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How to Get “Tight” – Ruby Reprise

“Needs tightening.”My least favorite comment.

I hate tightening.  Hate it at the gym.  Hate it with my household budget.  Really, really hate it with my writing.

I love the luxuriance of books, the lavishness of language.  Back in first grade, I always needed extra sheets of story-paper for Writing Time, and never got around to drawing the stupid picture.  My very first completed romance-novel chapter?  Thirty-five pages long.  Yup, thirty-five.  Even Charles Dickens would cringe.

Years ago, I submitted that chapter to the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot contest (I blush to remember), and a very patient judge responded:  “This is great stuff, but pick up the pace!  Readers won’t be willing to work this hard.”

Ouch.

The good news:  I heeded that advice.  Trimmed those 35 pages to 13.  Kept up that pace for a 369-page novel, which finaled in the 2009 Golden Heart and won in 2010. And I never forgot the lesson.

Here are a few tips on saying more with fewer words:

1. CUT THE FLAB:

– Delete vague, slushy words like “very,” “really,” “actually,” “quite,” “lots of,” “sort of,” “somewhat.”  Avoid “to seem” (i.e, “The storm seemed to be getting more violent”) unless you mean the initial impression’s false.  “That” can usually go.  (Not “I told him that he should run,” but “I told him he should run.”  Or better yet, “I told him to run,” or “‘Run!’ I shouted.”). 

Get straight to your verb:  Delete “started to…” “began to….”  (Not “She started to laugh,” but “She laughed.”)  And avoid the present progressive.  (Not “He was standing,” but “He stood.”)

The right word = fewer words.  Precision gives your writing muscle.  The best muscle? “Power” verbs. (Not “The carriage swung side to side at high speed,” but “The carriage careened.” Not “She yelled very loudly,” but “She hollered.”  Not “He ran as fast as he could,” but “He sprinted.”)

Trim dialogue tags.  Unless it’s unclear who’s talking, you can often cut phrases like “she said,” or “he replied.”

Contract “haves.” Not “She had seen him before,” but “She’d seen him before.”  Lowers word count, and reads quicker.  Works for historical dialogue, too, unless the character’s very formal. (“I’ve no idea.” “I’d best be going.”)

Skip direct reference to perception.  Within a character’s POV, don’t say “she thought,” “he felt”; just state what she thought or he felt. (Not “She thought he was taking far too long to answer,” but “He took far too long to answer.”   Not “She wondered if he’d come again tonight,” but “Would he come again tonight?”)  Same with “heard,” “saw,” “noticed.”  (Not “He noticed fingerprints on the goblet,” but “Fingerprints smeared the goblet.”  Not “He heard footsteps in the other room,” but “Footsteps echoed in the other room.”) Avoiding those terms has the side benefit of making the reader feel closer to your character’s POV.

 

 2.  TRUST YOUR READERS’ INTELLIGENCE:

Don’t spell it all out.  I’m reading a novel that’s driving me NUTS by showing THEN telling. 

To protect the author’s identity, I’ll invent my own analogs:

Robert burped, and all the dinner guests shifted uncomfortably in their seats.  They didn’t know quite how to react to such rude behavior.

Clarissa smiled and batted her eyes and tapped Robert’s shoulder with her purse.  She  was flirting outrageously.

The werewolves circled Clarissa, their yellow eyes gleaming and their fangs dripping, their powerful muscles tensing to spring.  They would attack at any moment.

In every case, the last sentence can go.  *Please*.

 

3. MINIMIZE BACKSTORY.

Tip A) Give just enough to make the current scene make sense. Unanswered questions are hooks, after all.  And readers are smart; they glean a lot from small details.

Instead of:   “Never trust a handsome man.  She’d learned that lesson the hard way, in the course of three failed marriages, all to men who were gorgeous as movie stars.  The first had actually been an actor, and for the longest time she thought he was checking out other women, when he was actually checking himself out in any available reflective surface.  The second and third were no better, paying more attention to their hair gel than to her. She only won their smiles when she was groomed to the nines and making them look good.”

Try this:   “Never trust a handsome man.  She’d learned her lesson after three failed marriages, all to movie-star-gorgeous men who spent more time gazing into mirrors than at her.”

Or even just:  “Never trust a handsome man.  She’d learned that by Husband Number Three.”

Tip B) MAKE THEM SAY IT OUT LOUD:

I love diving deep, vividly recreating past events within a character’s mind. But all that detail can bog the main story down. So I try turning interior musing into DIALOGUE.

