The Wavy Green Line of Death

I am tired today. I worked until midnight last night, because my husband went to bed early (like a sensible person). Instead of seeing my abandonment as an opportunity to perhaps read a book, or watch some TV, I grabbed the WiP and edited until my eyesight began to fail.

Image: someecards.com

Image: someecards.com

But, in a way, it was worth it.

Yesterday’s editing was brutal – it was a merciless slaughter of words. Line after line of useless text fell beneath the blade of my Green Felt Pen. (In fact, my word-thirsty Green Felt Pen may need to be replaced with the even mightier Blue Felt Pen later today, because I’ve nearly worn out the nib on Green the Destroyer, such is the swathe it has cut through the excesses of the WiP.) And, surprisingly, I’m learning that it actually feels good to edit. It feels good to re-read a paragraph or a page after I’ve cut lumps out of it, and realise that it now says exactly the same as it did before, but in fewer words and without doing all the work for the reader.

It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention (that is, if you’re a regular reader) that this edit is my seventh. Seventh. And I’m still finding things to fix. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve read the manuscript of this novel about ten times at this stage, and it’s only becoming clear in this edit that I’ve made a huge amount of rookie mistakes. Thank goodness for the all-powerful Green Felt Pen of Doom, then! Maybe the power is in the pen – that would explain a lot, actually.

Anyway. Let’s do a little round-up of Things I Have Done Wrong, in the hope it’ll help other writers:

Item the First: My book is narrated in the first person. This can pose tricky problems for me, because all I have to go on is my protagonist’s viewpoint. Yet, at regular intervals through the book, my protagonist describes for the reader how other characters are feeling. This, of course, is a no-no. It’s only striking me now how silly this is, and how badly it reads. People can make guesses at how others are feeling, of course, based on body language, tone of voice, and so on – but for a first-person narrator to say something like: ‘He looked at me, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He was so anxious. His heart was racing,’ is plainly ridiculous. (I have to point out that the sentence I’ve just used is most definitely not taken from my WiP – I wasn’t as silly as that. I’m just trying to give an illustrative example!) So, anywhere I’ve noticed my protagonist making assumptions about other people’s feelings which are not based on very clear physical cues, the Green Wavy Line of Death has been employed, and those needless words have fallen. And hurray to that.

Item the Second: I’ve also realised that my protagonist describes things in too much detail sometimes. If she encounters a machine, or a vehicle, or a piece of technology, she tends to go on and on about it, describing every last dial, switch, and piece of tubing. She’s not a particularly enthusiastic engineer, and she’s not a machine-nerd. These things are not out of place in the world she lives in. So, I ask myself, why does she go on about them for half a paragraph? It’s equivalent to someone in a modern novel taking fifteen lines to describe a washing machine, or a refrigerator. Unless the refrigerator in question was powered by a meteorite and made from solid diamond, or the narrator is a freshly-arrived alien, there’s no need to do that. Of course. What I’ve done – as, I’m sure, will be clear to you – is I’ve mixed up my own voice with my narrator’s. That is a shocking mistake to make. I’m fascinated by the machines and technology in this world, and I’ve thought deeply about them. I’ve done some research into steam-powered engines, and condensers, and propellers, and so on. So, when someone in the book enthuses about something which should be totally ordinary from their point of view, it’s actually me speaking, not the character. I’ve slapped myself on the wrist for this already, don’t worry. And slash slash scribble goes the Green Felt Pen of Doom.

Item the Third: One of the things I was most proud of yesterday was condensing six pages (or, approximately 3600 words) of descriptive exposition with a bit of dialogue into about 2.5 pages (hopefully, fewer than 1000 words) of pure dialogue, with a tiny bit of exposition. It was a scene which had bothered me for a while, but until yesterday I had no idea how to fix it. Eventually, I just ended up rewriting the entire thing. It’s an important scene, because in it, our Fearless Protagonist is learning things about her family, and realising how little she understands about them and what they do. But, as I’d written it up until yesterday, the scene was basically a lecture given by one of the other characters, both to the reader and my protagonist. Now, it’s more like a discussion – she engages more, puts things together herself (without having to be smacked across the head with things that are, actually, obvious), and I don’t feel the need to expand on every tiny detail. As before, with the overdone descriptions, I’ve sketched around things that would be clear and unremarkable to the character, and allowed them to gradually reveal themselves to the reader.

So, basically, this is what I’ve learned (the hard way): Don’t give your characters knowledge they couldn’t possibly have; Don’t confuse your enthusiastic, nerdy voice with theirs; and Don’t allow Captain Obvious to visit your manuscript and explain everything in minute detail. Smack him with the Green Felt Pen of Death.

I hope this has been helpful, and mildly diverting. Do let me know if you have any other editing tips, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said here. It’s all about the discussion, people!

Have a wonderful Thursday.

 

2 thoughts on “The Wavy Green Line of Death

  1. anna3101

    Wait a second. Green felt tip? Do you want to say you actually write your book? Like, with your hand? On paper? And not on a computer screen???

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Ha! No, I write straight to the computer. But when I’m drafting, I print the whole book out and make corrections on it with pen. I use a different colour for every draft, so I can keep them distinct from one another. It’s a bit wasteful of paper, but I can’t edit on a screen. It’s much easier to do it by hand.

      Sorry for the confusion. 🙂

      Reply

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