WRITING: or is it just funny marks of ink on a page

Continuing the discussion of distillation and its dangers/its potential.

I wasn’t completely clear in the previous post. When I wrote, “I know that kind of ‘fixing’ would be a voice-destroying catastrophe with books like mine,” I was referring to the strategy I’d just mentioned, the strategy of deleting half of every sentence, half of every paragraph, etc. Now, I believe that the agents who suggested this were just waving their hands, thinking that I could extrapolate from there and that the easiest way to explain it would be to tell me to work on percentages like that. However, the strategy (even if it does bring you back under the wordcount) doesn’t take into account how important it is to choose WHAT you keep and WHAT you delete. Sometimes, an entire paragraph should stay as is, and sometimes an entire paragraph or two should go. Other times, you have to pick and choose which parts are part of the story and which aren’t, and there’s the rub. Tightening is never as straightforward as some left-brained strategies seem to imply.

I once took a book doctor up on an introductory offer. She offered to edit three pages as an example of what you’d get for your money. She had worked as an editor in NYC, but had moved on (and seemed much happier freelancing and working a day job in public relations, from what I could tell). She took the “cut half” idea literally, writing in the margin by each paragraph the number of words it’d had to begin with and the number it had at the end. SOME of the sentences she edited seemed improved, but MANY of them had experienced a change in meaning that I couldn’t ignore or discount, and SEVERAL of the edits took out important information that should have somehow been retained, either by rephrasing or whatever. That’s what I mean by saying you can’t just take out half of this and half of that, by the numbers, as recommended. The edit she did, IMHO, was destructive to the point that what remained wasn’t interesting to read and wasn’t even a story. That’s how I knew that our styles wouldn’t mesh, and I was thankful I’d taken her up on that introductory offer. (It wasn’t free. But it was lots cheaper than going with a full edit of however-many pages.)

Green_knight commented (on the previous post):
>>I’ve found that there isn’t anything I’ve written that could not be sharpened up, condensed, taken up another level.<>Of course, you can say that everything you’ve written is perfectly polished<[T]hink how you can distill things to their essence, without destroying the voice or the character interactions or anything at all.<>You’re missing something important in your rewrite of the scene between the siblings. The first version is wordy; but the second lacks telling detail.<>”You shouldn’t be scrapping at school.You’ll get in trouble.”
“Scrapping. Hah. He told Coach I was behind his stupid prank, and Coach told me unless I apologised, I’d sit out the season on the bench. A man’s got to protect his honor.”<>the point is that you look at the things that reveal something about the character. In your rewrite, Julie’s line is superfluous, because it could relate to so many situations. In the first example, both characters dance around the topic, but the information content is higher.<<

True! (Again, my example was just tossed off, not the exact lines that the radio people were saying. Their version was WAY better. I just didn't catch anyone's name or the show name, alas.) This points up another of the pitfalls. When you do this distillation, you will sacrifice some of the specific informational content and will rely on readers to Read Something Into This Bit. Can you trust readers to say, "Oh! That's because she feels insecure," or "Aha, he's got a hidden agenda," or will you just get readers scratching their heads and saying, "Huh?" That's always been my problem in critique circles, as half the group would "get it" and not want any further explanation, and half the group would be completely lost and want a full explanatory paragraph inserted. *GRIN*

Here's an example that I came up with years ago when the WRITING echo was very active. Say you've written, "He slowly walked into the room." Okay, let's get rid of "slowly." And while we're at it, we know he's coming into the room because our POV character sees him walking in, so it can become "He walked in." But how else is he going to get in? Unless he crawls in or rides a unicycle, just assume that readers know he's *walking* in. That's like the bit about defaulting to a normal room unless there's something unusual about the room (which was a piece of instruction given to me by Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor at the Viable Paradise II workshop when several of the crit circle asked me to add lots of detail about the apothecary shop that Dulcinea's dad ran, right there when it is first mentioned). So we know the guy walked in. "He entered." Furthermore, who else would it be but him? So delete the whole sentence. Voila! Um . . . but . . . now we don't have the action happening at all. That's progress by deletion (as they used to say in defense contracting)!

This is what happens sometimes when you're distilling. In the given example, of course what the critique circle WANTED to see was the author skipping the whole "he walked into the party as if he were walking into the Oval Office" bit and just having him BE there behind the POV character and startling her when he said, "Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?" (To which the answer is, "Sorry, but I never eat anything after I Poupon it." Or "if you Poupon it, baby, you gonna clean it up too.") But anyhow, the POINT (and I might have one . . . keep reading just in case) is that you can go overboard with any good technique.

I can point at line X and say that I need to keep it because it reveals character, and a beta reader can point at the same line and say, "No, it doesn't." That's where all this judgement calling comes in. Sometimes we make a call down a nil pointer. Other times, we get into an infinite loop. Um . . . my metaphor seems not to be working, but it's late.

At any rate, I brought up the technique so people could become aware of it and could try it out, with caution. I sincerely believe there are limits to the usefulness of anything like this, because it's so one-sided. When the left brain goes through and cuts down the wordcount, sometimes you find that not only does the tone change and aspects of the voice go away, but also important information gets cut that readers would like to know. The right brain should do a double-check to see where we are losing implication and color or telling details. It's very one-sided to say we're going to distill and make the pacing faster without considering what we're losing . . . that's all I meant to say by way of caveat. I think it's a useful technique, and I love to type about all this, so we can go on with the discussion.

However, there's a limit. The idea that I could go through and distill a 150,000-word mystery down to 95,000 words is appealing in theory, but daunting in reality. To take out half of a book really requires that you take out a subplot or eliminate some thread, and if you can't do that, it really gets tough. Better to start over and write a new book with tighter checks done more often. (Am I putting too much in? Does all this need to happen? Can we please just follow the outline for once, instead of getting all complex?!)

So take everything that people tell you with a sprinkle of salt. Apply what you think is helpful, and ignore the rest. You may hear a bunch of contradictory advice, but find that you can use some of it. The other bits were probably meant for a different person who has trouble with making his/her novel LONG ENOUGH. (Imagine that!)

Now, how did I come to be awake at four AM? Long story. Remind me to bore you with it some other time.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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