My editor father was a great one for quotes of value. Living in his non-fiction world, he once said, “Good writers know what to put into a story. The best writers know what to leave out.” – J. W. Kizzia. He was right, and as I have grown older, and now having lost him more than a year ago, it is remarkable to me to realize how often he was right.
To that end, whenever I finish a story or book, after running through spell check and whatever, I first return to see what I can cut out. What is extraneous? What does not advance the story? What is repeated? Because of the way I outline before I begin, I have never discarded whole chapters, but I know some who have. (I actually added a chapter once when I needed a more direct confrontation to build the suspense). But I have discarded many sections, paragraphs and innumerable lines and bits of dialogue where they do not contribute to the development of characters, or to the storyline.
Next, I look for the obvious storytelling flaws, the most obvious probably being where I explain rather than show. If it is important for the reader to know (and often it is not) I determine when the reader needs to know it and then I try to design a way to show the information in an active scene, or dialogue, or (as a last resort) through introspection. I always read the omnipotent author stopping to explain something as an interruption of the story and it turns me off.
Finally, I consider the words. I admit that I am not good at worrying about whether “flying” or “soaring” would be a better choice for the passage. Some people are, but it seems to me that would take forever (that may be why I am fairly prolific but consider myself a pedestrian writer). I do consider the flow of the piece, however, and especially where I become repetitive, using the same word too many times or repeating the same phrase or descriptive bit. I take Dickens as my lead on that.
Dickens got paid by the word, of course, so he was inspired to draw things out, and yet he could take three pages to say it was snowing and get away with it. The thing was, Dickens wrote those three pages brilliantly, using parallel constructions and without ever repeating himself, exactly, so his readers were captivated and never realized that all he was saying for three pages was it was snowing, and perhaps cold. With that inspiration, I figure that surely I can find a different way to say essentially the same thing (like “flying” or “soaring”).
Once I have cut out what I can, resolved my storytelling flaws and assured myself that the story flows well, I type THE END and then the most important part, I don’t look at it again! BAEN publishing, one of the few publishing houses that currently has a set-up to receive over the transom manuscripts via the internet has an automatic response that every writer should seriously consider. “Your manuscript has been received. It takes 9-12 months to review a manuscript so while you are waiting, go write your next book.” Don’t look at it! Go write the next one.
Remember Robet Heinlein’s rules of writing:
1. You must write
2. You must finish what you start
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
4. You must put your story on the market
5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold
Writing Tip 12:
My wife likes things clean. Normally, I don’t mind, but we have a table that got a stain on it from a wine glass. She tried everything to get that stain up and finally rubbed the finish off, cleaning it right down to the wood. The whole table had to be stripped and refinished. Was it worth it? Don’t do that to your writing. You may see the wine stain, but an agent, publisher, reader may not, or they may feel it gives the work character. Don’t second-guess, Instead, take a deep breath, recognize that no story is ever going to be perfect and go write the next one.
One thought on “One Writer’s Writing Secrets 12: Finish & Polish, don’t rub it raw.”
Great advice. Thank you.