Monday, March 02, 2009

Cleaning Up

I'm at the nearly-done point in my revisions of the Process Five story where I scan for certain words or types of words and weed them out. Maybe someone out there will find this helpful. By this point I'm pretty happy with the story, All the parts are in place, I feel I've got the character development points in there, I've read through it aloud (an absolutely necessary step. Your brain can hear some problems that it can't see), and now it's down to the gritty. The nice thing is I can listen to music during this stage, which I can't in some other stages, like the reading aloud one.

Step one: Killing all of those unneeded "to be" verbs. "Is," "was," "were," "had been," and the like. Sometimes they're unavoidable. Many times they're not. Get those limp-ass verbs out of there. "The dog was sitting" leaves an extra barrier between the reader being at home and the reader being in the story. "The dog sat" makes it more immediate and drops one more barrier, bringing your reader a little closer. My story ran a little over 9,600 words four hours ago. It had 138 instances of the word "was." I took it down to 39.
From 39 "were"s down to 5.
From 83 "had"s down to 32.
And it truly does feel like weeding because you have to deal with each instance. One. By. One.

Step two: Then there are my favorite words, those that are unique to my manner of speaking and writing. Like the word "just." I use that way too much and it's not needed. I wrestled 21 of them down to 7. I got rid of a couple of "maybe"s but there weren't many at all in there, that's a good sign, I may not have to worry about that one in the future. The thing about writing, and I suppose it's the same deal in any other type of learning-while-doing effort, is that, although it make take years to learn something, once it's in there, you don't have to worry about it anymore. So my first drafts today look almost as good as my final drafts from twenty years ago. I took the word "look" from 19 to 10. "Still" from 12 to 5. "Only" from 22 to 10. "Seem" from 12 to 5. And because some of these are interchangeable in certain cases, fixing one problem exacerbates another. As in He was mad, He looked mad, He seemed mad. Killing a bunch of "just"s inevitably leads to birthing a couple of "only"s.

Step three: Seek and destroy adverbs and other weak words ending in the letter "y." Adverbs suck. If you use them, you can make your work a lot better by dropping them. He ran, is so much better than He ran quickly. No shit he ran quickly, that's what running is. If he ran slowly he didn't run. He jogged. "But you're just doing the same thing!" he said angrily. If the writer is writing properly, the reader already knows that guy is angry, he doesn't need to be told a second time by the writer. In fact, it's annoying and clunky and just don't do it. Those weak words ending in "y" are words like "really," "actually" and "very." These words are useless. Take them out and read it again. See? I told you. I cut out about 35 instances of these and adverbs.

I knocked out over four hundred words doing this.

Any of the above words are fine when used in dialogue. People say all sorts of stuff. When I edit, I'll often try to let only one character use a certain bad word. The verbal idiosyncrasy helps distinguish that character from the others and helps round out the character.

Sometimes you need a word. If so, keep it. But make sure you need it first. Sometimes you can just pull a word out and the sentence stands up fine. Sometimes you need a better word. Sometimes you have to rearrange the whole sentence to say what you meant before. When I do this, I alter the flow of my own words and bend my statements into better ways and sometimes odd ways and I arrive at a voice that isn't exactly my own. With each scan and replace for a certain word, I'm running the story through a filter and changing the feel of it, if only a little bit. After all of this is done, I've got a story that's a little stranger to me than I meant it to be and I like that. The most exciting thing about creation is making something good that you didn't expect. This makes me wonder about other filters I could apply to change the story in other ways.

I have no advice on commas. I feel I use far too many and I feel they're all necessary. Going on forty years, I'm still trying to figure out commas.


Church said...

Jeebus, dude, you're telling me to make my writing *shorter?*


Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Sorry. I'm a strong proponent of "Tighter is Better" even with teeny-tiny stories. Maybe you can take it to the next stage, like ten letter fiction, blip-fic.

Church said...

Oooh. Twitter Anthologies? I smell a meme!

Grant said...

That's some damn fine advice right there.

As to commas? Hate 'em. I see them in stories these days and I rip them out. Funny thing is, the number of semicolons is rising. No idea what that means. (Pretentious commas?)

Diane said...

Wow, someone who knows how to be his own editor. I wish a lot of successful writers would do what you do or let their "editors" do it for them. Alas, often they don't and you get (especially in SF and Fantasy) trilogies with are door-stopper sized.

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Diane, I am honestly struggling with a novel because I've written short stories for almost twenty years. My novel feels soooo thin because I'm used to keeping things lean and mean.