Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cut the Boring

Ever wonder why you don't see characters paying their bills? Because it's boring!

I know that because I do that. I pay the bills. And it's boring.

Unless paying the bills has something to do with the plot, it's probably best to leave it out. Don't put in boring, mundane tasks just to increase the word count. When you’re editing, stop and ask yourself if what the character is doing is interesting, moves the plot forward, establishes the character, or in some way greatly contributes to the manuscript.

If it doesn't meet one of those criteria, seriously think about cutting it. Or try to think of some way the character could pay the bills that would make it more interesting or show his/her character in a unique way.

If your goal is to demonstrate that the character is in reality boring, then come up with a way to show it so that while the task may be mundane, your way of telling it is not.

Part of your editing process should be to cut the boring stuff. If it's really not necessary for the reader to see it, then cut it. That includes a lot of walking from the house to the car. Certainly includes the fifteen times in the book that your character picks up the phone and says, "Hello." Cut out the introductions, get to the meat of the conversation or encounter. Your protagonist doesn't have to feed the cat every time he comes into the house in order for the reader to know he has a cat and he's responsible in the way he cares for it.

Cut the boring so you won't bore your readers.
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Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn – or catch her April 30, 2011 at Books 'n Authors 'n All That Jazz in Weatherford, Texas, where she and Sylvia Dickey Smith will be talking about “Jazzing Up Your Characters.”

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33 comments :

  1. This is a great tip, Helen. I know at first I thought that I had to hold my character's hand all through their boring days. Then I realized that I didn't *need* all the set up. I could just open a scene in the midst of the excitement. So much better that way!

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  2. Good tip Helen! Cutting the boring sounds easy but it can be quite hard to actually recognise those bits that are boring. In one ms I realised my characters always 'turned away'. When I did a search & replace on that phrase I was shocked to see how many times I'd used it. So even a small phrase used too often can be boring.
    Judy (South Africa)

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  3. What I learned, and amazed me, while writing a fiction manuscript, and then revising it more than once, is how little is actually necessary to be said. As a writer, we can skip the routine and cut to the scene and the reader gets it, following right along.

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  4. I agree Elizabeth. I was just emailing about this to an old writing partner (not "old" as in years).

    Good tip, Judy. Thanks!

    Plus, Joanne, by revising the dialogue, we often make it more "real" to the reader's ear. Great tip.

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  5. This is so true! We don't need to read about characters brushing their teeth or putting on their socks, unless it ties to the plot in some important way. Thanks for the timely reminder!

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  6. My protagonist doesn't even have a cat. He doesn't like pets at all. Solves the problem, doesn't it >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  7. When I was in the process of a major edit/rewrite on one of my WIPs, I had a few scenes with sections that just didn't fit in with the new direction. I didn't want to lose them because I loved some little bit of dialogue or whatever but when I forced myself to finally cut those parts loose, the story was much better for it.

    Cutting the boring is essential. A great post!

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  8. Often, when we're writing, we feel like these small things are important and need to be included. Then later, as we read through, we can see that they are extraneous and slow down the pace. So if you don't cut as soon as you type, you can look for the boring as you edit.

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  9. I owe my editor a dinner for pointing out all the boring data dump in my original MS. I took out about ten percent or forty pages of crap and lost nothing. In fact, the story moved faster and is actually a much better read.

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  10. Great stuff, Helen! I'm going to send my writer clients here to read your excellent post.

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  11. Good tip as always, Helen.
    Readers can fill in their own boring I don't need to do it for them.

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  12. Like Elmore Leonard says, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

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  13. Helen, what a great tip. Yes, I thought I needed the she went here, sat up, sat down, fight, fight, fight. Then I had a lightbulb moment: the books I read don't do that, so why would I?

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  14. So helpful to me as I am writing fiction for the first time. Thank you.
    Karen

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  15. Now that I'm working on a novel I recently finished for NaNoWriMo, I can see all the "boring" parts I added because of the word count goals--some of the scenes I'll miss a bit, but the novel is going to be a whole lot better once those parts are out.

    Great post!

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  16. Lordy, probably more than half my life is boring. Probably why I figure it's best not to write my memoir! Cut, Cut, Cut! Jazz it up.

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  17. There was a chapter in my first novel that, during the editing, I would read quickly or sometimes skip altogether because I thought it was boring, but necessary. That should have been a clue. I had such a dislike for it, that, when putting the final manuscript together for the publisher, I unintentionally (subconscious motivation?) left it out. Nobody noticed anything was amiss until the galleys were returned and the book was being readied for production. At that point somebody noticed the chapter numbers were off. The editor was apologetic and chalked it up to an under-caffeinated layout guy. I decided to keep my mouth shut. No reader or reviewer has ever noticed the omission and I can't remember what the missing chapter was about.

