So it’s been a while since my last blog post. Why? Well... which is why I’m only writing this now. Did that make sense? No. Actually, I deleted all the excuses and reasons which I had stored up as armour because you don’t really want to know. You don’t really want to know what mundane life-things have happened to me in between posts. Presumably, you’re here to read an interesting blogpost. To be honest, up until this point it wasn’t even going to be interesting but having deleted all that mush in between, I think that’s a pretty good thing to talk about.
When you’re reading a book do you really want to know that after the big party and before the heroine finally succumbs to the hero’s charms that she had to put fresh food down for the cat, that she drew the curtains in the bedroom (which are marigold yellow with orange leaves on them) and that she had to set Virgin Tivo to record an episode of Deadliest Catch which was being shown at 4am?
You want to get down to the nitty gritty of the story that matters. The only exception I might add at this point is if putting fresh food down results in the cat becoming poisoned or throws up in the hero’s shoes causing him to kick the cat and cause a conflict, or because drawing the curtains enables her to see into her neighbour’s house where she witnesses a murder and she and her hero must help police solve the crime.
Okay, those are a bit extreme but what I’m trying to say is you don’t want to read stuff which doesn’t move the story forward in some way. None of it. As a writer, you might think well, I’ve done it for the most part, there’s no harm in slipping in a bit of redundant information here because it feels so good. There is harm! It’s not needed so it should go – all of it!
I know that’s all well and good saying that but as a writer I know just how easy it is to get caught up in the moment, you are so “into” the scene that you just can’t help but describe every little thing that goes on, whether it’s needed or not. And editing that is one of the hardest things in writing. “Killing your babies” as they say. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, quotes a theatre saying (which I’d never heard before): “If there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I, it must go off in Act III”. For any writer who hasn’t read Mr King’s memoir of the craft, then I recommend you do. It’s the best five pounds you’ll ever spend (apart from Keeping the Peace, of course, which is only £1.94 on Amazon).
I found it a terrific help but I still sometimes struggled to put what he advised into practice. I’m a visual kind of person. Loads of instructions mean diddly to me unless I can rearrange it in my head into a picture which makes sense. The way I use Stephen King’s advice is as follows. It may work for you, it may not. Hey, we’re all different but if you’re struggling with cutting down on your descriptive narratives here’s another way of considering it.
Imagine you’re driving in your car in a strange town. You haven’t got a map with you and the Sat Nav isn’t working again and you’re trying to get to – let’s say the library, an old favourite. You stop and ask for directions.
The first person says “Carry on down this road, there are some lovely mock Tudor houses on your right, the Fox and Rabbit pub, some more terraced houses each with a different painted door, while on the left there is a Co-Op, a SpecSavers, a Poundland shop, a Vue Cinema and the Black Cat pub. Take a right into Park Lane, where there is an avenue of maple trees losing their leaves, some Victorian style houses opposite a small green with a skate-park and swings. You’ll come to a set of traffic lights where they are doing some roadworks and you should take a left there into Lower Fifth Street, pass by the bus depot and transport union offices which are painted an off-cream but has graffiti on the walls, past the City Hall opposite the primary school which was used as a bomb shelter during the war and a 17th century cottage where the headmaster lives with his wife. Then you’ll see a TK-Max store with a big car park next door. And the library is your next building along.”
The second person says “Carry on up this road. Opposite the Fox and Rabbit pub turn right into Park Lane then turn left into Lower Fifth Street at the roadworks then park by TK Max and the library is just next door.”
Which set of directions is the more straight forward? I’m hoping you thought the second otherwise we have a problem. The first is just too much. I’m sure it’s nice to know what pubs are in the area and the autumnal maple trees probably do look quite beautiful but you want to get to the library, end of.
In the second example, however, the director hasn’t totally left out a bit of descriptiveness. He or she has mentioned clear landmarks to look out for in order to make the journey easier. That’s great, it’s not completely clinical (i.e. turn right into Park Lane, turn left into Lower Fifth Street), but it’s not overwhelming either. If you took his advice you’d look for the Fox and Rabbit and know that Park Lane is opposite it and you’d hopefully make the turn in time. But the first director has pointed out mock Tudor houses, two pubs, a cinema, some retailers as well and with all that going on you’re probably going to miss your turn-off.
The same applies with writing. If you overload your reader with superfluous information they’re in danger of missing the vital information they need to know in order to navigate smoothly through your book without having to backtrack and get frustrated.
That’s how I think of my writing when I’m redrafting and it makes more sense. If your reader doesn’t need to know it, don’t tell them. But equally so, find a happy balance. Give them some “landmarks” along the way to make the journey easier.
The other thing is “Get in late, get out early”. We’ve all heard that mantra before. We all know it works, it’s proven and it makes sense, but how easy is it to pinpoint when a scene should start? What are you losing by cutting out the two hundred-word introduction and how do you then start the scene without jarring the reader?
Honestly, I don’t know.
Personally, I’ll write the scene with all the trimmings then at the end, once I know what the scene is all about, I can go back and cut out the bits which have now become redundant although they seemed important at the time.
Then there’s the stuff which you want to keep but occur in the cut intro.
Filter them into the next draft. For instance my latest heroine is a big Bonnie Tyler fan. It’s part of who she is so in my opinion is worthy of being mentioned in the story. How do I let the readers know this without creating a whole scene of her driving in her car with the CD player on before the REAL scene where she arrives at the pub and bumps into the hero?
The final piece started with her walking through the pub doorway with Bonnie Tyler still ringing in her ears. There you go. You know what she’s been listening to. You know she was obviously enjoying it if it was loud enough to still be ringing in her ears. The next sentence: WHAM! There’s our hero looking heroic and we cut to the chase.
And so as not to be hypocritical, I’m going to get out now. I’ve pretty much said everything I wanted to say. You’ve read all you need to read. If you reading past this... well, thanks I appreciate your company. Happy writing and happy reading!