Monday, July 22, 2013

Every word counts: streamlining

Okay, I promise this is the last nerdy post for a while :) This one’s the wrap-up. I hear a collective sigh of relief? Yes, yes, here’s the ladder, so those who jumped in here with me and have kept reading can now climb out of the rabbit hole and scurry to safety...

(isn’t ‘scurry’ a wonderfully delicious/strong word?)

If I’ve managed to succeed in even the smallest way, I hope you can see your writing through slightly different, OCD-tinted lenses.

So, what about application? I’ve thrown eight looooooong posts at you, this is number nine (over 9,000 words and counting), but I originally talked about method, strategy, process.

I think the best way to learn to recognize, and rectify the amorphous ‘show vs tell’ is to write, and edit flash fiction.

Start with a 500 word story, and whittle it down to 300 words. Write a 300 word story, and make it 200 words. Take a 200 word story, strip it to 100 words. Write a 100 word story, and edit until it’s 75 or even 50 words.

Overcompensate. Overwrite. Yes, that's what I'm saying, and that's the reason I posted first-draft material as examples, 'cause I do it ALL the time. Every word counts in the end, but often it's easier to use many words until you've nailed down your point, then delete the unnecessary/filler words later. This is also a good way to figure out what works best for the voice of your characters. How would they describe/explain something? Write it three different ways, then choose the best one, and delete the rest.

In first drafts, I always circle my point like a vulture over roadkill... and only feast when I’ve whirled around and around, and I recognize the piece I want by its perfectly ripe flavor.

If you don't like writing flash fiction, or find it intimidating, you can also do this by choosing one scene from a larger manuscript, which is what I'm going to use here to hopefully illustrate my point.

This is also a great test to see if your characters have distinct ‘voices’ by removing as many dialogue tags as possible.

I'm not actually a chronic over-writer... I used to be, but my first drafts have become way more streamlined/clean from practice. Now I tend to start with very little information, and flesh it out later, which is how I do get myself into trouble once in a while. Janice Hardy had a challenge on her blog, so this is what I edited down to fit the requirements. 

I'm going to post the original first. It was 648 words, I also specifically edited out all swearing (I try to be considerate when it's on someone else's site):

(by the way, this scene is the second half of the one used for description/body language)

Then there’s a double-fisted bang at my door. 
I jump.
I breathe.
I wasn’t breathing until now. Not enough. I’m lightheaded. Blink, breathe. Eyes are dry. Hands, still moving?
“Jay, X-Box!”
Damn it. It’s Donovan.
He pounds again. “Jay, it’s already hooked up, so take off your lipstick and panties for an hour, and come down.”
“I’m working.” My hands are trembling, fingers black. God, it feels so damn good to draw.
“No you’re not.” There’s a shuffle and squeal as the door cracks open. Donny wedges his head inside. “Oh, that’s not the hot white chick you were painting last year.” 
Before I can dignify his incomprehensibly obvious statement with a response, he makes it worse by speaking again.
“Why do you have a Mexican in your room? Are you paying her in food stamps to take her clothes off?”
Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s not thicker than bigotry. The guy is a serious asshole. I’d like to say he grew up in a cult compound, had nut-job parents who taught him to fear his own shadow, or maybe blame it on generations of inbreeding, but that’s not it at all.
Donovan is just an ass, but at least he’s equally an ass to everyone. He calls me a homo ‘cause I paint, and his dad a redneck, even though my uncle is an accountant of all things.  Maybe ‘cause the guy drives one of those small Toyota pickups. I’ve even heard Donny call his mom a bitch, right to her face. Actually, I think he calls all girls ‘bitches’.
I know you can’t choose your family members, but I sure as hell believe you can choose to walk the other way when you see one coming.
Since it’s my house, and my workroom, this isn’t a case where I actually could walk away, but I put down my stick of charcoal and turn around. It’s more difficult than I expect to control the volume of my own voice. “She’s not naked, and she’s not Mexican, you half-wit.”
“She’s brown, ain’t she? That wasn’t racist, y’know, ‘cause she is brown, and anyways, I have the right to free speech.” Donovan winks and flips up both middle fingers. “First amendment, all the way. If you don’t like it, suck it. We’re in America.”
An instant migraine spears through my frontal lobe, and I’m about to yell at him again, when Kell breaks in.
“Wow, double-digit-IQ here knows which country he lives in. Gold stars all around.” She doesn’t sound angry, or even sarcastic. There’s amusement sparking in her low voice.
I manage a tight laugh. “Southpark here gets all his charm from from YouTube. He’s a sophomore at St. Anthony’s.”
Her lips stretch in that weird, not-a-smile way. “I didn’t know private schools consider geography an elective class. I suppose it’s considered extraneous, along with diplomacy and etiquette.”
Donny snorts, tugging at his blue and red striped tie. His shirt is untucked, his pants wrinkled, there are grass stains on his knees. “I’m taking automotive shop, not French.”
Kell’s mouth may not be curved, but her eyes are dancing. “I guess changing oil is one step up from making fries.”
“Hey, Taco Bell, go back to Mexico so Jay and me can shoot shit on the seventy-two-inch plasma.”
“Donovan!” I’m about to get seriously pissed.
But Kell leans forward, out of the good light. “Call of Duty?”
“Fuck, yeah!”
Then she’s off the stool and navigating the room like she’s twirling through a choreographed routine she could maneuver in her sleep. “You better bring your A-game, Butters, ‘cause I’m going to kick your ass.” She pounds a fist into Donny’s shoulder as she slips past him into the hallway.
He turns and gapes at me. “Damn, that kinda hurt!”
Then he’s chasing her downstairs.

