Last month I was on a panel at a writer’s conference, and one of the questions was “What piece of writing advice do you wish you’d known earlier?”
My answer had mostly to do with the need to write tight. Early in my writing career, I had trouble writing succinctly—particularly in knowing what to include and what to leave out. And lately as I’ve been reading entries for a contest I’m helping to judge, I’ve noticed that many young writers have a similar struggle and often add more than is necessary.
So, here are three pieces of advice I wish I’d known earlier about writing tight:
1. Make Every Scene Count:
Before I write a scene, I envision a stage and my characters upon it. Who would want to go to a play and watch the actors meander around the stage talking to themselves or reflecting on problems while eating, getting ready, shopping, driving in the car, talking on the phone, etc.? Or thinking about their past (aka backstory)? Big yawn.
Rather than the mundane and ordinary, our audience wants to be entertained by the unfolding story. Put the characters on stage and have them jump right into the action. Start the conflict. Get the story moving. EACH scene needs to be critically important to the plot and story development or it needs to see the lovely black end of the delete button.
If we eliminate static scenes, then readers will come to expect that every scene in our book adds suspense or value to the plot, even when we slow the pace. The more succinct and necessary we make each scene, the fewer parts readers will be able to skim or skip.
2. Make Every Character Count:
Before I add a new character (particularly a minor one), once again I envision a stage. I check to see if any of the other characters who are already on stage can do the job first.
First, I don’t want my stage becoming cluttered with too many characters. Our audience will have a hard time keeping them all straight even if we do our best to give them unique tags and names. So when I need a minor character, I try to use one I’ve already brought onto the stage earlier (rather than add a completely new character).
Second, I try not to name all of my minor characters unless I need to do so for clarity’s sake. Even those I strategically place on the stage don’t get names. And if they get a “speaking part,” it’s often in a generic sense like: One of the other farmers said, “Go on you big chicken. Ask her to dance.”
The point is if we write tight with our characters, we increase the potential for them becoming more memorable versus getting lost on the crowded stage.
3. Cut the Flowery Descriptions:
When I write descriptions, I look at the stage and decide what props I need and why. I don’t wax eloquent about the weather or the clothing or the people passing by—just because I want to. I make myself have a reason for adding in those details.
Of course, as a historical writer, one of my important jobs is to bring to life a bygone era. Since readers haven’t been to the 1830’s Oregon Trail (the setting for The Doctor’s Lady), I have to find ways to create the aura of that setting. Even though I add in historical details to bring the era to life, I still try to do so with extreme care.
Sometimes I add setting details to create a certain mood. Other times, I describe things that play a role in the plot. The point is that I try to use description as strategically as possible. And, I try to weave it in seamlessly so that readers see the description through the eyes of the point of view character as the action unfolds.
Anytime we use flowery prose for the sake of sounding beautiful, that usually means we need to make another date with our delete key.
Have you ever had trouble deciding what to include and what to leave out of your story? In what area do you have the most trouble with writing tight?