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I lost my reader’s virginity the moment I started writing my first novel. Then the experts told me my WIP needed to be tighter, it was too loose. That’s when I realized this writing craft learning journey is a lot like gaining experience in the bedroom.
Initially, you have only your instincts, and it all feels kind of strange and scary. But you want to give it a real go. You want to nail this stuff down so people speak glowingly of you, so you can stop feeling clueless. You seek advice from friends and magazines, and try to apply it at every opportunity.
But at the end of the day, we learn the most from the people we get in bed with. By example. By doing. And so it goes with our writing.
We’ve all heard these words before . . .
“This sentence could use some tightening.”
“Knock out the first sh*tty draft, just bang it out, then go back and clean it up.”
“I look for weak writing, and review submissions using the ‘three strike’ rule. A good story idea does not make up for bad writing.”
But just how tight do we have to be? Tight writing for a literary novel means something different than a tightly written thriller. The former may require satin ribbons and a fur cuff or two, but a thriller may need some serious S&M editing to make it squeal, er, shine.
How do we edit to bring out the best in our stories? In a way that keeps the Voice but trims the fat? And leaves our readers panting for more, anxiously waiting to take our next novel to bed.
Start with clean sheets:
• Eliminate repetitive words – Overused, synonyms, frequent conjunctions (as, when)
Do: He went out
to get for a coke, and found spotted Lisa was fooling around on him. He bought beer on the way out home.
Do: He worked swiftly with deft,
practiced, precise movements.
• Eliminate most adjectives and adverbs – Replace with vigorous verbs, or nothing.
• Eliminate as many pronouns as you reasonably can – Put the focus on the action or object of the sentence, rather than the MC whenever possible.
Don’t: She thought she would go out of her mind if her mother wouldn’t help her.
Do: She’d go out of her mind if Mother wouldn’t help.
• Eliminate passive phrasing – He
was running ran for the bed.
• Eliminate POV slips – These things are like someone knocking on the door—they distract the reader, as well as the writer. It’s impossible to not notice a change in POV.
Tune in to your partners: (the MC and the reader)
• Deepen POV by eliminating sentence set-ups –
Do: She looked great.
Her hair was Long and blond hair Some of it was pulled up into in a braid on one side, the rest flowed down into waves to her waist. She was wearing The shortest skirt I'd ever seen on a college girl. And her Pink stiletto heels brought her up a few inches so her head was level with my chest.
• Cause and effect, Action/Reaction –
Don’t: She choked back a scream as a snake slithered under the bed and wrapped itself around her ankle. Its beady eyes matched the killer's.
Do: A snake slithered under the bed and wrapped itself around her ankle. She choked back the scream building in her throat. Its beady eyes matched the killer's.
• Clarity – Readers want to get the meaning of our sentences on the first pass.
Don’t: Jack ran faster than he was supposed to go so she would notice but he didn’t care.
Do: Jack ran faster, not caring whether he should, hoping she’d notice him.
Make your moves count:
• Don’t overdo it – Cramming too many actions into one sentence is like playing Twister in the bedroom—it causes physical confusion and a lack of visual clarity for the reader. Break the actions into separate sentences or use the delete key. Try to keep it to two actions per sentence, unless it’s a fight scene.
• Shorten sentences – Shorter sentences literally increase the pace. They eliminate overuse of conjunctions. They increase clarity. And they focus our readers’ thoughts.
• Get to the point – Have you ever spoken with someone who constantly interrupted themselves, diverting the point they seemed on the verge of making, only to segue into minutia details or a tangled side thought, leaving you feeling as though they might never make their point? Don’t do that to your readers.
• Gender differences – Men tend to speak in shorter sentences, leave words off, and avoid emotional or dramatic statements more often than not. Women tend to lean the opposite direction. Take a look at your characters to see if that is the case.
Example: A couple sitting in a car, contemplating a steep and icy mountain road.
Her: “I don’t think we should try it. That road looks treacherous.”
Him: “Nope. We’re not doing it.”