One of the most moving moments in The King’s Speech is when Bertie (soon to be King George VI) finally breaks down and tells his speech therapist about the childhood trauma that created his stutter. It’s done with brilliantly few words. Here’s the moment in the script:

 

Dang. Talk about emotional bang for your buck.

When a character tells another character their story, they’ll tend to hit just the critical details, PLUS it builds all-important intimacy, AND becomes PART of the main story, helping propel things forward.

Win, win, win.

 

4.  SEEM SLIMMER THAN YOU ARE:

Sometimes ‘pacing’ problems aren’t about word count at all. They’re about the way you say things.

Action “feels” fast. In place of dialogue tags, use action, even if it requires more words.

Not: “You trollop!” he shouted angrily.

But: “You trollop!” His palm slammed the wall.

Dialogue “feels” fast And creates all that lovely white space!

Stay concrete.  Our brains process abstract language more slowly.

Not: “She played up her sexiness for all she was worth.”

But: “She swung her curvy hips, tossing her curls.”

Syllables count. Word count’s identical, but which “reads” faster?:

He discovered the treasure at the bottom of the incline.

He found the gold at the base of the hill.

Longer words are fine for more leisurely scenes, but when a scene’s bogging down, go short.  Play with the phrasing of every sentence. Find the right cadence.

End strong.  Put your strongest word, phrase, or image at the END of a sentence (or paragraph, or chapter) to create forward momentum.

Not:  “With vampires on the prowl, no one took out garbage after nightfall.”

But: “No one took out garbage after nightfall, with vampires on the prowl.”

 

5.  SEE HOW LOW YOU CAN GO:

Is fear of “messing up” keeping you from cutting? Make it a game!

Do a “contest cut.” Ever have to cut a 12-page chapter to enter a 10-page contest?  If you’re like me, lines that seemed indelible suddenly look disposable.  80% of the time, I preserve the cuts in my “real” manuscript.

–Create a “fearless file.” Many writers keep an “Unused Gems” file for lines they cut.  I suggest the inverse:  keep your official manuscript file as-is, and COPY the text you want to trim into a file called something like “Radical Experiment,” or “Just for Fun,” or “What the Heck?”  Then CUT LIKE A CRAZED AX MURDERER!!  If you feel like you’ve amputated too much, you haven’t harmed your original text at all.  (Remember that 35-page first chapter?  Partway through the tightening project, I made a file called “Crazy Eight Challenge,” to see if I could get it down to eight pages without losing all coherence.  I couldn’t.  But Crazy Eight trimmed the last two pages to make it 13–and, afterwards, having 13 seemed downright luxurious.)

 

That’s it.

You’ll notice I didn’t even mention “big picture” trims like collapsing two minor characters into one, starting your story in a later chapter, or deleting a subplot.

The upshot:

YOU CAN TIGHTEN YOUR WRITING WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE STORY.

With just the changes I’ve mentioned here, I easily cut 10,000 words from a 100,000 manuscript.  The final draft has all the meat of the original, just leaner.

What tricks do you have for tightening?  

10 responses to “How to Get “Tight” – Ruby Reprise”

  1. Kay Hudson says:

    Excellent round up of suggestions!

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  2. This is all FANTASTIC advice!!! It can be so tempting to cling to our darlings, but ruthlessness is key. The only tip I can think to add is that sometimes I can cut entire scenes if they aren’t doing anything for the plot. Be lavish in first drafts, but editing? Editing is ruthless! Great post.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      I love that….lavish in first drafts, ruthless in editing.

      And, yeah, I just cut a whole scene that I really liked (the writing was just how I wanted it!! vivid, speedy, revealing of character), but it just didn’t fit with other shifts I’m making to the book. So it had to go. OUCH AND DOUBLE OUCH.

      Now I’m stitching up the wound, trying to get the raw edges seamlessly joined. Sigh!!!!

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  3. Jo Anne Banker says:

    Excellent summary of things we all have to be conscious of. I can’t tell you how many times my critique group has caught be showing THEN telling it again. 🙂

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    • Jo Anne Banker says:

      Uhhh – that’s supposed to be “caught ME,” not “be.” Sigh…

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      And that’s exactly why critique partners are so important—things that are obvious in somebody else’s manuscript are invisible in your own.

      As long as it’s caught before publication, it’s all good.

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  4. Thanks, Elisa. Loved your examples. Great reminders.

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  5. OMGosh I’m bookmarking this great post for edit time! Thank you for taking the time to provide the examples.

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