Saturday, 12 September 2009

BIG MISTAKE 3: OVER-WRITING

Thing about writers is we're passionate about words. (If you're not, bugger off, please).

Trouble with being passionate about words is we sometimes don't know when to rein in our passion. I admit that I'm guilty of this quite often. There are people in my life who do their best to stop me, and very grateful I am to them.

They are, in no particular order:
  • my husband - "Shut up: you're banging on."
  • my editor - "OTT" / "suggest omit?"
  • my internal editor - "do you really need both those descriptions you're so horribly proud of? Would you consider killing one of the babies? No? Well, I'll do it for you and it won't be pretty."
Personally, I blame it on primary school teachers. (With all respect to them for the otherwise wonderful job they do and all the nasty things they mop up.) See, when kids start to write stories, they're told to use adjectives, and adverbs, and detail, and the five senses; and then they get onto similes and metaphors and other devices. Whenever children use these techniques, they get praised. So they use more. And more. Some children don't and they don't get praise, so they fade into the background and become the ones who don't consider themselves writers. Meanwhile Arabella and George have their stories read out in class to demonstrate the richness of their language and the vividness of their imaginations. And so Arabella and George gorge on more and more adjectives and clever-clever literary devices and get carried away into some kind of ecstasy as they sit in their teenage rooms and pour their hearts out into their diaries by moonlight.

Other kids are asleep, but Arabella and George are floating on moonbeams and diving into liquid worlds and sherbet dreams and the parts of their brains that are good with words become passionate about words and lo and behold, two hopeful writers are emerging.

Thing is, no one tells them to stop. No one tells them that just because an adjective is beautiful, five adjectives are not necessarily five times as beautiful. No one tells them that words are valuable, that they need to be chosen perfectly, that effort goes into the positioning of each word, and, crucially, its removal if it is not the absolute best one for the job.

So, grown-up now, Arabella and George begin to write novels. They write for themselves, because they must be true to their souls. They put everything into their oeuvres, their whole beings, all the power of language that they can muster. They read their work aloud to themselves, over and over again. They make themselves cry and shiver with the piercing anguish of their prose.

One day, they are ready to send their oeuvres off to publishers. They visit a well-known blog, called Help! I Need a Publisher! - though, in fact, they believe that they should really be on a blog called "Help! I'm a Publisher and I Really Need You, You Fabulous Writer!" And they follow all the stunning advice about covering letters and synopses and sample chapters and tailoring the submission properly to the right publisher. They don't even include any toffee, or glitter, or naked photos of themselves, though George is tempted because he has a kind of Byronic air of which he is more than faintly proud.

And they are rejected. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that their work is over-written. Thing is that A & G, potentially talented though they may be, are totally up themselves with the beauty of their prose and they have forgotten that this is not about them: it's about the story / work / book /reader. Of course, we must write from the heart and I would never advise selling out at the expense of the quality of your writing - though you may earn more if you do - but if you put yourself and the pleasure YOU derive from your own words above the work itself and the pleasure the reader will take from it then you may as well talk under water.

Help! How do I know if I'm doing this horrible over-writing thing?
So far, I've suggested a cause and a result, and you'll have gleaned something general about what over-writing is, but I haven't shown you how to spot it in your own work. It's easier to spot in others' work, because it's damned irritating. It's like seeing someone a bit over-dressed for the occasion - you know, when someone has just gone that little bit too far to show off the gorgeous legs and Manolo Blahniks when all we're doing is digging a ditch; or perhaps like wearing two diamond necklaces - very vulgar, dahling. It's showing off, preening, and no one responds well to it. When we find over-writing in someone else's work, we may mutter under our breath, "Ok, ok, you really fancy yourself, don't you?" and it gets in the way of the story that we were trying to read.

And this is the main point about over-writing: it gets in the way. It ends up hiding the true beauty underneath, covering it with glitz and frills.

