The jury’s out – you have voted on the most troublesome issue, and I have to agree with you. There’s no use having a good idea and even perfect grammar and punctuation if you drone on for so long you make your reader dribble on their kindle.
Keeping a story going has proven to be troublesome for many of us. How many well-known authors have confessed to feeling a little uncomfortable when their editor suggested they cut out some of the waffle? Quite a few. This is not an unique problem. It doesn’t just apply to one or two. We write, we publish, we like to share. We like telling stories – hell, we’re writers for a reason, right? So it’s only natural that we sometimes talk too much.
So don’t feel bad when you hear a friend/beta/editor/publisher/agent tell you that you could have accomplished the same thing in half as many words. It’s only normal.
I’d like to make a little distinction here: if you’ve already written a book, you need to look at this with much harsher eyes than if you’re only just starting. Why? Because having produced a few hundred/thousand words cost you time, effort, energy, maybe a few sleepless nights and a few arguments with close family members, so it feels like a wrench to cut anything out – each word has a value to you, and each cent or penny adds to the overall price.
Um, no. In writing this rule does not apply. Less is almost always more.
Let me give you an example. I quote a paragraph of a book I recently read and reviewed (I use the term ‘recently’ loosely, always – you should know that) to illustrate what I mean. You’re allowed to skip to my next paragraph when you get bored, by the way.
“We drove the rest of the way home in silence. I went to my study to put a new battery in my right earpiece, or ‘hearing instrument’ as the User’s Guide rather grandiloquently calls it. I get through an amazing number of batteries because I frequently forget to switch off the hearing instruments when I put them away in their little zipped and foam-lined pouch, and then, unless Fred should happen to hear them making the high-pitched feedback noise they emit when thus enclosed and draws my attention to it, the batteries run down uselessly. This quite often happens at night if I take them out in my study or in the bathroom before going to bed and leave them where Fred can’t hear them whining to themselves like mosquitoes. It happens so often in fact, even after I have made a special effort to do the opposite, that I sometimes think there is some kind of hearing-aid imp who switches them on in the night after I have switched them off. I simply can’t believe it when I open the pouch in the morning and find them switched on when I have such a clear memory of switching them off. There must be a kink in my neural pathways which makes me unconsciously switch them on again after consciously switching them off, a reflex motion of the thumb which slides the battery covers into the ‘On’ position even as I place them in their little nests of synthetic foam to sleep. The Bates Reflex, named after Desmond Bates, who established early in the twenty-first century that users develop an unconscious hostility towards their hearing aids which causes them to ‘punish’ these devices by carelessly allowing the batteries to run down. Actually it’s self-punishment because the batteries are quite expensive…”
Sorry, I got bored. The paragraph above is not even half the one in the book – no breaks over one and a half pages. And there are many more like it in there. Give yourself a pat on the back if you’ve worked out how many stars it got in my review.
Could the writer have told me he’s useless at looking after his hearing aid in under ten words? I think so, I just managed it!
Ok, so rule ONE of moving a story along is: don’t waffle.
Say what you have to say, write it all down, every detail and every adjective. And when you’ve done that, write it again, in fewer words. Can you do that? Does it still make sense? If no, re-write it. If yes, you can move along to the next paragraph. If you’re not sure, save the second version in a separate document and show both of them to a beta reader or two. They’ll soon tell you which one works best.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to do this for the whole book. By the time you’ll have done it for the first chapter, you’ll know what you’re looking for. And it should be a lot easier to find a volunteer beta if you only subject them to one of the chapters, even if it’s written in five different ways. It’s still shorter and easier to understand than a whole book.
Now that you’re comfortable knowing that all those precious words will not go to waste (because they lie safely within the many pages of that second document – I call mine ‘cut offs’ by the way; yes, I have one, too, don’t act all surprised) you won’t be afraid to experiment when writing descriptions, for example, or someone’s hidden thoughts, or even fruit cake recipes, whatever makes you happy, because you can still keep the spare. Just not in this book. Words are forgiving like that – they are happy to be laid aside, forgotten or re-used.
Rule TWO I apply to my writing is: don’t be predictable.
There is a time and a place for predictability, and that is right at the beginning, when you’re letting the reader know that your protagonist’s problem is indeed what they read on the back cover of your book before committing to buying it, or in the synopsis. For the rest of the time, you’ll have to keep it fresh.
A good exercise I employ is as follows: say the young girl in your story has run away from home and she’s alone and upset in the forest when a bear rears up on his back feet in front of her. You need to save her or risk finishing your book somewhat abruptly. What is the first thing that comes into your mind? How do you save her? Write it down and immediately move it to that second document. The second idea and the third, too. Why? Because if you’ve thought about it right away, you can bet your life so have the majority of your readers (I’m talking about relatively normal people here). They expect it. That’s fun, of course, guessing right. But the unexpected can be so much better!
Which brings me to rule THREE: keep the disasters coming.
Ruthless? Yeah. But who wants to read about something so ordinary, it could be a story written by a three-year old? You are older than that, more evolved than that, more experienced and imaginative than that, surely. At the beginning of my writing career I read an article in a magazine; I’ve long since forgotten the names of the article and its author. But a few words stuck. End every chapter in a cliff-hanger and the reader won’t be able to bear putting the book down, it said.
I have applied it, once or twice – awkwardly at first, better and better and more cleverly as time progressed, until it got to the point where it comes naturally. I don’t even think about it anymore. It is a very powerful tool.
Of course, like all power tools, it should be used with caution. Fight after fight in every chapter will become tiring and predictable. You have a plot, and I’m guessing there are a few top points poking their heads through the mass of ideas, which need to be blown up into some major event. Use them to fuel the action, and switch to something different in between: emotion, mystery, suspense, surprise, loss… There are so many options. And you never know, your story might even get richer along the way.
These are by no means all the rules I can think of, but I’m trying to stick to my own strategy here. Have you tripped over the sort of books that scream take the waffle out of me? Or liven me up a little? Please share – I’d love to hear about your experiences.