Now, here it is edited down to exactly 250 words. I did it really fast, so I know I could have removed more, or been more effective:

There’s a double-fisted bang on my door. “Jay, X-Box.”
“I’m working.”
“Take off your lipstick and panties for an hour!” Donny wedges his head through the crack and sees Kell. “Why do you have a Mexican in your room? Are you paying her in food stamps to take her clothes off?”
Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s not thicker than bigotry. I know you can’t choose your family members, but I sure as hell believe you can walk the other way when you see one coming.
I put the charcoal down. “She’s not Mexican, you half-wit, or naked.”
“But she’s brown. That wasn’t racist, y’know, ‘cause she is brown, and anyways, I have the right to free speech.” He winks. “First amendment, all the way.”
Before I can yell, Kell breaks in.
“Double-digit-IQ here knows what country he lives in. Gold stars all around.” She doesn’t sound angry, or even sarcastic.
I manage a tight laugh. “Donny’s a sophmore at St. Anthony’s”
“I didn’t realize private schools consider geography an elective, along with diplomacy and etiquette.”
Donny snorts. “I’m taking automotive shop, not French.”
“Changing oil is one step up from making fries.”
“Hey, Taco Bell, get out so Jay and me can shoot stuff.”
“Donovan!” I’m about to get seriously pissed.
But Kell leans forward, out of the good light. “Call of Duty?”
“Oh, yeah!”
“Then I’m going to kick your butt.”
He grins. “Well, I don’t mind if you’re wearing lipstick.”

So, what do you think? Did I lose any of the essence of the scene? I lost bits of action, lines were simplified, explanations trimmed, the last line changed, but the voices of all three characters remained distinct. Even when I took out a bunch of the dialogue tags, you should still know which character is speaking.

Take one of your own scenes, and start cutting.

When it’s trimmed down, read it again, cut more.

Think about everything we talked about: description, voice, body language. Think about subtext. Can you use one word/image to imply multiple meanings, or to suggest state of mind? Can you add words from a description, or take away, to accentuate what the character cares about? What about body language? Can you express emotional/psychological/physical state of one character, simply through the observational skills of another character without ‘telling’? What words are you using that are weak, and can you swap them out with a few strong ones?

Now start adding back in.

Alrighty, that’s my process for new scenes, first-drafts, flash-fiction, and novels. Those are the main components I always keep in the back of my head when I write, when I measure/analyze/edit my own words to death, and when I critique my CP’s writing. It’s why I don’t normally do line edits, because sometimes there ends up being more blue text (my comments/questions) than black text.

Okay, this series is now finished, so what did you guys think? Did I miss something, or totally go off-base? Was there something that could be explained better, or confusing parts? I’m definitely willing to refine the posts if you have things to say/critiques/suggestions, or write a new post if you anyone has questions.

Was this helpful at all? I’m never sure when I skulk off on nerdy-tangents whether anyone enjoys it, or if you’re all rolling your eyes and wondering when I’m going to shut up.

It took about 10 hours to write these posts... about 10,000 words in one day (except the examples from SCARLIGHT), and by the end, it felt like my brain was skipping around like a carbonated wasp. I’m sure there were points where I utterly failed at clarity, if not managed to completely bastardize the English language. I expect to be strung up for my crimes, eventually.

Now, anyone who still wants a critique, todays' the last day to email me. 250-ish words only, please.

...after today, that’s the end of it, and only my CP’s will get to enjoy? my insanely OCD-over-analysis-editing of their writing. (Y’know, there might be a reason I keep moving... so no one can sneak up in the middle of the night and take revenge)

Oh, I've decided not to post them online, just to email them back to those who send them to me.

That be all, folks ;)

Back down the rabbit-hole I go :) It was nice having you visit the unfortunate, over-cluttered insanity that is my brain. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to live in here?


  1. Cutting stuff down is always fun and interesting; I once reduced half a page to ~2 sentences, which was nicely funny. I tend to find the core moment of a scene (often dialogue, given me) and then build around that. Downside is that, in my case, often a lot of the cracks show through on a re-read :)

    And the series was interesting: I don't get anywhere NEAR this detailed on a conscious level and find getting stuff to work on multiple levels at once fun and frustrating since it is impossible to gauge what a reader is going to get out of a story.

    1. ...haven't you also reduced entire manuscripts to a single page of random lines?

      Finding that core moment, that's exactly it :)

      yeah, I'm definitely a candidate for being locked up and heavily sedated ;) Often I don't talk a lot 'cause my mind is blowing through all the angles of how someone could potentially take/react to what I want to say.

  2. I've got my own brand of cluttered insanity over here! Good luck down that rabbit hole!

    1. Hope yours is a little less dark, cluttered, and potentially certifiable ;)

  3. Well... I missed part of your series, but I got to say--you nailed it here, girl. That vulture metaphor is *exactly* me, and it makes me feel so much better to know I'm not crazy, haha. I've heard of people that write the other way around: the bare bones, then flesh it out into full-bodied-ness. I'm jealous because it feels like that would be so much simpler--getting that ever-elusive (for me) point down right off, then just building it up into narrative. Instead, I feel like I'm lost in a sea of words. There's a lifesaver here somewhere, but I'm tired and gurgling on salt water and... glub-glub-glub, hahahaha :D Thanks for sharing your processes, Ms. Monkey. Hugely illustrative.

    1. Well, either we're both crazy, or neither of us is crazy :)

      ...though I must say, I think I'd rather be crazy ;) Okay, not literally, but I'd rather someone love/hate my & my writing than be apathetic to it.

      Love the image of the sea of words... I'd love to swim in that ;)


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)