There are apparently a few readers who believe I am ruthlessly picking on other writers for no good reason. While to a few insecure types it may seem that way, I can guarantee the rest of you that I’m not. But, in an effort to provide a balanced perspective, I thought I’d offer up a few of my own works for skewering to demonstrate some additional points on the topic of writing improvement.
One of the first novels I wrote, though it is as of yet unpublished, sported some of the most melodramatic writing. It fairly sighed and sniffed its way into the back of my filing cabinet. I’ve learned a lot and improved dramatically since then, but here is what I consider to be overly pushy writing:
“The digital clock on my night stand read 11:05 a.m. My head throbbed and my stomach churned. I sat on the edge of the bed and pressed my hands against my temples.
Why me? Dear God, why am I so stupid. Tears slid from my eyes and rolled in fat drops down my cheeks. I should be excited for tonight. My body shook with quiet sobs. Thoughts drifted through my mind like shadows. No scholarship, no college. I’ve ruined everything.”
The main character suspects that she may be pregnant. She is 16 years old and frightened, but I’ve made this sound like a poorly written episode of “Days of Our Lives” instead of a believable moment in the character’s life.Let’s stop and look at the character again. At 16, I’m not sure that I think the first thought this girl is going to have is the loss of a potential scholarship. When I was that age, I would have been scared to death of what my parents were going to do to me. When I come back to work on this one, I will need to get deeper inside the character and deal with her more realistically.
Here is another example of some things I need to revise in this story:
“Hi,” I said as Claudia stepped into the entry way.
“Ready?” she asked.
“Just need to get my shoes and my purse.”
“Where . .”
I put my finger to my mouth to hush her question, then turned and jogged down the stairs to my room. I slipped my shoes on, grabbed my purse, then pulled my green sweater off the back of the chair by my vanity.
“Let’s go,” I said as I reached the top of the stairway. “See you in a little while, Dad.”
The friend (Claudia) has come to drive the main character into town, but she doesn’t know where or why. The main character is going to the public health clinic for a pregnancy test. This moment is supposed to be building tension in the plot, but I’ve slowed the whole story down with details that mean nothing to the story. We don’t really need to be following this girl down the stairs to her room, have her put on her shoes, and then hear about her green sweater on the chair by the vanity. This whole passage can be omitted without sacrificing anything. The details don’t add realism, they simply slow down the pace and let the tension lapse.
Let’s look at another example (isn’t this fun???)
Claudia sat quietly for a moment, gripping the steering wheel. “I assume you’ve told Tyler.”
I let out a long sigh. “You assume wrong.”
“I’m pathetic, I know.”
Claudia shifted gears with an almost angry force. The Jeep swung around a corner. “He’s the one who should be driving you to this place. Not me.”
“I know, Claud,” I said. Tears welled in my eyes again. “I needed to tell someone I could trust. I’m sorry.” I fished around in my purse for a tissue or a napkin. Nothing.
Claudia eased the car to a stop at an intersection. “Don’t be sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” She turned onto the small street that led toward the clinic. “It’s just that Tyler isn’t my favorite person.”
Okay – realistically, is this the way two high school girls would talk to each other? Of course not. The conversation is stilted. Claudia sounds more like a 30-year-old – which makes sense since that’s about how old I was when I wrote it. And Kelly comes off like a blithering ninny. Neither girl is believable at this point, and their dialog is more about conveying information to the reader than it is an actual conversation between two friends.
Again, the melodrama quotient here is very high, and what I need to do when I revise this is to reexamine both characters for motivation, desire, and projection. This is the objective/obstacle approach to plotting, the idea that each character is motivated by an objective – they want something, even if that something is just the status quo. The obstacle is whatever gets in the way of that objective. Clearly, I haven’t thought that through well enough with these two characters because they are coming across as two-dimensional and uninteresting.
The basic problem, and now that I’ve had several years of distance from this story I can actually see and admit to it, is that I didn’t do enough up-front work on this story. I didn’t get to know these characters as well as I should have. I didn’t find out what they wanted and what they were willing to do to have it. I didn’t get to know them as people, but merely saw them as cardboard pieces to be moved through the game that was the story.
I don’t make that mistake now. I do rather extensive character studies before I start writing. I have worksheets that I use for plotting, diagramming the basic shape of the story in advance of actually working on the book.
I still find on occasion that I have too many “deep breaths” or “long sighs” or something that I have to revise on the second draft. But I know to look for them because they are what I refer to as my “default emotional cues” and I’m not usually aware in the first draft that I’ve used them. The first draft is just about getting the story on paper.
I’ve actually enjoyed this little exercise, and I think I’ll do this again in the future. Feel free to point and laugh, because really, it is some dreadful stuff. And yes, I wrote it. It’s not someone else that I’m viciously singling out to be mean to. The fact is, you need good examples to make a good point, so here are a few that I hope will make the case for me.
I appreciate the comments, and I look forward to more!