That’s one word we don’t need

scissors-editOne of the things that hit a nerve when I wrote that most popular post of mine on editing (that’s One word at a time), was the culling of certain redundant words, such as really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly.  That came to mind when I realised the other day, on reading Amanda Bumgarner’s excellent post on eliminating word overuse, that I’d left one important word off that list.  Yes, you guessed it – the word… that.

When you turn your mental volume dial up on that little word, that’s when it starts to jump out at you, from every line and every paragraph.

That is one of those words that stutters into our sentences without our even noticing.  How insidiously it sneaks in and takes up residence, unloved and unwanted.  I think that if I counted up the number of times that that appeared in my novel, that that would be as revealing as it would be painful.  That, I know, is something that I could not bear to do, and that’s an end of it.

So that’s the point that I want to make, that that is one of those words that is almost always surplus to requirements – and that should be enough to encourage you to consign that word to the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor.

And that’s all I’ll be saying on that matter.

One word at a time

scissors-editI’m line editing.  After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one.  With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.

Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:

  • Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
  • Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
  • Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun.  Oops.
  • Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
  • Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
  • It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have.  In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.

This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds.  Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue.  Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail.  I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.

It’s not perfect – how can it be?  But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls.  But for now, it’s enough.

This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers.  Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.

Circle of Missé – This writer progresses…

Last month I spent a wet but hugely inspirational week at Circle of Missé in the Loire Valley in France, on their “A Writer Progresses” course.  Despite the almost incessant rain it was a sublime place to immerse myself in the beginnings of my editing process, tutored and encouraged by the author, Carol Topolski and Circle of Missé’s inestimable host, Wayne Milstead.

Circle of Missé is a writing and cookery school like no other.  A cosy, creaky old house bristling with character and swaddled in the aromas of its rural setting, and of the always-on fresh coffee, local wines and provisions and, of course, the magnificent feasts-in-preparation.   I slept in a bed more comfortable than my own, in a room that fell so silent at night that all I could hear was the cry of an owl.  In the mornings, Carol taught and tutored, and in the afternoons we wrote, with support and insight, where we sought it, from Wayne.

Wayne and co-host Aaron know how to create an ambiance that allows the writer simply to focus on their work, nurtured and well-fed, both physically and creatively.  It’s a special place, and I recommend it warmly.

As for my writing…. With Carol and Wayne’s support, I identified some critical flaws in the foundations of my dirst draft – skeletal back-story, unconvincing motivations – little things like that.  Well, I’m learning, that’s all I can say.  But I also came away with a workable plan for fixing things up – and that’s exciting.

In the end, I took a significant step forward, but realised too, that I was some distance from where I thought I was at the start.  That’s what happens when you open yourself up to learning, to taking advice from people who have so much to give, and give it so generously.  It’s an entirely good thing – it really is.

The beginning of the end – or just the end of the beginning

Last weekend was the last gasp of summer and I spent it in the garden.  Not weeding and watering, but with my fingers glued to the keyboard.  Yes, I have at last reached the end of my first draft.  My story is complete.

Well, sort of.

I’m at a surreal moment of elation and crisis.  I’m thrilled at having got this far, but keenly aware that my story is full of holes, inconsistencies and great chunks I want to change, improve and delete – and add too, I think.  There are character inconsistencies and plot weaknesses, to say nothing of the sections I first wrote a year ago that today make me curl into a ball and weep.   And that’s before I start on the inevitable adverb cull and punctuation review.

I’ve learned so much in the last 18 months, and come so far, but there’s so much still to do.

And you know, I’d love to write great huge blog posts, but what I really want is to get on with finishing my story. You understand, don’t you?

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.

A girl can dream

Being mentored through my first draft is proving hugely beneficial. I’m learning faster than I expect I could through any other route I could follow whilst maintaining a full-time working life. I’m also convinced that my draft is already tighter and more compelling by a considerable margin, than I could ever make it without my mentor’s guidance.

The downside – and it’s not a downside as such – is the more I learn, the more I realise how much my earlier writing (perhaps the first third or more of the draft) will have to change. I have a good grasp of what I need to do. When I come to edit I’ll be discarding great chunks of that first third (including one or two of those hard-to-murder darlings), rewriting scenes, re-engineering characters, checking and double-checking the integrity of my POVs, verifying research, modifying language and probably crying myself to sleep every night. But even now, almost finished with my first draft and anticipating the rout, I’m excited about how it’s all coming together.

I wonder, am I optimistic or naive when I permit myself to think I may just have the makings of a good read on my hands? When I allow myself to dream that I can smell the freshly printed pages; that I can hear myself reading to a room full of people and answering questions on why I chose this or that setting, or what prompted me to bring such-and-such a character to the story; that I can feel the weight of the pen in my hand as I sign copies of my debut novel at a fashionable literary festival; that I can see my Facebook page packed with likes as I update fans on when my second novel is due; that I can feel the chill of the air-conditioned room, with fresh fruit and Danish pastries on the table, where I’m discussing my forthcoming TV mini-series with media executives… (OK, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched, but this is a dream, right?).

But for now it’s another day and another 1,000 words before breakfast. Oh yes, and it’s about time I set up that Facebook page.

On committing a murder

I’m deep into writing my first novel. On Friday I had almost 50,000 words, a clear story outline and a plan to finish the first draft in time for Christmas. By the end of the weekend, I had closer to 40,000 words and a dead body on my hands. I have murdered my first character.

Well, not murdered exactly. But he’s gone, completely disappeared. He has, as they say, ceased to be. He is an ex-character.

After much debate and soul-searching and a not insignificant piece of feedback from an author I deeply respect, who also happens to be my mentor on this project, I decided it was time for this particular character to fall off his perch.

I spent the better part of the weekend slashing great chunks of narrative from my draft and rewriting other sections – or planning how they would be rewritten, since I ran out of hours. I think I’m satisfied with the results, but I can’t tell just yet as I’m still mourning Gavin’s demise – it’s all too painful at the moment.

It’s an interesting exercise, putting observations once made and words once spoken by Gavin into the mouths of other people. It may be perfectly credible for another character to raise the same point, interact with the same person or reach the same conclusion as he, thus move the plot forward in the desired way; but each of these scenes requires a different voice – different choice of language, tone, degree of subtlety, or lack thereof. For this novice writer, it’s a challenge and it’s a learning.

I relish both, I think. But ask me again in a few weeks.