Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Keep It Real, Only More Interesting

Some people may think an editor looks only for the commas, split infinitives, missing words, misspellings – all the mundane stuff. Yes, we read a manuscript and find those things. But we also look beyond the basics.

For example, we note the minutiae that need to be cut. And we note when the small details are not actually minutiae, but important stuff that has to be left in.

Even if you’re writing a memoir, a person’s everyday life does not make for an interesting book. Let’s face it, our daily lives are boring. Even when something different happens, it’s boring.

I got locked out of the house last week. So what? I unloaded the groceries, put the refrigerator and freezer stuff in the freezer, then headed to Starbucks for coffee. I talked to a friend of mine who recently went for a walk and got lost. Totally lost. Completely turned around. By the time she got back home, she’d been out trying to find her way for five and a half hours. I call that an adventure. But to put it in a book, there’d have to be more than just her walking, going in circles, for hours.

If a book character gets locked out of the house, something would need to happen, like she’d hear the phone ringing and someone leaving a threatening message, but she couldn’t see caller ID … or a wild-eyed woman would appear from the back of the house, gun in hand. If a book character goes for a walk and gets lost, she’d have to be stalked, or kidnapped, or fall off a cliff or lose her memory. Or perhaps encounter a handsome stranger. Or whatever.

Not only does every scene have to have purpose and move the story forward, you have to cut the mundane wherever possible as long as it’s not relevant. You could write:
Stephanie grabbed the keys from the bowl on the entry table, then took one last look around.

Her car shuddered as it pulled from the curb.
If we don’t really need to know what happened in-between those two things, then don’t tell us. Do we need to know she slung her purse over her right shoulder, swiveled and walked to the door? Closed the door behind her? Crossed the porch? Walked down the four steps to the sidewalk? Walked to the car? Opened the driver-side door? Inserted the key into the ignition? Adjusted the mirror?

I’m not saying cut all the minutiae. Sometimes details can be very telling. Sometimes you can hide important clues among a list of unimportant things. But everything is not always important.

If your character gets locked out of the house, have something interesting happen. If your character gets lost, make it worth reading.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and writer. She talks more about "Happening Scenes" today on Straight From Hel. You can visit her website and blog, follow her on Twitter, or join her newsletter, Doing It Write.

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  1. I have really been enjoying all of the different perspectives and articles on this blog! Another great article.

  2. Thank you Jenny.

    Incidentally, I love the mask in your picture. It makes me think of Mardi Gras.

  3. My first critique was a real eye-opener. That's when I found out you don't have to give every little detail about what happens in your character's day. You can skip to the important stuff instead.

    Otherwise, it's really boring.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. As Morgan noted, you don't need to mention everything, but what you do cite must be true to reality. (Jack Bauer, we trust, uses the bathroom during commercials.)

    What I've found particularly fun when writing is not only interviewing knowledgeable people but also visiting places and situations where the action takes place, to make absolutely certain that an insider reading my account won't cry foul. I encourage writers to do the same.

    On the other hand, you can also go overboard--a layman writing a scene that takes place in an operating room, for example, may be temped to go overboard with medical jargon when the surgeons in real life may not even narrate what they're doing.

  5. I dunno, kids. Getting lost for five hours strikes a cord with me, and I might just be interested in how one boring and muddled compatriot felt about that adventure! Sometimes we can engage readers through mutuality as easily as with adventure. Maybe more easily. Humor might be a way to spice up the mundane in this situation. I agree there has to be something beyond "just the facts" to make the writing worthy of reader attention.


  6. I just recently edited a memoir - well, it was supposed to be, but it was a crazy blur between memoir and autobio. The writer wrote everything that had ever transpired in her life, not realizing that even memoirs must have a storytelling aspect to it, it must have a focus...

  7. I follow Elmore Leonard's writing style and "don't write the parts the reader is going to skip."

  8. I like that, LJ, :-)

    And I guess one of the goals of the writer is to learn to discern which parts to toss and which parts to keep.

  9. "I guess one of the goals of the writer is to learn to discern which parts to toss and which parts to keep." So true!

    Morgan, my experience with a critique group was probably opposite yours. I had a character pull to the curb then in the next sentence she rang the doorbell. One person in the critique group wanted to see her walk up to the door. He asked, "How did she get from the car to the door?"

    Luckily, I knew enough to ignore that critiquer.

  10. On the other hand, little details sometimes have to be there. For example, I recently read a mystery novel in which the protag cell-phones another character she had recently met at a hospital. But no clue as to how she got his phone # to begin with. It was a glaring error to anyone with a sleuthing mind, not a minor detail.


  11. Helen, I just had to add something to a story because the editor and two proofers thought that the reader needed to see my character go from the car to the front door. I tried to hold out for "not having to tell the reader every detail" but they had strong opinions that the reader would want to know.

    This is for a romance anthology, so I don't know if reader expectations are so much different for romance than for general fiction or some other genres. But I know a lot of the women's fiction, mysteries, and mainstream fiction I read has a "less is more" approach.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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