Monday, January 18, 2010

2010: Day 18 - Self-editing

I was off work today, so it turned into a quick-get-everything-done-before-you-have-to-go-back-to-work day. Needless to say very little writing got done, so I thought I'd post something I wrote a while back on self-editing.  Here goes.

Nothing done to excess is good. We can't take all the "had," "that," and "ing" words out of our writing and expect it to make sense or flow well. Certain words should and can be avoided, but to arbitrarily cut all of the “no-no” words is just as bad as their over-use. The same goes for long stretches of narration or dialogue. If you over-do either of these, you’ll either exhaust your reader or put them to sleep.

Pace: Dialogue speeds the action, narration slows it. Tense scenes call for short/abrupt, snappy dialogue. After such a scene, give the reader a breather by slowing things down with some brief narration.

Passive: the subject of the sentence is acted upon by something else. “The bread was made by the baker.”

Active revision: “The baker made the bread.”

Past tense: when an action or occurrence happened in the past. “He went to the store three hours ago.”

“Rule” on using “had.”  After reading up on the subject and talking to several informed sources (including English professors) I’ve concluded that, aside from the grammatical use of “had/has” in perfect past tense, my ear must judge how often to use “had” in a sentence before switching to an active past tense.

Example #1: "When Tom was young, he had overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he had never admitted or denied killing another."

Granted, this is exaggerated, but technically there's nothing wrong with this sentence. All the events mentioned took place in the past. It is, however, cumbersome and all the "hads" make it redundant.

Revised Example #1: "When Tom was young, he overheard unsettling talk of the war. His father had served, but he never admitted or denied killing another."

So here's the unspoken “had” rule:
1. If the sentence makes it clear that the event happened in the past without using the word “had,” remove it.

2. Leave “had” in if its removal changes the meaning of the sentence.

Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients she had crushed into a near-powder consistency.

In this sentence, “she had” indicates an action taken by the character.

Edited Example #2: She reached for the small clay bowl from the kitchen table containing a mix of local herbs and other untold ingredients crushed into a near-powder consistency.

To remove “she had” from the sentences makes it clear the herbs were crushed, but it doesn’t show who crushed them. Since the character isn’t involved in the action, the reader would have to assume the herbs and other untold ingredients were 1) previously crusted by someone, or 2) purchased in the crushed form.

Both examples #2s are technically correct. However, this sentence is from my work in progress and the woman is a healer and engages in voodoo. For the sake of the scene, it's critical for the reader to understand that she is the one who made the concoction. In this case, #1 is the better choice.

Here’s a good explanation for the use of lie, lay, laid, lain (this I have to look up every time).

Lie = the present-tense act of reclining. We lie together and watch the full moon.

Lay = the present-tense act of putting something down. The stranger watches while we lay our blankets near the fire.

Laid = the past-tense act of putting something down (or slang for getting screwed in the past tense). For pillows, we laid our saddles at the head of our make-shift beds.

Lain = the past-tense act of reclining. Before leaving camp, we removed all evidence of where we'd lain the night before.

“The” in front of a noun: Eliminate “the” when it precedes a noun that could stand alone. Example: “The beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.” Can be changed to: “Beams of portable spotlights shone like beacons on the beach below.”

Tags & Beats

Tags: Stick to “said” and always place the tag after the noun or pronoun. To use anything other than “said” distracts the reader (“said” is invisible). Words such as growled, barked, scoffed tell the reader how the character spoke rather than show it through the dialogue and action.

Example #1: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John growled.

Example #2: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John said as he slammed the door.

Beats: Beats are a great alternative to tags. They show action and emotion. Here’s the same sentence using a beat instead of a tag.

Example: “What difference does it make that she’s gone?” John yanked open Jane's closet door, grabbed her clothes, and threw them out the window.

When you explain how a character said something, you draw the reader's attention away from the dialogue.

In "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and David King (second edition) the authors have this to say about it:

Example 1:

"You can't be serious," she said in astonishment.

Explanation: "If you're like most beginning novelist or short-story writers you write sentences like these almost without thinking . What could be easier than simply to tell your reader how a character feels? ... It's also lazy writing. If you tell your readers she is astonished when her dialogue doesn't show astonishment, then you've created an uncomfortable tension between your dialogue and your explanation."

Example 2:

"Give it to me," she demanded.

"Here it is," he offered.

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.

"Come closer," she smiled.


"To use verbs like these for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur--and to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible. No one outside hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chuckle a sentence.

Said, on the other hand, isn't even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device--more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant.

Don't use speaker attributions as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue ("he growled," "she snapped"). As with all other types of explanations, either they're unnecessary or they are necessary but shouldn't be. Your best bet is to use the verb said almost without exception. Even when you use them (explanations and adverbs) with said (we said sternly), they tend to entangle your readers in your technique rather than leaving them free to concentrate on your dialogue."

Happy editing!

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