• Double and triple dip on beats – Physical beats are important to the flow of a scene. But they can add fat to a story. Instead of frequently showing characters smiling, laughing, glaring, drinking or hair raking, double up by using beats with purpose. Strive for making most beats add tension, reveal character or emotion, ground the scene or foreshadow. If your beat does more than one of these, it’s a triple dip.
Reaching the climax:
• Unnecessary chapters – These things are like wearing two condoms. Readers can always spot them, and it can ruin the ride. Necessary chapters have a purpose. They move the plot measurably forward, reveal worthwhile character points, provide new and critical story information, raise or solve a story question. The more points hit, the stronger the chapter. Everything else is fat or connective tissue.
• Character arcs – Be sure to include a goal or a want and a problem or an issue for your MC(s), have things get in the way of the goal, then make things look good for goal achievement, but add a last minute snag. Finally, the goal is achieved and it changes our hero in ‘X’ way. If your MC doesn’t have an arc, your character and/or story might be too loose. Or you might be writing a series, with no intended growth for the hero.
• Story arcs – Look for unanswered questions, dropped characters, unsolved issues. Readers need strong foreplay (beginning), all the bases covered (middle) and a satisfying climax (ending). Don’t leave your readers feeling cheated.
• Quickies – I like to get away with a good quickie whenever I can. Some narrative info and events are best conveyed in a slam-bam telling way. We need it, right now, but with no boas or batteries required.
Example: Twenty minutes later, they were in the car, hot and ready, and headed for a motel.
The quick phrase conveys a sense of 'time spent and gone', and comes in place of a drawn out scene showing them getting in the car, backing out, etc. Fast-forwarding allows more space for the juicier details coming, shows a timeline, and a sense of movements having occurred off screen. Now we get to see their hands, their eyes, continuously roaming during the silent car ride, showing their anticpation of what's to come.
If the story moment involves a 'walk-on' character, don't show us that person in great detail. A quickie is also the perfect spot to plant a clue--in a seemingly throw away action or character, a squirt of dialogue tossed over a shoulder on the way out. Give us just the bare minimum to make the flow work within the scene.
• Know when to go long – I like my climaxes to last as long as possible. I want them to linger in my mind for days. So how do you make the bang memorable? You slow things down. It may seem like a contradiction to tight writing, but this is where going long works for us. And we’re still keeping the sheets clean, mostly. It’s okay to leave a wet spot of adjectives just before the bang, but keep it reasonable—keep the tension up. Rushing big story moments is a mistake. Use more description, internal thoughts, deeper visuals that enhance the tone of the scene and add subtle tension in a way that builds through the lead-up. That way the reader is in-close, and the big event will have even more impact.
The example below shows an MC returning from a run, about to find her friend brutally murdered.
Rushed: The hallway was quiet and the elevator doors shut behind her without a sound. She headed for Craig’s room, struggling with a tray of drinks as she knocked.
Going long: The elevator doors slid shut behind her. An empty hallway stretched out ahead with the hushed and padded quiet of a luxury hotel. The maids had gone home for the day, and the guests were all in their rooms preparing for the evening. Legs still a little shaky from the intense run, she paused at the end of the hall for a look out the huge window. The sunset was gorgeous and added to the beauty of twinkling lights coming on across the city. It had been a long and stressful day. A hot shower sounded great and got her feet moving once more. She rounded the corner and headed down another thick run of carpeting. She came to a stop at Craig's suite, struggling to balance the tray of drinks and fish out a key.
When it comes to learning amour, we can rent a video. Luckily, emerging writers have great books available for perusing. Nothing beats seeing tight writing in action to show us the way.
Below are excerpts from two of my favorite authors’ stories. The first is from Lee Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor. The second is from a literary novel by Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven. Both books have won multiple awards and are bestsellers.
Opening paragraph from Killing Floor:
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
Opening paragraph from Pigs in Heaven:
Women on their own run in Alice’s family. This dawns on her with the unkindness of a heart attack and she sits up in bed to get a closer look at her thoughts, which have collected above her in the dark.
If we’re going to pull back the covers and spend time with someone, we want them to be good—really good. I can’t imagine deleting a single word from either of these jewels above. That is my definition of tight writing.
Freeing the world with words
Author of Dance of Spies, Finding Round, Treasure Life and Freedom Jungle