I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.



Friday, June 15, 2012

Taking Out The Garbage

Garbage Overfloweth
If I still wrote on paper...

Hi. My name is Ashley and I have a problem. An action problem. Let me show you... 


Hilary was so very tired when she finally let her head hit the pillow. She yawned and stretched like a cat as she nestled down into the blankets and began to drift off to sleep. The last thing she wanted to hear at this point was the urgent knocking at her front door. She pushed aside the temptation to ignore it and pushed the covers back in irritation. Her fingers automatically brushed the face of her badge lying on the night stand as she rose and slid into her robe. She crossed the bedroom and opened the door into the living room where she could see the shadow of a man as he knocked furiously at the door. She crossed the room slowly to make him wait for waking her up. Hilary pulled open the door and faced the man with a stern look. 
“Agent Davenport?” He asked. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me.”

Now you see the problem. This is an illustration and not from anything I’m writing, but just a little something I concocted to show you what’s making me bang my head against a wall these days. Every time I go back to reread or edit a section I find waaaaay too much detail of physical action that is completely unnecessary to the story and does nothing more than slow it down and make it cumbersome to read. In the immortal words of the English teacher who did so much to shape the writer I am today: “This is garbage.”  If a book opened up with something like the blurb above I’d probably definitely put it back on the shelf and keep browsing.

Tell the story. NOT the action.

Part of this I blame on brainstorming. While I’m still mentally building the story for myself I tend to include every little detail as though I were writing choreography rather than telling a story. That’s how the garbage sneaks back into the story. A really great mantra I heard regarding this problem last year at the Clarksville Writers Conference in Tennessee was ‘Skip the Door,’ meaning that to write that someone has a visitor you don’t have to start off with the doorbell ringing. You start where the story starts.

DancingAs writers we’re all anxious to paint a picture of the world we’re writing for our audience and that temptation can lead us quickly down the road of telling vs. showing that we all hear so much about. I did that on purpose for illustration in the above sample with Hilary waking up, but I do it on accident constantly in my actual writing, as well. I have to stop and think – What part of this is the story and what part of it is garbage?

So, back to the example above. If I were going back and editing this for a book I’d do two things: 1st, I’d groan and make a new dent in the wall with my head, and 2nd, I’d try to figure out where the story started.

Unless this is a novel about Hilary’s desperation for a good night’s sleep, the story probably doesn’t start with her being tired and going to bed, so I’ll strike those first few sentences. Next, though the badge on the night stand tells us that she’s in law enforcement of some kind, so does the man at the door when he calls her an agent. Strike that sentence as well. Now that we’re rid of so much garbage it’s getting easier to see that the story itself starts with the man at the door. He’s the important element to kick off the suspense here, not Hilary’s experiences in bed (unless it’s THAT kind of story, that is). Without the garbage and focusing on the key elements, here is the cleaned-up and right-to-the-point intro:

Hilary awoke to the pounding at her front door. She fumbled in the dark to open it and found a man waiting impatiently, his dark suit soaked through with rain. 
“Agent Davenport?” He asked. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me.”

Granted, this is a bit of an exaggeration, and I’m certainly not saying give up all background description - just know the difference between background that feeds the story and background that should feed the trash pile.  If I could be more aware of the garbage vs. story content as I’m writing maybe editing wouldn’t take me four times as long as the rough draft takes to write.

What about my fellow writers? Do any of you have this same problem?

8 comments:

  1. I can SO relate. except sometimes I am worried I don't have enough description and since I'm writing a fantasy I'm not sure that's good. Action words are the worst for me. I've switched my intent while editing and right now I just want a typed draft to work with. The next time around I plan on going through with a "Verb List" book and seeing how many "looked" "glanced" and "nodded" words I can replace.

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    1. I know what you mean! Description can fall under the 'too much of a good thing' rule, but it can go the other way, too. How do we know when to stop? I try to sneak it in without stating it sometimes like I did with the sample. Instead of describing the night as rainy I used the rain-soaked suit to describe the man - 2 birds with 1 stone. Do you use tricks like that, too?

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  2. I think it comes from mixing our commercial fiction writing with some deep rooted desire to write literary fiction. I do it all the time and I'm reading and revising my manuscript everyday. I am so sick of it!

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    1. That is such a great point! And I do believe I have a much worse habit of it depending upon what I'm reading. When you sit down to write it seems like our own voice should naturally come out, but it's so hard to unbury it from the piles of what we either think or have been told we should be writing...

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  3. I've yet to finish my first book (still aspiring anyway) and have fallen in the same trap. Sometimes I just write and write and when editing time comes, practically half gets thrown into the bin! Descriptions can be sneaky and i still need to get better at it.

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    1. Sometimes I make myself pull out my old copy of Dressier's "American Tragedy" just to remind myself how NOT to write description in commercial fiction. I loved his story and his characters, but how many people can actually read 3 pages on the way a fur coat looks in the window without skipping ahead??

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  4. Thank you for this informative post! Now, if you'll excuse me, I must take out my own garbage...(why is it that we can't see our own garbage piling up? why does our own garbage look so beautiful to our eyes only?? Sigh!)

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  5. Oh, I know! It's like we have a complete set of blinders on in our own writing until the edit that comes after we step away for a while. When I let it sit and come back for more editing it takes a beer or two to get over the shock at the utter crap that I thought would be a good idea to include. That's how my prologues go from 4 pages to 1! :-)

    Thanks for stopping by!

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