Beginners’ four faults
As an editor, I know when I am reading someone’s first novel. I have nicknames for the four give-away faults beginners make: (1) Walk and Chew Gum (2) Furry Dice (3) Tea, Vicar? (4) Styrofoam. I see at least one of these in every manuscript where the author has not mastered the craft of writing before submitting his or her work. What are these four faults and, more importantly, how can you cure them?
(1) Walk and Chew Gum
The writer has not integrated action and dialogue, internal monologue and action, or internal monologue with dialogue. It is as if the characters can do only one thing at a time. An example:
“If you think you’re going to town you’d better thing again,” said Ralph.
He put down his can of beer.
“I’m not having any daughter of mine going to a Cantrell boy’s party, and that’s final!”
“Oh, Pa! How could you be so cruel!” JoBeth cried.
Then, hunting in her pockets for a tissue, she dried her eyes and stared at him defiantly.
“If I want to go, how can you stop me?” she demanded.
Ralph knew this would happen. She had always been independent, like her mother. He half-lurched to his feet.
“You little hussy!” he bellowed.
Running up the stairs, JoBeth turned at the landing.
“I am going, do you hear? I am.”
Not integrating action and dialogue makes for jerky, lifeless prose. Combine, combine, toujours combine:
“If you think you’re going to town you’d better think again,” Ralph snapped, putting down his can of beer. She was too damn much like her mother. “I’m not having any daughter of mine going to a Cantrell boy’s party, and that’s final!”
“Oh, Pa! How could you be so cruel!” JoBeth hunted her pockets for a tissue, dried her eyes and stared at him defiantly. “If I want to go, how can you stop me?”
Ralph half-lurched to his feet, bellowing, “You little hussy!” But JoBeth was already upstairs. “I am going, do you hear? I am.”
This might not be award-winning prose, but it reflects the reality of the action and feelings better by having action, thought and dialogue knitted together.
(2) Furry Dice
Adjectives, adverbs and prepositions are furry dice hanging from a car’s mirror. They don’t do anything for the car’s performance, they simply clutter the place. I once stripped a fifth of a novel by removing words and phrases such as ‘very’ ‘up’ ‘down’ ‘over’ ‘about’ ‘some’ ‘a little’ ‘a bit’ ‘somewhat’ ‘whole’ ‘just’ and other modifiers. For instance:
She picked up the gun and aimed it straight at him. His smile disappeared as he lifted up his hands into the air. She waved him over to the wall, saying, “Spread ’em out, and no funny business, you hear?” She checked all of his pockets for the money, then stepped back. “Okay, I’m convinced. You haven’t got it.”
This would be better without the modifiers, and with the tighter language you’ll have to write to replace them:
She snatched the gun and aimed. His smile disappeared as his hands climbed. She waved him to the wall, saying, “Spread ’em, and no funny business, you hear?” She checked his pockets for the money, then retreated. “Okay, I’m convinced. You don’t have it.”
59 words have become 44, and even then the passage could be trimmed. But the first, necessary action, before you seriously begin to rewrite, is to grab that swimming pool net and remove clogging, unnecessary modifiers that muddy the water. Hemingway didn’t need them; you don’t need them.
(3) Tea, Vicar?
“More tea, Vicar?” Angela asked, taking his cup and placing it on the tray beside her.
“Don’t mind if I do,” said the Rev. Phelps.
“That was two sugars, wasn’t it?” she asked, pouring the fragrant liquid from the heirloom pot into his cup and stirring in the milk. When he nodded, she dropped in two sugar lumps, stirred again, and handed him back the cup.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said, accepting it with a smile.
How often have I read loving descriptions of cups of tea being poured, pots of coffee being made, even whole meals cooked and eaten? Or rooms cleaned or decorated, or journeys made? Too darn often. Writers get a high out of conjuring a tableau from thin air, and in the white heat of creation forget that tableaux of mundane details are not exciting. The reader will not share that euphoria.
Reading about a cup of tea being poured is about as exciting as watching paint dry. How does this scene help further the plot or character development? It doesn’t. The writer simply got carried away with describing everything. Fiction is supposed to be like life, but with the dull bits removed, not spelled out in excruciating detail. Examine your work. Test every scene. Is there anything that you think of as ‘setting the scene’ or ‘capturing the atmosphere’? If there is, cut it. Every scene needs conflict and movement to give it life, and tea for the Vicar has neither.
This is related to Tea, Vicar?, but it arises not from self-indulgence, but panic. Styrofoam is the padding novice writers stuff into their novels because they haven’t enough story to tell (or think they don’t) and need to create word count. Padding is distinguishable because suddenly the forward movement of the story stops dead. Nothing happens for a few pages. I read, I read, and at the end I’ve learned nothing about the characters I needed to know, nor have the characters done anything essential to the story. Every scene has to propel the plot to the crisis that will resolve the story. Styrofoam does neither.
If you fear you haven’t enough narrative, add more conflict. Don’t give me tours of the countryside, long rambling chats, the characters making travel arrangements, or any other lifeless block of prose. I want action. I want inexorable movement towards the crisis. I want to be gripped. So cut the padding. If that makes your novel too short, re-think your premise, your plot, your primary and secondary characters, and rewrite.
If you want to be published, you’ll have to cure these faults yourself, because your editor won’t do it for you. She’ll just send it back.
Copyright Caro Clarke reproduced by author’s kind permission