Week fifteen: Keep reading

It is week fifteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? Here at the garret, things are humming along. This period of the year is always one of my most productive, and I’ve got a lot of exciting professional and creative projects lined up for the next two months before the distractions of summer set in. Maybe it’s time for you to do a sprint too? What could you get done in the next eight weeks if you shuffle your schedule or your priorities? 

This week’s book – Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print – is one you’ll want to turn to when you are ready to tackle the little details that make a novel sing. If you have an early draft and are still thinking about taking out a wall or changing the location of the kitchen or adding a sunroom off the back, you should reach for Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit (reviewed here), which will help you make these decisions. Browne and King’s book is for when you are ready to think about whether cerulean blue is a brave choice for the kitchen walls or whether that old sofa will look right in the updated living room.

Browne and King cover all of the important topics you’ll need to think through at this stage: how to balance showing and telling; how to describe your characters with subtlety and style; how to avoid common point-of-view pitfalls; and how to write dialogue, interior monologue, and action beats that sound natural. Their advice is clear and direct, supported by plentiful examples drawn from well-known writers and writing workshop participants. Each chapter closes with a checklist, as well as a few exercises. The exercises (for which the authors also provide an answer key) make this an ideal book to work through with a writing or critique group. As Browne and King point out, there are always multiple solutions to a given problem, and seeing how other writers clean up a clunky sentence or cluttered dialogue can teach you quite a lot. 

Browne and King emphasize that writers should trust their readers – something beginning writers are often reluctant to do. As the authors put it: “Resist the Urge to Explain (R.U.E.).” Show your character being depressed or angry rather than explaining the emotion. Don’t double-down and explain things that have already been shown through dialogue or action. Another reason to avoid repetition is that “when you try to accomplish the same effect twice, the weaker attempt is likely to undermine the power of the stronger one.” This is an instance where “1 + 1 = ½”. (Don’t you love it when the rules of writing have the power to warp the rules of math?)

One of my favorite insights of the book is about the importance of interior monologue for novelists. As the authors note, “Movies and television may be influencing writers to write more visually, using immediate scenes with specific points of view to put their stories across.” There’s nothing wrong with visual, immediate scenes – except when writers forget to use interior monologue to capture the emotion of the scene, not just the action: “On the page, readers can see how [a character] feels because they have the opportunity to move from action to thought and back again without ever being aware that anything out of the ordinary is happening. . . . One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts.” An actor can convey inner emotion through facial expression, body language, or the way a dialogue line is said. Novelists can (and must!) do the same thing using interior monologue and action tags, so don’t neglect this powerful tool in your arsenal.

One big caveat about the advice here and in other writing craft books: Don’t apply slash-and-burn editing techniques when you are revising. For example, after reading Browne and King’s advice to avoid -ing constructions (“Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.”), you might be tempted to pull up Word’s search box and spend hours finding and eradicating every such construction in your novel. Don’t do this! While you don’t want to overuse this construction, you also don’t want to litter your novel with sentences that awkwardly dance around it. As the authors themselves note, “If you see more than one or two on a page, start hunting around for alternatives” (emphasis mine).

Alongside reading advice about what not to do (and examples that highlight why these techniques are ineffective), I’d also encourage you to keep filling up your writer’s brain with examples of what to do. Reading hones your writerly instincts and will give you confidence in your own choices. When you are reading, flag any sentence that makes you sit up and take notice. 

I am always highlighting passages on my Kindle to come back to later, and I also have a secret, antisocial Instagram account that I use to capture passages when I’m reading in print. An author’s style might be very different from your own, but if you analyze their sentences to understand how they work their magic, you can often take away a lesson you can apply to your own writing. 

Here’s one I flagged last week in, of all places, a cookbook by Nigella Lawson called How to Eat: “Roast potatoes are another fraught area. I have, in the past, got frantic with despair as the time for the meat to be ready drew closer and the potatoes were still blond and untroubled in their roasting pan.” Nigella’s charming Britishisms mightn’t be suitable for your style, but you can try out her technique of transferring adjectives from one realm to another. We expect to find adjectives like “blond and untroubled” applied to children, and so to see them applied to potatoes wakes us right up – and injects a note of dark humor given that these innocent potatoes are being roasted and eaten. Are we reading a cookbook or a Grimms’ fairy tale?

You could wander into a bookstore this afternoon with a camera or notebook and pen to get your own collection started. If you do, I’d love to hear about your favorite finds.

Here’s to always finding another excuse for reading, y’all,

Next week’s book: Chuck Wendig, Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative

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