So, on the basis that you are looking carefully at every word you use, because I know you are, here are the questions I think you should ask yourself when checking your work for over-writing. Ask yourself these things especially when it's a piece of description, high emotion, or when you are feeling particularly proud of yourself:
  • have I paced the surrounding sentences so that this bit has enough space to work? So, if my gem is surrounded by loads of other gems, is it going to be noticed? No? So, bin some gems. Give the purple sentence some space. You can't see purple on a background of purple
  • have I said the same thing twice? (I do this a lot. I even do it quite often.) Or if not exactly the same then is half my description more powerful than the other half?
  • have I used three adjectives where one (or a different phrase altogether) would have worked harder and maybe ended up being more meaningful?
  • is this in fact a bit of action where the reader doesn't want to be held back by description anyway? Will the reader be tempted to skip to the action?
  • is this actually beautiful or is it in fact absurdly flowery? Am I being like a child who thinks that My Little Bride Pony is genuinely tasteful? Am I being greedy and deluded?
  • if it is genuinely beautiful, is it in keeping with the rest of the work / section? Am I "in voice"?
  • have I been guilty of "showing, not telling"? (This is often over-used as a crit - sometimes, telling is the right thing to do, but only if it's the right thing to do. I've written about it here and here.)
  • have I overdone the adverbs? Especially in dialogue tags - eg. "she said, resignedly" (because it would be much better and more skilful if you showed in other ways that the person spoke resignedly - otherwise [think about it] the reader won't know how to read it until after reading it and getting to your adverb, by which time [if you're a crappy writer] the reader will have read it excitedly or poignantly or something quite differently.
  • if I cut this paragraph by 25% would it be even better? (Yes, it would, trust me.)
One trouble is: over-writing is all relative. What's beautiful prose to someone is self-indulgence to another. You have to work out where you want to be on the spectrum. Michel Faber is my writing hero - his prose is gorgeous, his imagination extreme and his vocabulary and imagery rich and rolling, yet he thinks about every word (or he seems to) and every word works. You have to read every word because there are clues everywhere and you can't afford to miss them. That's how I'd love to write. But everyone's different and I'm not saying other styles aren't just as valuable. Just make sure you're clear about what you want and whether your readers want the same.

I'm currently going through my next novel, Wasted, with my ruthless internal editor's hat on. The novel is done and dusted and my editor wants me to release it for copy-editing, but I'm convinced there are more things wrong with it. One of the things I'm looking for, because I tend to get carried away, is over-writing.

I thought I'd give you three extracts that I picked up and thought about at length:
1. "Their heads tell them that this is fake, ordinary, or has a boring explanation - Farantella is ill or messing around with them."
There's an example of "the cliché of three": fake, ordinary, boring. I realised that ordinary and boring are too similar to be useful, so I changed it to, "Their heads tell them that this is fake, or has an ordinary explanation." No frills, no fancy stuff. No showing off.
2. "For they both feel it: that there is something heavy in the caravan, something thickening the air, a chill breath of strangeness."
This one I haven't finished with. It feels over-written, though it occurs at a moment where I am wanting the reader to pause and savour the atmosphere. But it's that "cliché of three" again, and I'm not sure I'm happy. I'll have to think about it. It may get to stay. Or it may not. I'd rather think of something with one or two phrases, otherwise it looks as though I'm struggling to find the right phrase.
3. "Soon, but not very soon, disentangled but still with the blush of him hot on her skin, Jess goes into her house and smiles goodbye to Jack, standing there, watching her."
This gets to stay. This baby lives. Jack and Jess are passionately in love and every touch is almost unbearably electric. I need to show this, even though I have not described their kiss. I am "showing" the effects of the kiss, the parting of their skin, rather than "telling" you about the kiss. (Frankly, showing and not telling with kissing is often preferable - the imagination can fill in the details without feeling as though the author is being a voyeur ...) So, I judge it not over-written but strong. You may disagree! Of course, all this is about context, and you haven't seen the contexts, but I wanted to show you a little of how I go about trying to be ruthless about over-writing. And sometimes failing.

Do remember that in the end you have to judge this yourself. Some genres require and tolerate greater or lesser levels of prose; different books and different topics require a different treatment.

