Justine: Cut, Hack, and Chop

axeonwoodAs I mentioned in my post last week, I spent a week at Margie Lawson’s house in Colorado attending her Immersion Master Class. Aside from learning about my character’s truth, I learned something else.

Cut. A lot.

When I go back through my story, I realize I have so much JUNK. Useless words that don’t need to be there. Oh, I thought they were good when I first wrote them. Lovely “writerly” (Margie’s word) descriptions of someone’s hair or face or clothing. But as I go back and look at my story – really look at it, as though I’m seeing it for the first time, I realize all of those words are only taking up valuable word count space (and I already have a word count problem).

But the other thing these words are doing can be seen from a holistic level. They’re taking away from my story…from getting Nate and Susannah together. In a romance, you want to see your main characters on the page. The same page. At the same time. But the extra words I have – which lead to extra description, which leads to extra scenes, which leads to extra chapters…you get where I’m going with this, right? – are simply pulling the reader away from the meat of the story. From him and her. Together.

Pulling readers away from the story is bad. It makes it a lot easier for them to put the book down. And we definitely don’t want that.

I learned something similar from a judge in the Orange County Chapter of RWA’s Orange Rose contest…she suggested I only put description where description needs to be. This sounds so simple, but I was clearly not doing this. For example, I don’t need to spend a lot of words describing a throwaway character like the server who brings Nate and his friend Tradwick some wine and cheese. It’s far better to use valuable word space on characters that need it.

So which characters need it? That may require some thinking on your part. In my case, some of my characters, like Nate’s friend Tradwick, will eventually have their own book someday, so spending word space on them isn’t completely wasted. Other times, I need to spend time describing a character to show how he differs from one of my main characters (like the buck-tooth, pockmarked Mr. Perkins who becomes Susannah’s betrothed).

Words that describe characters aren’t the only ones you can cut. What about setting? Do we need lots of extraneous details about hair and clothing? Perhaps. Margie reminded us that historicals (which I write) and SFFP (particularly where world building is involved) may require lots of description so the readers can immerse themselves into that world. But even if you’re writing in those genres, it doesn’t mean that everything has to be described in ample detail.

(Confession: some of us historical writers take great pride in our research and will often throw in a lot of unnecessary stuff – be it setting description, historical event details, or whatever – to prove to readers we know our stuff. Yeah. Guilty. Fellow historical writers: be satisfied you know your history. If it’s relevant to the story, share it. Otherwise, don’t bore the reader with it.)

There are other places you can cut words, but the two areas where I’m guilty of piling them on are character description and setting. I’ll talk about other ways to make your words work their best next week.

Until then, it’s back to the chopping block.

10 thoughts on “Justine: Cut, Hack, and Chop

  1. I actually have kind of the opposite problem. My writing tends to be so spare of description and setting you can’t always tell where you are. And I STILL have a word count problem, too.

    You make a great point about romance being about seeing the H/H on the page together. I tend to get so caught up in characters running around doing things that I forget that what romance readers want to see is the relationship developing–not the plot being worked out.

    Great stuff to keep in mind as I work on my WIPs.

    • Oy! What a busy week. Sorry to be getting to your comments two days late!

      The funny thing about my writing is my first drafts are always sparse. The second/third/tenth I add a lot of detail, but what I’m finding is I’m overdoing it. Adding too much. And so I end up on the fiftieth draft cutting all the excess junk that I’ve added in over each successive draft.

      I’m hoping to figure out how to add enough without it being too much. Fingers crossed.

  2. I think historical can have more scene descriptions than most contemporary, depending on the setting (broad generalization so not always true). I live in contemporary society. So when a book is set in New York, LA,, or the Appalachian Mountains, I don’t need that described. Been there. But I’ve never traveled in a poorly sprung coach on a dusty, pocked road in Wales back when there were more cows than people (and lots of land without structures). Can you imagine being prone to motion sickness and having to travel for HOURS in a swaying, bumpy coach to get from London proper to a town that would take 1 hour to drive to these days? I get nauseous just thinking about it. Your point about not wasting words on a server who is in one scene is valid, but some of the “unnecessary words” used to describe things can be so much about your style/your voice. I would edit that very judiciously so you keep you voice while tightening your story.

