Writing Tight = Writing Right
A guest post by Alex Van Tol, author of Dead Man’s Curve (Leap 2016), Food Freak (Orca 2017) Chick: Lister (Orca 2015).
I’m currently reading my 9-year-old son to sleep at night with a middle-grade book by a New York Times bestselling author. You’d think a bestselling author would hit it out of the park every time, right? Because to get to that level, you have to be pretty darn good.
Except my little guy isn’t the one who wants to fall asleep reading it. I am. The book — which I won’t name — is jam-packed full of backstory and narrative sludge that clogs the plot and slows the pacing. It took us two pages of reading about the rise and fall of an ex-actor’s career as an animal presenter to paint a picture of an eccentric guy who’s missing a few digits because of the animal attacks he has sustained over the years. It’s information that could have been imparted in two, maybe three vivid sentences. But instead, we lose the momentum and bog down in details that likely won’t be relevant at any future point in the story. (Maybe the story will turn out well. I won’t ever know; I informed my son that I’m bailing on this book in favour of Newbery Award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I’ll learn more about my craft by reading that one.)
For all his strong storytelling, this author has neglected one of the most important rules of powerful writing: write tight. Audiences have even less time nowadays than ever before, and you’re going to make your readers mighty antsy if you make them wait until page 30 to drop them into the action. Same if you ask them to slog through pages of character and setting description in order to properly “set the stage”. Pick the stage up and carry it with you. Set it as you go, and paint only as much as your reader needs to see.
Several years ago I attended a conference where New York agent Donald Maass spoke. He told our group that if he doesn’t see some sort of action, some unique character vulnerability, some compelling reason to keep reading within the first one to two of pages of a manuscript, he gives it a pass. So if one of North America’s most highly regarded literary agents says you’ve got about 500 words to prove your story is going to be a worthwhile read, you’re safe in assuming that most other editors, publishers and agents feel similarly.
Write tight. Read on for a few key tips that’ll help you do it better.
Write plainly. Read Rainbow Rowell. Read John Green. Read Mark Twain, Elmore Leonard and Kurt Vonnegut. They are masters at using down-to-earth language that sounds exactly like the way we talk and think. We don’t think or talk to other people in multi-clausal phrasings littered with adjectives and adverbs. Why would you want to read a character who does? Keep it short and simple. This makes your characters believable to readers, and drives the story forward with fast-moving momentum.
Ditch the descriptive modifiers. Read Stephen King’s On Writing. He will show you how important it is to use common words rather than expansive ones. One of the best editors I’ve worked with taught me to kill adverbs at every turn: no one needs to run quickly, eat hungrily or whisper quietly. If you want to modify it, better to use an evocative simile.
Speaking of similes… Wield them like the powerful tools they are. A good simile serves as an excellent illustration and has the ability to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind. Here’s an example from Barbara Fradkin’s The Night Thief: “The dry cornstalks stood like stiff sentries in the moonlight.” In Tokyo Girl, author Brian Harvey’s protagonist observes another foreigner on the train, the man clinging to the metal handgrip “as though he was afraid of being washed away.” Similes create clear images in the reader’s mind and add interest to the story.
Show, don’t tell. As part of my reasoning for my decision to abandon my son’s latest nighttime read, I explained to him the importance of showing versus telling. Readers want to watch events unfold in front of their eyes, I explained, not be told about what happened before. We’re used to the cinematic experience now. Better to show a single episode of an audience vomiting and stampeding for the exits when an ocelot bites the guy’s earlobe off than to list off a bunch of occasions where a similar kind of thing happened. Imagine what a fun scene that would be to read?
Write what you see your characters doing. This follows from point #4. Write what you see when you watch your characters interacting. Keep your camera up and trained on your actors, then just write what you see them doing. Give your reader a clear visual of your characters’ faces, their body language and the way their actions impact their surroundings.
Talk it out. Dialogue speeds the story up while narrative slows it down. It also breaks up the text and adds white space — something the online world has taught us to favour. Make your characters talk like real people. No one says, “As Mom reminded us last week, Judith used to enjoy Christmas, when everyone would gather jovially in the living room, star twinkling merrily atop the biggest Douglas Fir that Dad could find at the Boy Scout tree sale.”
Since we’re on the subject of dialogue, contractions will help you keep it real. You don’t speak without them, so don’t write without them. As you type, your brain is naturally inclined to separate words into “she is not planning to go on vacation” and “we are going to be happy living together”. Override your grey matter. Instead, listen to how the words would come out of your mouth when you speak. Write your dialogue accordingly.
Read. Don’t waste time on books that bore you. (Same goes for boring people, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.) Just because something is a classic or came highly recommended doesn’t mean it’s going to fit your reading profile. I couldn’t get into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great book for someone else. Time is short and the options are many. If you’re not convinced, read Tim Urban’s musings on how much there is still to do in the little time that’s left to us. If a book doesn’t grab you by the heart (or throat), file it. There are thousands more that will.
It’s much harder to write clean and short, but it’s worth the effort. Writing tight leaves your reader feeling satisfied but not stuffed, like a scoop of lemon sorbet instead of a triple-flavour banana split. What’s more, learning to write tight will teach you to be a better storyteller. And that’s the name of the game.
Meet Alex Van Tol
Alex Van Tol has published 13 books for young readers. In addition to her nonfiction books, she writes about real-world issues facing youth today: anxiety, death, risk-taking, social media, sexuality and more. Alex’s books are BC Bestsellers, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books, and YALSA’s Quick Picks. Alex holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Bachelor of Education. She taught middle school before making the switch to writing full-time. She lives in Victoria.
Visit her website here for more information about her and her books!