As 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.