Tag Archives: rewriting

One Million Words

Earlier this summer, my father passed away. Like me, he was a writer, although in the main he kept his writings to himself. As a result, I’m not familiar with most of what he wrote. I do know he wrote at least two novels, a fair bit of poetry, and some essays.

Near the end of his life, he self-published his first novel and sent me the second one on CD, which I promptly managed to lose. Fortunately, my wife rediscovered it the other day. I’m planning to edit and publish that novel for family members. In quickly reviewing it, though, I realized that my father’s fiction, like that of many would-be novelists, is what I call immature.

I have to be careful with that word. Call someone’s writing immature and they’re likely to think you’re calling them immature. But no, it’s about the writing, not the writer. Immature writing lacks the craftsmanship associated with professional writing. An apprentice carpenter who hasn’t acquired the skill of cutting a smooth, straight line can’t produce mature, professional work. Likewise, a writer who regularly uses fifty words to say what can be said in ten or mistakes exposition for story can’t produce mature, professional work.

Nearly every writer starts out immature in this sense. We learn through practice, by reading the works of others, by studying the craft–whether formally or informally–and by getting feedback. No writer is expert from the get-go. Even prodigies read before they write. All expertise is acquired, and in many technical fields it’s said one must spend about ten years developing a skill before reaching expert level.

Writing is no different, except the point of expertise is typically given in words instead of years: you have to write one million words before you’re an expert writer. The number isn’t as significant as the concept. Some acquire expertise faster, others need longer. Either way, writing takes consistent practice.

Today, technology makes everyone a potential publisher. There may be good in this, but it comes with a dark side: a great many writers rush their work to completion and publish long before it’s ready. Even if they’ve spent years putting words down, they haven’t spent years developing their craft. Result? Huge numbers of books debut every day, a large percentage of which are poorly written. Immature.

I had the good fortune to suffer through many years of my wife’s critiques and edits. Generally it’s a bad idea to ask a friend or relative to comment on your work, because those close to you may be afraid to give you bad news. Not so with my wife. She once referred to her technique as “Kathy’s slash and burn school of writing.” Her first comment on The Fibonnaci Murders, which I wrote after nearly a decade of not writing fiction, was, “I can tell you’re out of practice.” Honest feedback in invaluable, if painful. I suspect that many writers never get that kind of feedback. If they had, they might not have rushed into print (or electrons).

My father at least tried. At the end of his manuscript he noted the dates when he finished the first draft and several revisions. He also noted the date he sent the manuscript to a friend. Unfortunately, as he also noted, he received no comments. Fortunately, his work is now in my hands. With any luck, I can whip it into shape for him. I promise I won’t publish it until I do.

Short and Snappy

Years ago, I ran across an interesting writing exercise.  It goes something like this:

1. Write a paragraph describing an object.

2. Rewrite the paragraph, but use only half as many words.

3. Rewrite the rewrite, again using only half as many words.

This could be repeated several times.  Let’s give it a try.  Here’s a short paragraph I wrote describing a tree in my yard:

In my front yard stands a tall Norway spruce, with branches that swoop gracefully down and then turn up again toward the sun.  The dark green foliage seems to drip off of the branches, hanging down in long tendrils.  Taller than the house, its scaly trunk is about three feet in diameter, and twenty feet up it splits into three trunks.  A few years ago, the upper part of one of those trunks snapped off under heavy snow.  The bark is coated with white trails where sap has run down from holes drilled into the wood by the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that stop to feed while passing through late each winter.

My word processor puts that paragraph at 110 words.  Half of that would be 55, so let’s see if we can get there:

Towering over the house, the Norway spruce in my front yard drips dark green foliage from branches that swoop down and then rise sunward again.  Three feet across at its base, the trunk forks into three great spires pointing heavenward, one broken off, silent testimony to a past snowstorm.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers on their annual migration drill holes into the tree late each winter, leaving white trails of dried sap on the rough bark.

Nope, that’s 73 words.  Back to editing:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage along swooping branches whose tips turn sunward.  High above, the yard-thick trunk forks three spires pointing heavenward, one shattered, testifying to a past snowstorm.  Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers pierce the tree late each winter, spilling sap that dries in white trails on the rough bark.

That’s better: 55 words exactly.  Let’s stop there for a moment.  Compare the last version with the first.  What changed aside from the word count?  Not the information content: the tree’s height and girth, its form and color, the broken trunk, and its interaction with the birds are all present in both cases.  Rather, I changed how I conveyed the information.  The shorter version is necessarily more active.  Instead of standing in the yard, taller than the house, the tree towers over the house.  The birds don’t leave trails of dried sap; they spill the sap which dries.  And so forth.  I’ve also had to find stronger words—shattered instead of merely broken off—to describe the scene.

The general rule, then, is this: Shortening a passage without losing content makes it more active.  Not coincidentally, which version would you rather read?

Is it possible to cut this down by half again, to 27 or 28 words?  In this case, not without losing information.  Even so, it may be worth the effort, if only as an exercise, because that requires choosing which details are the most important.  For example, if the birds were the important thing:

Late in winter, migrating yellow-bellied sap suckers pierce the Norway spruce towering over my house, spilling sap down the rough bark to dry in white trails.

Or if the broken trunk were more important:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage while, high above, its thick trunk forks three great spires, one shattered in a past snowstorm.

Less is not always more, but editing often requires shortening and removing in order to strengthen a passage and present the right details.  Give it a try.  You may be surprised by the results!

Writing Out of a Corner

For awhile, I was making good progress on True Death, the sequel to The Fibonacci Murders.  A number of interesting characters had turned up, and the story was moving forward rather well.  Then it happened.

I wrote myself into a corner.

The work stalled while I tried to figure out how I was going to extricate myself and my characters from an untenable position.  The problem, put in such a way as to avoid giving away the story, was that a couple of characters who represented vital links in the chain needed to resolve the main plot couldn’t reasonably play a role in the resolution.

The problem is bound up with my method of writing.  I like to describe that method in archery terms.  Archers have at their disposal several methods of aiming.  One involves visual alignment, another involves the use of devices known as bow sights.  One is referred to as the instinct method: the archer basically has a “feel” for how the bow must be held in order to hit the center of the target.  That was my method.  I was (once upon a time) fairly good at it.

I approach writing in much the same way.  I don’t typically plan out a story in great detail.  I have a general idea of where I’m going and how to get there, but the characters often surprise me.  Normally, it works out well.  This time, it rather didn’t.

I’d like to report that I’m finally out of the corner.  Over the past couple of days, things started moving again and it looked for a time like I was on my way again.  But today, reviewing what I’d written, I decided I just didn’t like it.  That path out of the corner hadn’t worked.

So I guess tomorrow I get to start over.  Somewhere, there is a way out.  I just have to find it.