your introduce a new character to your story is not to write them a resume. What does that mean, Emmy?

*rubs hands together* Let me explain.

Picture this: You're at a summer picnic at your friend's house. You know most of the people there, but about an hour into the picnic, your friend introduces you to a girl named Alexandra. You shake her hand.


You do not know anything else about this girl except that her name is Alexandra and she knows your friend. You just met her, you shouldn't know anything else than that. When you first meet new people, they don't shake your hand, then start with, "Hi, my name is Alexandra. I was born in Bismarck, but my parents and I moved to new York when I was five. I'm about 5'8, if you didn't guess, and I love to play lacrosse. Yes, the capris I'm wearing are a soft white and look fairly new, don't they?"

Nobody, I mean nobody does that, so why do authors put description blobs in their stories?

Now: Your character has just met Alexandra, and we want to keep the scene moving, but instead, the author starts explaining about Alexandra, what she looks likes and so on. You, the reader, are going, "What!? She just met Alexandra, I want to see what happens next! I don't want to hear about how nice the capris Alexandra is wearing are! I want to keep with the action!"

Therefore, cut the description blobs, people! The readers can find out more about Alexandra over time, and if you want them to find out more about her sooner, use a more creative way than telling. Show them. Do you see how all of this ties together? Don't write the characters a resume; let the readers gradually come to know more about the person, and in more creative ways that a big ol' description blob.

How is this sitting with you all?

It's a lot to take in, I know. I hope all of you writers out there can use some of it. I lied. I promised you I wouldn't let the article run on forever, but I'm afraid that it did. Tsk, tsk. I'll see you all next week,

And like Carly would say, "The key here is to become a ruthless writer." And she's right. Make it happen, guys.



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