Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My literary forest needs thinning?

So, I haven't done much posting about Raoul's tour of the literary agents. I don't like to, frankly... when there's major good news I'll share it, but I personally am not a fan of listing details of rejection letters on my blog. a) you never know who's reading your blog and b) unless they're funny or otherwise entertaining, who wants to read them anyhow?

But yesterday I got one that really made me think. She liked the idea and thought my writing was decent but said my pacing was too slow in the four pages I'd sent her. My dialogue tags (the lines before and after the dialogue, basically) and my descriptions were too long and were slowing down the story.

I've never been told this. In fact, I've been trying to ADD to those things (hmmm, suddenly the reason I've never been told this but now I AM being told this comes clear... did I swing too far??) to make the story deeper and richer.

Now, I've posted before about the 10% solution ebook I use to get unnecessary filler words ('that', 'this', '-ing words', etc.) out of my writing. I put Raoul through this process and I really thought it was clean.

But, as Mr. W said yesterday, all of the trees are good ones but perhaps they don't all need to be there. Basically, I've made sure the words are the right ones but I haven't focused as much on "do I need words here at all? does this truly need to be explained?"

So I took the pages I'd sent to this agent and set to work. Below, I'll paste the first paragraphs I sent and then the revised version.

Original version:
I locked eyes with my fellow job candidate, trying not to smile at his surprise. "Yes, I'm serious, Joe. Turn around."

A mottled flush crawled up his neck. "I can't ask you to do that." He shot a glance at the receptionist, the only other person in the late-70's-style waiting room plastered with Toronto Hogs hockey team posters and memorabilia, but her focus on her computer remained absolute.

"You didn't ask, I offered. And your shoulders are right up to your ears. Don't look a gift massage in the mouth."

Since I'd already been waiting a good ten minutes, although they'd flown by in his company, I probably didn't have long before my interview, but I couldn't leave such a nice man without at least trying to reduce the awful tension I'd noticed in him.

Besides, I'd get to touch him again, like I'd wanted to since our brief introductory handshake. Something about him, and not just his cuteness, called to me. He felt wounded somehow. Fragile, despite his height and clearly muscular body.
Total word count: 174

Revised version:
"Yes, I'm serious, Joe. Turn around."

"I can't ask you to do that." He glanced at the receptionist, at her desk beneath a poster of the 1974 Toronto Hogs hockey team, but her focus on her computer remained absolute.

"You didn't ask, I offered. And your shoulders are right up to your ears. Don't look a gift massage in the mouth."

I probably didn't have long before my interview, but I couldn't leave such a nice guy in such discomfort. Besides, I'd get to touch him again, like I'd wanted to since our introductory handshake. Something about him, not just his cuteness, called to me. He felt wounded. Fragile, despite his height and clearly muscular body.
Total word count: 116

Do you see? I was stunned. The entire first scene went from 919 words to 538. I don't think I've lost anything, and it's so much tighter. I DID take out another example of his hesitation to accept the massage, but since I'd already had one I didn't truly need two. I took out most of the description of the room, but now it focuses on the 1974 hockey team (which will shortly be revealed to be significant) while the computer suggests we're not actually IN 1974.

It's still my story, but now it's faster and cleaner.

So what were the steps to make this happen?
  1. Read each sentence as if it's the first time you've seen it, and ask yourself, "Does this sentence matter?"
  2. If it doesn't matter at all (like the very first sentence, which I had worked on repeatedly but never recognized I didn't actually need!) cut it.
  3. If part of it matters, (like that they shook hands but not that it was 'brief' - how else would an introductory handshake usually be?) keep what matters and cut the rest.
  4. Repeat to the end of the scene.
  5. Re-read the whole scene, checking that a) everything's still connected b) you haven't lost something important c) it still has your voice d) there aren't any more words to take out.
If you're a writer, please consider passing this along to your friends. I know it's not revolutionary but I can't be the only one who's spent hours polishing text that doesn't need to be in the book. On the scene level I HAVE done the "does this need to be here" process, but somehow it never occurred to me to do it line-by-line.

It's important to have the right words. It's also important to have only needed words.

I will be going through Raoul in the afternoons as I write Aardvark in the mornings, and I expect to be finished within a month. The agent agreed the new excerpt was much better and she's going to take a look when I'm finished. Even if we don't end up working together, we've made a connection, and I'll have a MUCH stronger book because of her.

Even a quick survey of agent blogs shows how many are understandably wary of giving detailed feedback to an unknown author. Too many writers have sent back nastygrams. But this agent took the chance and I'm so grateful, because I think this will change my writing forever.

Give it a try on something you've written. At worst, you spend a little while (I spent less than an hour on the first four pages, including the time I spent saying, "I can't believe it, it's so much better!" over and over) with your writing and realize this isn't a problem area for you. But at best... maybe it'll change your writing forever too!

Heather

2 comments:

Riohnna said...

Wow! That is really all I can say. The paragraph has me quite intrigued.

Muser said...

I enjoyed reading your blog. Good luck with the writing--and publishing.

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