Writer’s Craft #48 – Overwriting
Kelly A. Harmon defines “Dischism” for us as this week’s guest on the Writer’s Craft. Kelly writes fantasy and dark fantasy with the occasional science fiction piece. See her list of publications and honors.
More than a dozen or so years ago– long before I was ready to submit to agents or editors– I finished a novel, and sent it to a New York agent. I was lucky enough to be mildly acquainted with someone who was very good friends with this author’s representative.
With my friend’s blessing, I name-dropped in the cover letter and mailed off my manuscript.
I was a good writer. I was employed at a local newspaper. I had a beat. And I could work to nearly any deadline.
But I didn’t know a thing about writing fiction.
I’d written two openings to my novel, one much longer than the other. It seemed a bit verbose to me, but on the advice of a relative – who told me he enjoyed it much better than the shorter version– I mailed it off with the manuscript.
(Hey: I was new at fiction, and a reader enjoyed it. So, who was I to judge? )
Here’s the opening paragraph, scanned, as it was returned from the editor:
Oh, boy, is that horrible!
Note the red marks? The editor was nice enough to mark up several pages and include a single-spaced two page letter telling me (among other things) that I was “writing by the pound; ” that I needed to show, not tell; and the pacing was too slow for the idea.
What he should have said, in big red letters across the first page is, “Enough of the adjectives and adverbs, already! This stinks!”
Famed writer/editor Sol Stein has a formula for this kind of writing: 1 + 1 = ½. What he means is each time you add to the description, you decrease the impact of your words.
I’ve taken to heart this agent’s assertion that I’d overwritten those opening pages. Now, I shoot for streamlining my work by choosing the most correct verb or noun for the sentence rather than loading it up with modifiers.
What my inexperienced self would have taken 200 words to write, now takes me about 30.
(What I should have done from the beginning is applied my journalism experience and included “just the facts” of the story.)
Have you had a similar experience? If not, what have you learned on your writing path so far?