Sunday, April 15, 2012

Not Another Diet!

Yes, but this one is a bit easier than trying to count calories, carbs, or fat. This is more of a portion control diet - for your manuscript. It is so easy to over write your story and lose the point and slow the tempo with too much verbiage. Trimming the excess from your work can create more immediacy of contact with your reader. You want to dazzle them with brilliance not make them hunt through a word search puzzle to find your meaning.

Many years ago I took classes in creative writing from children's author Barbara Steiner through the University of Colorado's department of continuing education. Taking classes from a published author rather than an academic did a great deal to hone my writing skills. Class assignments were very limited in word count, so you had to edit. It was from Barbara that I learned a number of tips on writing leaner, more direct writing. Here are some of the gems I still treasure:

When rewriting, you can usually cut at least one word from each sentence. I used this technique a lot when working for the newspaper because there space is everything. A subcategory under this heading would be word length. My newspaper articles were not limited by word count, but by the number of characters I was allotted. As I struggled to cut my character count, I found that my writing was improved by using shorter, simpler words. The streamlined result was sharp and to the point.

Use adjectives sparingly, lead the reader to that point without telling them outright. This is a tough one. It can be so easy to tell someone that something is lovely, friendly, adoringly, handsomely, than to add a bit of detail to take the reader there. In Barbara's class we had to write a short piece describing a scene without using any adjectives. It was sheer torture! And one of the best lessons of my life. I described a moment of fresh snow. Without adjectives I had to really move into the visual of the scene and added detail that I might never have though of otherwise.

Avoid thesaurus abuse.  There are times when you want to find just the right word with just the right nuance to enhance your story. Some writers will fall into the trap of using far flung language to make them sound more educated, more intelligent, or worse, show off a high-highfalutin vocabulary. One thing you never want to do is stop your reader and remove them from the flow of your story. If they have to keep running for the dictionary every other sentence. This doesn't mean you need to write down to them, just speak to them as though they were there in the room with you.

Cut out the cliche. This can be as fun as a barrel full of . . . well, you know. That's the problem. Everyone knows. Why should they read what you have to say if it has already been said? I once went to the local theater to see a revival of Dracula. It was the funniest thing and the audience roared with laughter. The problem? It was a drama. Every line in the play had been replayed so often over the decades since it first frightened theater-goers, that the original intent had been completely lost. Make your vampire totally unique if you insist on going down that well-trodden road. Maybe your vampire is anorexic, or your werewolf has split ends. You only need to take a step or two one direction or another to put your own stamp or originality on your work.

Don't regurgitate. Okay, that sounds disgusting, but the point is valid. Much of the writing we do in school is just regurgitating what we've learned there. The old "write what you know" can be easily misconstrued into various forms of regurgitation. I know all sorts of things, but just spitting that back out would be boring as hell. If it bores me to write it, I can be fairly certain that it will bore others to read it You can take a wild idea and build it out of what you know. I don't know a whacky small town in Arkansas filled with unique individuals who have unlikely experiences, but I can extrapolate what I know into that space. You know people and how they act, react and interact. You don't have to write those specific people, but you can draw on your knowledge of them to create amazingly real characters, even if they are wizards or aliens.

 Now, go forth and write. And don't be afraid to remind me of these things when it looks like I've forgotten them. We writers are all human after all, no matter how many times we dream of being something else.


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