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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Please welcome guest blogger Vicky Burkholder

She walked very slowly up the steep, winding, narrow, dark staircase. Every time a step creaked, she slowed to a stop, her halting breath barely stirring in her heaving breast. The candle shook in her nervous hand. The huge heavy oak wood door loomed before her. She reached for the ornate brass doorknob…

Whoa. Wait a minute. What a mess this is. While it may evoke a certain feeling - maybe, nausea? - it doesn’t get across the menace that it’s supposed to. It’s so long winded that, by the time our heroine reaches for that handle, our reader is asleep. We need to grab our verbal dust cloths and clean out the rooms.

Many writers are guilty of this kind of lazy writing. They use adverbs to modify weak verbs - ‘very slowly’ - when a stronger verb would work better. Take a look at the first sentence: She walked very slowly up the steep, narrow, dark staircase. Instead of ‘walked very slowly’, what would work better there? Perhaps crept, trudged, plodded, danced, tripped, or sneaked. Any of them would work. Depending on the mood you are trying to create, the single verb works much better than the generic weak ones. In this instance, we are trying to evoke fear so she crept or snuck (sneaked). Let’s try ‘crept.’

Now look at the rest of the sentence, that steep, narrow, dark staircase. Again, there are too many adverbs. We’ll assume for argument’s sake that the reader knows from previous paragraphs that we’re in a castle, it’s nighttime, and there aren’t any wall torches in this part of the castle. If we have her in the passage, she could hold out her arms and touch both walls without stretching. This would tell us that the way is narrow. The candle in her hands tells us that it’s dark. And if we have the steps spiraling upward, we know that it’s winding. What we don’t want to do is put all this information in one sentence. A menacing scene should have short, menacing sentences, not long run-ons of description. In the next sentence, her halting breath is barely stirring her heaving breast. Okay, if she’s barely breathing, how can her breast be heaving? Omit that one entirely. What about that heavy oak wood door? You can pare this down to one adjective and not lose anything. Let’s keep huge. And to soothe the historians among you, we’ll get rid of that brass doorknob all together. In our fictitious historical, they haven’t been invented yet. But that’s another story.

I can hear you all crying now about word counts. If I cut out all those words, won’t I lose my count? No. By tightening your writing, you may actually find more. What you need to do is rewrite so that the passage evokes more feelings. Show us her angst.

So we’re left with:

She crept up the stairs, the candle wavering in her hands, her ears alert for the slightest sound. Her footsteps echoed in the narrow passage and she was sure the entire house could hear them. A loose stone clattered and she stopped, her breath catching in her throat. When nothing happened, she risked going on. The final curve and she was on the landing, the huge door looming in front of her. She pushed at the solid oak, but it barely budged.

Okay, this is never going to win a prize, but I hope you get the idea. By getting rid of the unnecessary adverbs, we’ve made the passage more interesting, more immediate.

Over the years, I've had several critique partners. Each one had specific things he or she tended to pick up on when doing a crit. One of my crit partners had a "thing" for the words push, pull, feel and felt, another picked up on that, it and was. And there are others. When we crit each other's work, we tend to pick up on our favorites. It's gotten to the point where I automatically go after those words before I send my work out for critiques.

So I started a list of words to look for. Words that can be weak when used one way, but are okay in another. For instance, I tend to pick up on the word "walk". Using the word walk is perfectly okay. But think about it - when we say that a person walked into the room, unless we know that character very well, we don't know how he entered the room. It is much more descriptive to say he swaggered, staggered, strolled, strode, tiptoed, crept or any of a dozen other ways to describe his way of walking. Each one of these synonyms is more exact and gives us a specific picture of the way the person is moving--and a specific tone to the scene.

In the same way, push or pull can be changed to stronger verbs. Push has several different meanings, each of which can be picked up from the surrounding words, but wouldn't using a more specific word be better? For instance, the sentence: She needed a push to get into the traffic. This can mean several different things. Was her car stalled and she needed someone to help her get moving? Or was she nervous about driving on a major highway and needed some "urging" to get her moving? A more specific word would give a more specific meaning.

No, you don't need to change every word. In some cases, the original word works just fine. But when doing an edit, go through your work and see if you can find a stronger word to replace the one you used. Go over something you’ve written and look for unnecessary words or phrases. See if you can rewrite the sentences with more impact. Some words to look for are:

And/but - can indicate run-on sentences That - unnecessary in most instances

That - when you mean who Which - when you mean that

Just Very

Nearly Almost

Really Seam/appear

Feel/felt few

Would/should/could Quite

Has/had - can be too passive Rather

Thing Stuff

Anyway Because

‘ly’ words so

then even

only down/up - as in sat down or stood up

get/got was/were - can indicate passive voice

begin/began - don’t begin doing something; just do it. J

any word you overuse

As her alter-ego, Vicky has multiple homes all over the universe. She looks human - for the most part - but when she starts writing about characters being able to move things or flicking fire from their fingertips, or changing the course of rivers, people tend to get a little freaked out. She found the one guy out there in the universe who loves her for who she is and they've been together forever and raised four wonderful (now) adults and are owned by a cat, Pixel. She has served on the board of directors for several RWA chapters including FF&P, PASIC, and Central Pennsylvania Chapter. Her career includes work as a technical writer/editor, a stringer for the local newspaper, and an editor and copy editor for four e-publishers. At various times in her life, she has been a teacher, a secretary, a short-order cook, a computer specialist, a DJ, and a librarian. She currently has four books with Cerridwen Press and an anthology with Draumr Publishing. Currently, she works for Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PA, where she is forced to read as many books as she wants. She can be found at http://www.vickyburkholder.com

Danger on Xy-One

Book 3 in the Hunters for Hire series

Cerridwen Press - coming January 10th

Aleksia Matthews is an asteroid assayer who would like nothing better than to be left alone. Her life is soon turned upside down when a band of ruthless pirates attack her ship. She manages to escape, but fears the worst for her brother. Ali swears revenge. Although well-trained by Fleet Security, she knows she can't do the job alone. When she literally runs into Jason Cole, a blue-eyed, raven-haired stranger, she knows she has met the perfect partner--in more ways than one.

Special agent and Bounty Hunter, Jason Cole has spent the past year tracking the pirates that killed his brother Zack and Zack's family. He's always one step behind; too late to help the victims. There are never any survivors--until now. It is up to him to keep the golden-eyed, auburn-haired beauty alive and out of trouble until the gang can be captured, and maybe longer.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Vicky! Very informative and a good lesson for budding authors :)

Danica Avet

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is a great post loaded with some excellent information.


Janine said...

Great post.

I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard to find all these 'weak' words in my manuscript. It's great at pointing out where I've been lazy :-)

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post. I constantly labor at this. I may have to try Janine's AutoCrit Editing Wizard. Anything will help.