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  18. Wasn't it Elmore Leonard's advice on writing to "skip the boring parts?" Judy, it's true that we don't always recognize those parts. Good example.

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  19. Helen, great tip. I've just started to write a novel, so this is timely advice. Talk soon :)

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  20. Love that story, Mark!

    Yesterday, I re-read a book I co-wrote years ago - and realized the first two chapters should have been cut.

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  21. Love Mark's story too - blame it on the layout guy ;-)

    This was something I struggled with in my first (training) novel. I thought I had to follow through with everything my character did and spent much time trying to come up with something "interesting" for my character to do or say while driving to the place where the next scene was set. Good learning curve, though. I got so bored with my character I ditched the whole book.

    Elle
    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

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  22. You know it doesn't work when the writer is so bored, she ditches the book. I've never ditched an entire book, but I've cut many scenes!

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  23. I agree and disagree which is so like me. I agree mostly because the first draft is the writer telling the story to herself and plenty of that telling is tedious and needs to be set free. On the other hand, I like a nice fat elegaic book and sometimes I want to hear all the weird boring details of a character's life. Like hearing from my best friend that she had to go to some 'do' the night before and how the cheese was cut in little diamonds etc... Everyone isn't writing plot-driven page-turners. And though I love those books, I also like slower fatter books too. I'm re-reading The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble and it is a terrific read with lots of details and description that probably wouldn't get by an editor today, only she's Margaret Drabble so it would!

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  24. Dear Helen,
    You are just no fun. I love to read about how characters get up in the morning (sun? alarm clock? mom?) and then I'm dying to know what they ate for breakfast (Wheaties? Raisin toast? Eggs--eggs are just so controversial so if they eat these I'd really like to know what the character's cholesterol count was at his last check-up). How long, exactly, is the ride to work, and is the car operating properly, because maybe they should get a routine tune-up if the engine is clacking a bit. And on the way home, when they stop at the grocery, do they use a large cart, a hand-held basket, or recyclable cloth bags? These things are crucial.

    Oh never mind. If you aren't going to play I'll go back and re-read some submissions from authors who actually thought that kind of thing would sell...

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  25. You might be surprised to learn I agree with you Jan. Mostly. There are characters who would tell you everything they did over the day. If so, then let them be who they are, within reason. Even a character's mundane life can be interesting.

    Kathryn, it would indeed sell! Plenty of details can be very telling about the character. But if we've seen Mabel limp to the car twice, we've probably gotten the message that she hurt her ankle. We don't need to see it every time she takes a step. As readers, we don't want ALL the minutia cut. Sometimes it's the very smallest of details that are very revealing. Besides, we often need the small things in which to hide the clues.

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  26. "Cut the boring" should be added to a list of things authors should do as they edit their MS.

    I understand writers sometimes feel like they have to leave that stuff in because "well, I had to get my character from here to there!" but that stuff REALLY is unnecessary, and our MSS will be better for just letting go.

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  27. Helen: I must have oodles of natural talent if you thought my examples were interesting! I like surprising details, not mundane--unless the character is engaging with the mundane in a new way (like after becoming a mermaid or losing a limb, for instance).

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  28. Awesome advice. I think people tend to read to get away from the mundane. They're not likely to keep reading about something they want/need an escape from. (Hugs)Indigo

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  29. I'm a slash and burn kinda gal. When things get boring and going nowhere, just marching in place, I cut it out. No mercy. My problem usually isn't being boring, but writing too tightly. I begin with a whole novel at 40K words and end up with a novel at 95K words. It's a process.

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  30. I wonder--since I still consider myself a novice at this--if some people write cronologically and therefore these details emerge because the author is writing step by step--as a way to get from one place in the plot to another. It might help the author during the first draft, to do this in order to get to know the characters better. After that though, if they don't give an important uniqueness to the story, then these oatmeal eating, toothbrushing, pay-the-bills details must go bye-bye.

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  31. I'm sitting here trying to think of a way to make paying the bills interesting. I'm thinking a dart board to make bill paying decisions would certainly say something about the character.

    Just kidding. Good points here.
    ~jon

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  32. My question: Does every character need an inner wound?
    This is a great blog, I find it very helpful, even though I work as an editor!
    Diana Rubino
    www.dianarubino.com

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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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