I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“Movies are not scripts – movies are films; they’re not books, they’re not the theatre.”—Nicolas Roeg
From last month’s episode…
When you really think about what happens when a reader reads, it’s mind boggling. The only thing they’re given is a set of black marks against a white background, and from that, entire worlds spontaneously form in their minds. They experience this “dream,” and this is why we, as writers, not only want to present this dream to them, we want to be careful not to snap them out of it. Just remember, they will meet us more than halfway, because they want to go with us, so long as we don’t fumble the ball. This is one reason readers fall in love with writers—that voice they hear in their head when they read, that cadence, that rhythm, that tone; that sure hand that leads them through bends and curves, through misdirections and epiphanies; their personal guide who shows them thrilling and heartbreaking wonders. It’s such an intimate journey. All via black marks against a white background.
Now, if you think about this too much and too intensely—how a reader processes a writer’s words—it’ll make you crazy, but it’s definitely worth understanding. So let’s back away now, lower our vision, and get back to the nuts and bolts, which is what I do when I start soaring too high and lose sight of the ground.
Because prose (and poetry) is arguably the most intimate narrative form, and because this form asks the most of its readers as far as co-creation, we have to be able to see where the form can falter, if we falter as writers. No dynamic actor is going to turn up to save the day. No special effects wizard will invent a beautiful distraction. No, it’s all between us and the reader.
But before you start describing every possible object and movement and emotion in the world of your story, I’m going to throw in a bit of a curve. As much as your details must line up (and I’ll talk about that), and there can’t be gaps in logic, and the sequencing has to be right, when the reader builds that movie in their head, co-creates it, they’re not creating a complete palace with every object in place, but something closer to what would appear in a dream (there’s that word again). Dreams feel entire and fully lived-in when you’re inside one, but the only thing a dreamer sees and engages in is what is necessary for that dream, even if it doesn’t feel that way to the dreamer. Dreams are not cluttered up with nonessentials. They’re focused on what matters, what is activated and has meaning, what makes the particular content a true emotional experience, and what drives the dream through its narrative.
This is the best model I have for what happens when a reader reads your work. So as much as in last month’s column I was talking about the dangers of not filling in the steps of your story and leaving gaps that the reader will strain or be unable to leap, I find myself this month focusing more on editing out the excess that clutters and distracts and bogs things down.
Here, as promised, are some details, a grab bag of them. I should say for the most part these would be best addressed in revisions. One of the things that makes writing so challenging is you’re solving different kinds of problems at multiple levels at the same time, and that’s why most writers recommend working in layers—for the most part focusing on the big issues, high altitude stuff (story, plot, character, structure, etc.) in the first draft, then once you’ve got the draft down and the story mostly in place, you drop closer to the ground and do the more detailed work we’re talking about here. So…
When creating visuals and action on the page, most of us err on one side or the other. I tend to err on giving too much information: “She got up from her chair, walked to the door, twisted the doorknob, pulled the door open, stepped out into the hallway, glanced to the left and right, and…” You get the idea. In narrative forms this is often called “shoe leather,” where every move is described, when really we only need the moves that matter. Done right, the reader will skip or fill in any other gaps themselves (again, co-creating). So because my first drafts suffer from excess, when I’m revising I’m always pulling out the extraneous details, stripping them back so the action and the line of the Story is evident, and trusting that the reader will unconsciously fill in anything else they need.
In my editing work, especially with newer writers, I often see too much description as far as the physical features of characters. In a first draft that may help a writer visualize and get to know the characters. But when your reader is reading a finished, polished piece, they generally don’t like or need lines upon lines of physical description unless there’s a specific reason for it. This is where the art of writing comes in. A single, striking detail such as “his cheekbones tapered to his chin like a fox” or “she barely reached five feet in heels” tells us a lot and gives the reader an anchor to fill in the rest.
One question I frequently hear is, how do I know when to describe everything in a room, and when do I know when to only outline it and move on? Here’s a tip: When I get to a scene that is very important, that has a lot of significance, then that is where I slow down. That is where I talk about the dust in the air catching light in a narrow ray from the window, the vase of dying roses that have not been watered in days. And what happens then is the reader slows down too. And they pay attention. Because the rhythm of the writing and the level of detail tells them something important is happening.
This variance in rhythm, from the writer charging through the story, then slowing down to exquisite detailing, is a way of directing (think of a camera), of telling the reader what is important. It focuses the lens. And that’s the moment where the wife in the scene tells her husband she’s in love with another man.
Afterwards you can speed things up again. Think of it as orchestrating. Rhythm in prose writing is different than rhythm in music, but it’s still rhythm, and the ability to use it needs to be in your tool kit. When I have a client new to writing who’s studied an entirely different art form, whether it’s sculpture or dance or singing, I know they’re going to be ahead of the game. They’ve already learned about this and other aspects common to all arts.
