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Writer’s Craft #104 Putter-inner or Taker-outer?

December 24, 2012
Noah Chinn

Noah Chinn

Noah Chinn used to be a travelling fool but has now taken to settling down and writing for a spell. He’s published two urban fantasy novels with Mundania Press: Bleeding Heart Yard, and Trooper #4. His third novel, Getting Rid of Gary, should be available this winter.


Conventional writing wisdom tells us that we need to strip away from our first drafts. To tighten up our prose and make the words sing. When we’re first putting our thoughts down on paper we often end up being redundant or saying too much and don’t even realize it. An editor’s eye can trim a manuscript down to what’s needed, if it makes the story stronger.
But if you worry too much about it in your first draft it can be taken too far. What happens when you become so focused on being direct that you forget to stop and smell the roses? A writer has to be mindful of the journey you want to take the reader on, not just the destination, and that means making sure they see what you see in your mind.
For example, in my latest story I mentioned two adjoining convenience stores, based on the ones I grew up next to in Oshawa. On my third edit I realized my description consisted of this: a convenience store with an arcade game in it. Given that I was trying to take the reader back to a moment in the character’s youth, this hardly seemed sufficient. Huge chunks of the story were more like a glorified synopsis.
I didn’t get across anything that gave life to its place in the character’s history: Memories of going to each store to compare the inventory, looking for candy on sale, or finding the last “look under the cap to win” Coke of the season. Trying those god-awful Popeye candy cigarettes that tasted like sugar and chalk when they were out of the good ones—the ones made of chocolate, wrapped in real paper and kept in a cigarette box…
Normally I’m a taker-outer, but in this case I’ve had to turn the tables and become a putter-inner. Where do you stand on this when it comes to your edits?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2012 8:01 am

    I’m very much a putter-inner. My first draft is very skeletal and I find myself adding settings and descriptions on the second and third rounds. But I’m also a complete pantster, so I’m usually running behind my characters in the first draft frantically writing down everything they’re doing–so much so that I miss what’s going on around them.

  2. Lynda Williams permalink
    December 24, 2012 8:01 am

    With you! Words are their own art form, not poor excuses for video games or movies. Succinct isn’t better if it kills the effect one was trying to create.

  3. January 4, 2013 2:42 pm

    I try to be something of a minimalist when I write. If I lay down a long, complicated description of something, I know the reader won’t remember most of it. Instead I try to pick out a few unusual details and focus on those. I like to let the reader fill in the rest with his or her own imagination.

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