Cut the writing flab, unpack the muscle. Very tricky.

I met another one of my favourite authors recently. I just had to put that out there right away! Diana Gabaldon is AMAAAAAZING! (See below photo).

Okay, I’m behind on my #Writemotivation updates, as usual, but this is a habit I must break! So quickly, here’s where I stand, in the midst of a last-minute trip back to New York to visit family:

1. Complete LitReactor course and apply to WIP for a CP-ready draft.writemotivation_header1-36217_186x186
Completed the course and got some very encouraging words from the teacher, John Skipp. My summary of the course below.
2. Polish WIP synopsis. Working on this.
3. Keep up better with #Writemotivation cheering. Trying to! Shouldn’t be as hard as I’m in EST time zone right now, but visiting family takes precedence, but I cheer here & there where I can! You guys are ALL doing way better than I 🙂
4. WF x3. Hope to do this this week.

I admire people (*cough* KT *cough) who plow through edits regardless of what busy-ness life throws at them. When I’m travelling, I tend to lose focus; late nights are key when everyone’s asleep, but that means editing with my eyelids propped up by toothpicks. Must practice this technique.

Now, on to my experience with the LitReactor 2-week course entitled Lean, Mean Writin’ Machine.

As with most things writing-related, two unplanned events took place during the course of the 2 weeks that kept me from giving it my full attention (a friend visited from abroad, and then *I* went abroad). I made the most of it though, read as many of the other students’ stories as I could and commented on their revisions. I loved it because everyone was supportive of one another and shared some great suggestions. Everyone brought a fantastic idea to the table, and John Skipp was honest, blunt, witty, and insightful. I highly recommend any of his future classes. He says it like it is, but will tell you what he likes, too. There were a few “lectures” as well as discussions where John posted brief articles about how to tighten and cut your work down to fighting form.

This appealed because I’m struggling to find a balance between unpacking dialogue tags, adverbs and adjectives, and keeping work – especially action scenes – punchy and uncluttered. John is a master at this. He took one student’s scene and cut it down expertly without losing the heart of it, giving a template for my own assignments. Even though this was stuff I knew intellectually, being part of an online class made me whip both scenes into much tighter shape. I lost the flab.

A few items of note:

  • Cut to the chase. Literally. I don’t know why, but hearing this rusty old phrase hit me hard. In a pivotal action scene near the climax of my WIP, this was well-timed advice. I’ve got so many great big blobs of introspective hoo-haw in the midst of what should be a nerve-wracking, page-turning scene. Skipp pointed out that this stuff needs to go before or after the scene. Not in the midst. DUH!
  • Cut soft, weak words. Again. Obvious. But somehow these are words I find again and again in my revising. Examples from submitted work were things like, “and then,” “nearby” (as in “the nearby tree”), “simple”, “single” (as in, “a single bloody scrape”).
  • Foreshadow. It was brought to my attention that an action in my scene that seemed impossible and would make the reader go, “Yeah, right,” would easily be made believable had I foreshadowed it and how it might happen. A character was bound with ropes and I overlooked how I could show him a few paragraphs earlier inching his way forward and how he was moving to use his ropes to strangle another character. But before I foreshadowed, it seemed to just come out of nowhere. It didn’t even occur to me because *I* could picture it. Another reminder that my job is to make readers see and believe. Not just dump the stuff that’s in my head on the page.
  • Don’t forget sensory details. I fear being verbose so much that sometimes I skip even the most basic smell/sound/feel of things that would help the reader connect with the setting and the moment. Gotta work on this.

Conversely, there’s been conversations among #Writemotivation people on our +Google community (come join us!) as well as on some other websites lately about “unpacking” our prose. This article by Chuck Palahniuk says rather than writing, “Tom hated Mary,” we should unpack this to describe Tom’s facial expressions when Mary enters the room, how he rolls his eyes or moves to the opposite side, or exits the room entirely, clenching his fists or tightening his jaw. Interesting article.

But the advice is tricky to put into practice if you’re an unpublished author looking for representation. Yes, we want to show not tell as much as possible, but there has to be a balance, right? Skipp’s class was about losing the flab. This article is about gaining inches of muscle. So we should lose the flab (weak, soft words) and gain muscle (unpacked showing rather than telling). But doesn’t “writing muscle” in a kind of way leave us in a similar position as the “writing flab” that we want to eliminate? Both take up precious space on the page. Obviously muscle’s preferable. But it still adds heavily to our word count.

Example: if Diana Gabaldon was trying to get agent representation for OUTLANDER/CROSS STITCH in August 2013, she’d have to cut about 220,000 words first. And it’s all muscle.

Sunday I was lucky to hear Diana speak at the Fergus Scottish Festival in Ontario, which I found out was taking place (2 hours away) near my hometown as I was en route from the UK. She was on my “hope to meet someday” list but I didn’t expect it so soon!

Fergus Scottish Festival - 18

She was lovely, generous, and full of anecdotes. She mentioned that OUTLANDER is, I believe, 305k. I would never begrudge her a single of the exquisite words in any of her books. She’s successfully unpacked her captivating descriptions of everything from medical procedures performed in the 18th century to detailed character studies in every scene.

But we’re being told these days that 120k is the maximum for adult fantasy. 100k is more like it. 80k would really be best. How on earth will a debut author ever get a novel as richly painted as Diana’s on the shelves again, unless s/he first has wild success with something more akin to a novella by comparison?

It’s disheartening, but makes me realise the importance of striking a balance. Sometimes you need the, “Tom hated Mary” sentences. Boom. There it is. Sometimes you need the, “As soon as Mary entered the room, Tom set down his beer and excused himself from conversation. His jaw ached from clenching it. His first free night in weeks now ruined. Memories of their last conversation flashed in his mind, how her smug features set his nostrils flaring. He couldn’t make a scene here. He grabbed his coat and took the back door.” (Whatever. Please excuse the off-the-cuff verbiage).

Do you sacrifice word building and character exploration in order to “unpack” every dialogue tag or clipped phrase possible, thereby cutting down on actual story in order to SDT? There’s got to be a happy medium, but in this day and age when production costs and bookshelf space are primary concerns over story (and I do get the financial side of it… sort of), it seems like we’re being given very dicey parameters.

Having just finished a course about tightening your prose, I think a lot depends on genre, style, and voice. Maybe alternating clipped phrases with more illustrative actions. But I *don’t* think we need waffling on about Tom’s every body function that spells out his hatred for her when we could just say, “Tom’s disdain for Mary knew no bounds,” but I think maybe it’s all about context. In other words, there is no hard and fast rule. Don’t use “said” for every dialogue tag in the world, but we don’t need three sentences to avoid using an adverb.

Any thoughts? I’m still kind of baffled by it all, but it’s something worth thinking about. (Though perhaps, not too hard ;))

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