For example, my first novel, Mondays are Red, is heavily loaded with description, which in a different context you might call over-writing. But it shows a boy waking from a coma, hugely disorientated and with an acquired and exaggerated version of the sensory condition, synaesthesia. So, you get pretty over-the-top description and a deliberately confusing multi-sensory layering - it's a book you either love or hate, depending on whether you can let yourself go with the strange descriptions. Whereas Wasted has whole pages with virtually no adjectives and adverbs at all, completely pared back, interspersed with the occasional sentence suddenly rich in description. The intention there is that you will notice the description much more starkly, because it will stand out.

It's that thing about not being able to see purple against a purple background.

But, whatever you're writing and whoever your reader, it is worth considering whether you can apply these adages to your work:

Less is often more
Flowery is not good - delicately floral is.
Over-writing is in the eye of the beholder - and you do care about your beholder
It requires much greater skill to say something in a few words than in many
And finally, that old chestnut:

If in doubt, leave it out.

If you apply that last one correctly you cannot be guilty of over-writing. It's the most important task of the internal editor: to ensure that every word works and earns its place.

Finally, finally, newbies to this blog, or people with duff memories like mine, may be wondering what Big Mistake 1 and Big Mistake 2 were. They were, respectively, Voice and Pace. And the greatest of these is voice.

Voice defines you and defines your book. It's the hardest thing to teach. Compared to voice, over-writing is a complete doddle. So, no excuses now and no pressure. Go and seek out your over-written passages and where you find them, cut them out. And watch how something much stronger appears.

27 comments:

Catherine Hughes said...

Guilty as charged! Luckily, I know just where to get the best advice on how to rein in my overflowery tendencies...

Sally Zigmond said...

Wise words, Ms Morgan. When my short stories first began to be published, I thought my descriptive passages were the creme de la creme, the bee's knees, the cat's pyjamas. Then someone (God bless her)said that reading my stories was like 'wading through molasses.'

So I went on a diet and now my writing is leaner and fitter but still retaining a touch of gorgeousness. (IMnotsoHO)

catdownunder said...

Less is more. :-)

David J Griffin said...

Excellent post, Nicola. I've been dutifully charged as well with saying the same thing twice in my writing, many times. (Mitigating circumstances: "first draft, m'lud").

In fact, my second novel was so over-written, I managed to cut at least 25,000 words, to leave 75,000. If I needed an excuse for this, it would be that half of it was written in the first person, stream-of-consciousness style. I definitely got a bit carried away...

litlove said...

May I add a vote for abolishing sentences that sound pretty but don't actually mean anything? Or indeed anything that is simply cryptic or gnomic? I mention it because I have a terrible habit of sticking these in.

Thomas Taylor said...

My own particular bête noir is the excessive use of French.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Very good post :-D

DOT said...

I, fortunately, had an excellent English teacher, who relished original thought at the expensive of elaboration.

When I write, and it may be the result of my professional background, I write lean as possible. In the edit, I expand only where necessary to allow the reader a sense of what is happening in the protagonist's head - again on the lean side. My favourite authors never pretend they know all that is happening, preferring to place us in the same role as we are with the closest of friends, i.e. strangers.

A suggestion, at the risk of a severe crabbit punch, for:

"For they both feel it: that there is something heavy in the caravan, something thickening the air, a chill breath of strangeness."

"For they both feel it: a thickening of the air, a chill of strangeness."

emmadarwin said...

Nicola, what a terrific post - off to post the link in all sorts of aspiring-writerly places forthwith.

I think it's very true that it can be the result of writers who've been told 'Show don't tell' (grrrrr! fume!) instead of 'There's showing and there's telling. Learn how they work, and when to use which'.

I particularly agree with you about the 'saying everything twice'. In my experience, students usually do one tell, one show, because that's how the idea arrived in their head... "He felt himself get very angry. His heart started to race". etc. etc.

Nicola Morgan said...

sally - I am sure it does retain more than a touch of gorgeousness!