Here is another thing I frequently see. Let’s say a female character is introduced as a protagonist. She does all this dynamic stuff, is conflicted over some problem, may be a little flawed, but that’s okay. That makes the story better. And then…50 pages in she shakes her head, and her “blond ponytail flips from side to side.” And I’m stopped cold. Because she’d been dynamic and physically described in more of an outline form, I’d been co-creating her in my mind as a brunette (which is my option as reader/co-creator). Now I’ve got to completely reorient the way she looks. You can see how frustrating this would be. So if you’re going to call attention to your protagonist being a blond 50 pages in, make sure you give us that info early on when we’re building her in our mind.
I also run across sequencing issues. Say, a boy drops off a girl at a party and drives away. The girl walks to a house, then steps up on the porch where she spots her friends inside through a bay window. The friends hear the boy’s car engine and turn her way, then run outside to greet her… Do you see the awkwardness here? In the length of time it would take the girl to get out of the car, walk to the house, and see her friends the boy would be a mile down the road. And even worse, why would they just now be hearing this and turning toward her? The engine would’ve been louder moments earlier. You see how this disrupts the sequencing of the scene and throws the reader off. These types of issues are usually solved best by simplifying.
Don’t overdescribe when writing dialogue. The spoken lines themselves should carry the content. An example of overdescribing would be:
“Stop,” she said, holding out her open hand as she knit her brow.
“I won’t stop. I will tell you exactly what I think,” he told her, crossing his arms in protest and grinding his teeth.
“You make me crazy,” she shouted, hitting herself in the head.
Alright, I’m exaggerating to make a point, but you see how all those extra physical actions do not help the scene one bit. In fact, they get in the way. It’s fine to use description when needed, but as much as possible the meaning in a verbal exchange should reside in the spoken words, even if the meaning is subtextual (and it usually is). The reader will usually cover for any missing details.
Similarly, you may have heard writers advising against using adverbs. Now they don’t mean never use them, just to know when you’re using them and then use them judiciously. Hey, if you need an adverb you need an adverb. So what’s the issue? Besides the fact that their use can be lazy (instead of writing “he ran quickly,” you could use “sprinted,” “dashed,” “leaped,” etc.), in dialogue an adverb tells the reader how to interpret the emotional content where, when possible, the reader wants to co-create and experience that themselves. Their interpretation will usually be better than adverbial signposts. For example:
“Give me some money,” he said flippantly.
“What happened to yours?” she asked hesitatingly.
“I wish you trusted me,” he told her sadly.
“Trusted you for what?” she replied sarcastically.
Alright. I’m exaggerating again to make a point, but besides how awful that “ly” sounds line after line, you see my point. Look at how much better the following reads even with no context?
“Give me some money.”
“What happened to yours?”
“I wish you trusted me.”
“Trusted you for what?”
Finally, here is an area that irritates some writers. I’m talking about the detailiest of the details—punctuation. Again, let’s go back to the black marks against a white background. Punctuation is part of those black marks as much as letters. Commas, periods, dashes, hyphens, quotation marks—all these symbols are cues your reader is unconsciously following that show them how to construct the meaning of the text, as well as its rhythm. With creative writing you have a lot more flexibility as to what is “right,” as opposed to formal forms, such as a thesis or a business paper. We can bend the rules, but that should never confuse, and it will if you don’t know how punctuation works. So if you’ve got any gaps in this area, fill them. This is a tool for your toolbox as well. Make friends with it.
One last note on this. Newish writers are often startled to find that punctuation rules are not as “fixed” as they were taught in school. In fact, the rules are constantly in flux. In online nerd wars, writers and grammarians have passionate arguments about what is correct and what may be becoming correct. A recent example is when I saw a group of writers talking about forgoing quotation marks. My take is, since it’s our job to make things easy on the reader, and easy means clear, and clear is hard enough to do, I don’t know why anyone would want to leave a tool like this unused. Still, Cormac McCarthy is a writer I have a great deal of respect for and he never uses quotation marks. It somehow works for him; you’re never confused. But his style is very particular, he’s a rather eccentric individual, and he’s also made the big time already. Do you want the first thing the first reader at an agency or journal (who is likely an intern or assistant) notices is that you don’t use quotation marks and possibly wonder if that’s a mistake? You have to make your own decisions, but unless you’re Cormac, I’d use them.
There’s more I could talk about of course. There’s always more, but I’ll stop here. The thing to remember is, it’s art. There’s no exactly correct answer, no “right” approach that can neatly wrap this all up as “solved.” You’ll have to make your best call as you go along and as you respond to feedback from your beta readers.
People often ask me about “voice” and how to develop this mysterious thing, and my advice is always the same: you develop voice by this practice, by writing, by clarifying the movement of your story to your reader, by eliminating “this” and keeping “that.” And the more you do it, the less it will come from your head and the more it will come from your instincts. Between overdescribing and underdescribing there is an infinity of choices. And especially when revising, the more you can manage the interface between your work and your reader, the more they’ll undergo a distinct and unique experience from your work. The choices you make, over rounds of revision, gives your final work a feeling and sound as uniquely “you” as your fingerprint. And that’s your voice.
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.