    • You’re right…I need to be judicious. I don’t want to take everything out, but the stuff I have been cutting really is overkill. I was so worried about word count being too low when I first started editing my stuff that I overdid it, as I mentioned in Jeanne’s comment above. Here’s hoping I can find that happy middle.

      And no, I have no desire to travel in a swaying, bumpy coach! Carsick is right!

  3. I have the same problem as Jeanne – under-writing. Too often the reader has no information about where my characters are or what anyone looks like. I’ve even been told recently I should build in more back-story (shock, horror!). Even after I’ve done an editing pass and think I’ve fixed it, I get complaints.

    As a reader I skip description unless it’s necessary to the story. I’m all in favor of cutting where you can. The only argument I can think of for describing the server is that Nate and Tradwick are spies and they’d be observant, so taking a detailed look at their surroundings would be part of their character.

    You’re absolutely right about a romance being the H&H on the page. I’ve been driving myself crazy for the last 10 days or so (since I got back to my WIP) because the storyline I was following was fun but did not push the H&H together, in fact quite the opposite. I went back to the drawing board and I’m surprised you haven’t heard my screams across the Atlantic as it was kicking my rear. Finally yesterday I got the glimmer of an idea, and today I *think* I have figured out how that idea could work. Fingers crossed and candles lit 😉 .

    • Yay! I hope your idea is working out! I hate it when I get stuck like that. And no, I didn’t hear anything. 😉

      I actually made the same argument about some other detail to Margie — that Nate and Tradwick were spies and would notice things. She asked, “Does this thing make a repeat appearance? It is vital to the story? Does it foreshadow anything? Does it deepen the setting?”

      “No.”

      “Then you don’t need it.”

      That was enough for me. Good luck with your new idea and I can’t wait to hear all about it!

  4. It goes back to that excellent piece of writing advice from Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. With historicals,though, as you and others have mentioned, there are readers who lurrrve all those nitty-gritty details, so I think it comes down to what you, as the writer, feel is necessary to your story, style, and voice. I’m like Jeanne and Jilly – I tend to skip descriptions of stuff that might actually be interesting/important to the reader.

    • Alls I kept thinking about as Margie was talking about this was the book “Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel. I loved the first two books, the third was okay. But by the time I got to the fourth, I was tired of hearing about all the different plants and herbs and what they do. Just give me the story. I got all of that herbal nonsense in the first three books.

      Needless to say, I ended up throwing it against the wall.

      I don’t want readers to do that to mine, so I have to find that balance. The readers who like the detail may be disappointed, but I don’t want a bunch of skippers, either.

  5. One thing that I struggle with is that every reader has a description threshhold. Some want things described in loving detail. Others aren’t very sensual and too much description is . . . itchy. Others actually need to have things spelled out in absolute terms. And others are already quite well-read (or experienced) so you don’t need to say much to convey an idea. Which one of these readers do you write to? I think it’s a personal choice.

    I always trot this story out, but I never got into Pride and Prejudice until the BBC miniseries came out. Now, it’s one of my favorite books and I read it once or twice a year. I think the lack of description in it is one of the things that makes it a classic. But the lack of description also makes it hard for a casual reader (particularly from our visual storytelling age) to get into. There are a lot of eternal truths in there, and perhaps over-description would prevent us from seeing that Mr. Collins is also Uncle Freddy or Aunt Martha.

    • You hit the nail on the head. Each reader’s threshold is different. But I keep thinking back to Margie’s point about being relative to the story. I can give enough description of the right things (and I think that there is the crux of it) without bogging the reader down.

      I’ve also thought a lot about the subtext lecture we heard from Jenny in NYC this summer and how if you mention something once, okay. Mention it twice and our ears perk up. Three times and it’s a slap to the face. I want to make sure the details I DO mention are ones that can add to that subtext. If the server doesn’t make a repeat appearance or have anything to do with the story other than plunking down some wine and cheese, then I can leave off some extraneous description.

      As for P&P, remember that when it was written, it was contemporary for the time. Just as Michille pointed out that she doesn’t need a lot of description in a contemporary for NYC or LA, a reader back then wouldn’t need a lot of description of houses or the ton or anything like that. They lived it.

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