Wherein Ron shows you some of his not so tricky tricks on how he makes his prose “better” and proves it with (of course) data … ’cause, I’m a numbers nerd at heart, you know?
Today I’m going to use the 27K novella (*) I’ve recently finished to discuss a few “simple” things one can do to shore up their micro-prose.
(*) The work in question is an urban fantasy titled “The Bridge to Fae Realm.” It should be available on or about May 1 as part of the Uncollected Anthology project. Stay tuned!
I’ll start by saying that I’m a very big proponent of fast writing—meaning that I encourage people to break whatever barrier they have to just sitting down and making words happen. Yes, sometimes those words don’t work. I often throw away a lot of words. But I almost always find the stories I draft in quick burst are much stronger than the stories I struggle over. There are exceptions, of course, but just go with me on this—I’ve been fiddling with my “process for a quarter century. I know me pretty well by now. [grin]
However, I’ve also learned that when I write quickly, I often let my prose fall into flabby patterns. You know what I mean: weak or passive sentence structures, generic word choices, and reliance on words that filter the story rather than tell it. Since I know these things about myself, I try to make my “last” pass through a manuscript be one where I specifically look for three indicators that suggest I may have missed opportunities to make my micro writing better.
These three things are:
1. The word “felt”
2. The notorious “ly” endings
3. Clustering of the use of “was” and other forms of the verb “to be”
Let me show you directly what I mean.
CASE 1: THE WORD “FELT”
My “final” manuscript weighed in at 27,127 words (115 double-spaced manuscript pages). I did a search on the word “felt” and found 46 of them. When I reviewed those 46 cases, I decided that 23 of them (fully half) were simple filtering that represented missed opportunities for making the reader’s experience better.
Here’s a fairly simple example:
|Original: He wanted to pull away from her, but he felt pursuit from something he couldn’t see, and suddenly he was thinking…
Final: He wanted to pull away from her, but the raw fear of pursuit from something he couldn’t see made him flash on…
The astute of you might find that I resolved an “ly” in that example, too. Now, I’m sure other writers would do something different. That’s what makes us who we are, right? But the point I want to make here is that by using word “felt” in that sentence I was relying upon the reader to insert her own idea of what my character was feeling. The pressure of pursuit, after all, can carry many nuanced forms, “raw fear” being only one of them. I note, though, that when I fell upon the specific of “raw fear” it also helped me roll out the rest of the sentence.
Bottom line, though, Before my review I had 46 cases of the word “felt,” and afterward I had 23. The modifications I made in these adjustments added about 100 words, and in each case made the situation more vivid and appropriate to what I’m trying to accomplish with the passage.
CASE 2: “LY ENDINGS”
Like I think most writers do, I work hard while I’m drafting to keep these prose weakeners out of my work even in first drafts. But they are insidious little buggers. When I searched for “ly” in my final manuscript I found 328 of them. Wow. Almost three per page. Of course, that counts real words like “fly,” so it’s not a true count. But still, I’m always a bit sheepish when I look at a manuscript that I think has been written with moderately strong prose and find this kind of … well … weakness.
You get the drill by now. I went back and examined each case of “ly” to decide whether I was missing an opportunity to make my work better. As a result, I dumped 137 of them (leaving me with 181 cases of “ly” in the final manuscript. The rewrites as a whole added about 75 words (but to be honest, the corrective action for many of these was just to remove the offending words—which for me are often the words “really” and “actually” … which I tend to use like others might use “literally”)
Here’s another fairly simple example:
|Original: The moon shined on them so strongly it made Jon remember …
Final: The stark moonlight reminded Jon …
Five words instead of eleven, which is much easier to read, and which is important at that time of the story because tensions are high and I want the reader running as hard as my characters are. In addition, I hope you’ll agree that the picture of “stark moonlight” is much more visceral than “shined on them so strongly.”
CASE 3: CLUSTERING OF “WAS”
This is a more sensitive one for me—or a more subjective one, at least. Maybe. As those around me know, I’m an engineer, not a linguist (smile). All I really worry about here is the fact that when I use the word “was” in clusters, I’m often bogging the story down and I’m often taking the voice of the piece away from my characters.
So when I search on “was” or other forms of the strange little verb “to be,” I’m really mostly interested in places where I see big clusters. I’ll take the time to resolve others, too, of course, but after having done this on a few manuscripts I tend to look at them almost more from the perspective of pacing than anything else.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Jon sighed. This was too damned crazy.
It wasn’t fair. Really, it wasn’t. He had finally got his act together after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who made his life hell before drinking herself to death, and after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity. He was finally figuring it out. He had a job, now. He was paying his rent. And on top of that, he had the music thing that was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he had once planned it.
Sure, he was living paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.
It wasn’t fair. He had finally got his act together after dealing with the fallout of his own goddamned stupidity, and after dealing with all the shit from his mom, who had made his life hell before drinking herself to death. He was figuring it out. He had a job now. He paid his rent. And on top of that, the music thing was at least halfway happening even if it would never wind up anywhere near where he wanted it to.
Sure, he lived paycheck to paycheck, but at least he had that much.
Again, another writer might have done something different, but this is what I did. It dropped wordcount by just under 10%, and streamlined a cluster of seven “was” constructs down to four. Arbitrary? Maybe you think so, but by looking at these things and actually thinking about them I can tell you why I chose to keep what I did.
That makes me happy.
For this manuscript, I started with 536 instances of “was,” and I ended with 401—an “improvement” in 135 cases.
If you’re with me this far, well, I’m impressed. But the bottom line for me here is always to step back and ask myself if I made the manuscript better. In this case (as with pretty much all of them, right?) I think that answer is a resounding yes. I’ve got a story and a presentation I’m proud of, which is the part I can control.
Of course, the real test happens after a story gets published—because at the end of the day it’s always the reader who gets the last say.