David et al - oh yes, first draft IS a good excuse. Nopthing wrong with an over-written first draft (though it's interesting that DOT does it the other way round.) I should also add that I'm not necessarily saying that over-writing is all about length. Sometimes, as litlove suggests, it's a flowery or clever-clever sentence that just shouldn't be there at all.

Thomas - my husband says that's almost as funny as the time when he asked our daughter's French boyfried, "What's the French for cul-de-sac" ....

DOT - no risk of a crabbit punch at all! Thank you for the suggestion - i will take a look but I can't promise to credit you if I end up happening to go with your edit! It's good, better than my original, but it may end up changing again. Just call me Flaubert.

Emma - thanks for your comments. I also get very annoyed when people latch onto the show/tell thing - just as when people latch onto any "rule" without considering its purpose.

Ebony - thank you. Catherine - ah. And Catdownunder - purrcisely. Yes, I was aware of the irony of a very long post about succinctness but considered it pointful!

Jen Campbell said...

'It's that thing about not being able to see purple against a purple background.'

Excellent post. I'm self medicating for this with the motto 'edit edit edit.' x

DanielB said...

You're right, but I don't blame teachers so much as the system they are forced to teach under. SATs give points for adjectives and adverbs and dialogue tags! They encourage over-writing - he expostulated aggrievedly.

Flixton Mum said...

I'm not commenting for fear of over writing.

Rebecca Knight said...

The examples of A & G were so funny to me, because it perfectly explains all of the poetry I wrote in high school ;)! I've always wondered what I was thinking...

I totally agree about the "show versus tell" thing, too. I think it can backfire. I've seen good writers overwrite a perfectly good sentence because someone told them they needed to "show" more.

Wonderful post!

Virgina Woolf said...

I really like purple but I tend to overwrite, so I will clearly never be successful. I will fill my pockets with stones and walk into the water

David J Griffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicola Morgan said...

Virgina - no, lots of successful authors do over-write (esp in view of the fact that, as I say, it's all relataive and what's over-writing to one person is beautiful to another). I'm simply saying that it's one of the most common causes for legitimate rejection and one of the things many of us could improve and therefore should look out for. If you've genuinely looked at all your words and decided they all must stay, that the story is better for them and that the reader wants them, they should stay and so should you. No need to be a drama queen!

Marisa Birns said...

Loved the post! And was worried about sending my two cents in for the second extract. But I saw that someone else had done the very thing and she's still standing so here goes:

"For they both feel it: There is something in the caravan, and it thickens the air with a chill breath of strangeness."

And Virginia Woolf has always been a bit strange. I mean, never reaching the lighthouse?

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I'm the opposite. I have to go back in after and add all that detail to my bare bones stage. I rarely, if ever overwrite large passages, but I've been known to weigh down a paragraph or two. :grins:

fairyhedgehog said...

I tend to write too sparsely and end up with white room syndrome or talking heads. It's because I don't like long descriptions in novels but I'm having to learn to give readers a few clues about settings so that they can see the scene in their mind.

Pen said...

Thanks so much for this post. It is so clear and helpful. I just had feed back on my children's historical novel telling me it might not be 100% ready to submit because it had some "over writing" in it. Feeling dumb I was like "huh? does she mean I ..." Turns out what I was guessing it meant was pretty close to being right.
Thanks to your post I now have a clear idea of what I should be looking out for when I go over it yet AGAIN.

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Anonymous said...

I've always heard that kids/teens want to read about a protagonist that's a little older than they are. So if that's the case, I agree with Emily's statement that there should be a little more room about 18 for YA fiction protagnoists.
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GildedOne said...

I love your third extract about the kiss. Very vivid and sensual.

I know what you mean about over-writing. I blame the fact that I study English at uni - I end up over-analysing what I've written, the words I've used, metre, etc. When really, it was better off at the start before I tried to beautify it, as it were. I think a lot of it is, go with your instincts!

Gillian.

Simon D Wood said...

My mentor advised me to plunge a stake through the hearts of adverbs and extraneous adjectives, and to kick out all those "he said" and "she said" attributives which spoil the rhythm of dialogue.