More fun with marking pens

For those of you joining this series in progress, I’ve been writing for the last week or so about keeping the pacing of your work tight. Slow manuscripts make editors grind their teeth and agents shake their heads in private, yet astonishingly few writing books and seminars address the issue at all, except to opine that for the purposes of submission, faster is, on the whole, better than slower.

There are a couple of good reasons for this genteel avoidance of an unpleasant subject, I suspect. First, editing for length and pace IS an unpleasant subject for contemplation where dear self is concerned, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but most of the writers of my acquaintance (including, I’ll admit it, yours truly) get kind of annoyed when an agent or editor says, “Love your writing! How about giving us 15% less of it?”

Or, to take what used to be a stock agents’ pronouncement a few years back, when we are told that a first novel should be more than 100,000 words, regardless of what might actually work best for the text. (That’s 400 pages in Times New Roman, by standard estimation techniques.) The truism on the subject has become a little more lax in the past year or two, thank goodness: now, pronouncement-mongers tend to say anywhere between 80,000 (320 pages) to 120,000 (480) is usually fine.

As someone who attends quite a few writers’ conferences in any given year, I, for one, was pretty darned relieved when the wisdom du jour changed. During the arbitrary 100,000 period, I always hated that inevitable moment when someone stood up and asked an agent how long was too long for a manuscript. The air of gloom that descended upon the room at the reply was palpable.

As much as I object to arbitrary standards — 125,000 words strikes me as less arbitrary, because binding costs do get higher at that point — I have to say, like most of us who edit for a living, I’m a fan of the tightly-paced manuscript. I practice what I preach, too: in the novel currently in my agents’ capable hands, I cut 20 pages entirely through eliminating individual lines.

So believe me, I feel your pain, self-editors. But like most people who read manuscripts by the score, that doesn’t mean that I don’t start muttering, “Get on with it.” Sorry.

The second reason I think the issue of manuscript-tightening doesn’t get much attention in conference classes, writing seminars, and publications aimed at writers is that just as it’s genuinely difficult to say with any precision how long a book one has never read should be, it’s also hard to give general advice about pacing that applies to every manuscript. Every writer has different ways of slowing down or speeding up text.

Thus my asking you to take marking pens to your manuscript. To identify what could use trimming, you need to recognize your particular writing patterns.

So back to the nitty-gritty. Yesterday, I asked you to sit down with some of your favorite chapters throughout your book and differentiate by colored markings abstract vs. concrete sentences. Obviously, every manuscript needs both, and the appropriate ratio of abstract to concrete varies quite a bit by genre.

Think about it: could you really get away with a summary sentence like, “She had legs that stretched all the way from here to Kalamazoo,” in a genre other than hardboiled mystery, bless its abstraction-loving fan base? (All right, I’ll admit it: one of the all-time best compliments I have ever received came from a writer of hardboiled; he commented on a dress I was wearing by telling me I looked like trouble in a B movie. I cherish that.)

However, it is worth noting that agents and editors see a WHOLE lot more summary sentences in the course of any given day of manuscript-screening than concrete ones — which renders a genuinely original telling detail quite a refreshment for weary professional eyes.

So generally speaking, if you can increase the frequency with which such concrete details appear, you’ll be better off.

Dig up those yellow-and-red pages from yesterday and pull out that yellow highlighter again. This time, mark all the sentences where your protagonist (or any other character whose thoughts are audible to the reader) THINKS a response to something that has just happened, instead of saying it aloud or the narrative’s demonstrating the reaction indirectly.

These kinds of sentences are harder to show out of context, so bear with me through a small scene. The sentences destined for yellow overcoats are in caps. (Sorry about that; one of the limitations of the blog format is the difficulty in incorporating italics and other such frivolities to designate certain text.)


WHY WASN’T HE ANSWERING? “What’s wrong?” Emintrude asked, rubbing her tennis-sore ankles. “Are you feeling sick to your stomach again?”


Again, you’re not judging the quality of writing by determining what to highlight, or sentencing any given observation to the chopping block by marking it. You are simply making patterns in the text more visible.

Finished? Okay, now humor me a little and get a third color of pen — let’s say green, and complete the Rastafarian triumvirate — and mark any sentence where your protagonist’s reactions are conveyed through bodily sensation of some sort. Or depicted by the world surrounding him, or through some other concrete detail. You’re probably going to find yourself re-marking some of the red sentences from yesterday, but plow ahead nevertheless.

Starting to notice some narrative patterns? Expressing character reaction via physicality or projection is a great way to raise the telling little detail quota in your manuscripts.

Does this advice seem familiar? It should, for those of you who regularly attend writing workshops or have worked with an editor. It is generally expressed by the terse marginal admonition, “Get out of your character’s head!”

I wish feedback-givers would explain this advice more often; too many writers read it as an order to prevent their characters from thinking. But that’s not what “Get out of your character’s head!” means, at least not most of the time. Generally, it’s an editor’s way of TELLING the writer to stop telling the reader about the character’s emotional responses through dialogue-like thought. Instead, (these feedback-givers suggest) SHOW the emotion through details like bodily sensation, noticing a telling detail in the environment that highlights the mood, or… well, you get the picture.

In other words, it’s yet another way that editors bark at writers SHOW, DON’T TELL. What will happen to your manuscript if you take this advice to heart?

Well, among other things, it may well be more popular with professional readers — because, believe me, protagonists who think rather than feel the vast majority of the time disproportionately people the novels submitted to agencies and publishing houses. Thus, a novel that conveys protagonist response in other ways a significant proportion of the time will enjoy the advantage of surprise.

Why are characters who think their responses so VERY common? One theory is that we writers are so often rather quiet people, more given to thinking great comebacks than saying them out loud. (A girl’s best friend is her murmur, as Dorothy Parker used to say.) Or maybe we just think our protagonists will be more likable if they think nasty things about their fellow characters, rather than saying them out loud.

That, or there are a whole lot of writers out there whose English teachers made them read HAMLET one too many times, causing them to contract chronic soliloquization.

Whichever it is, most manuscript would be better received if they exhibited this type of writing less. Done with care, avoiding long swathes of thought need not stifle creative expression. Let’s revisit our little scene of domestic tranquility from above, this time grounding the characters’ reactions in the flesh and the room:

By the time Ermintrude was midway through her enthusiastic account of the office party, Bertrand’s stomach had tied itself into the Gordian knot. The collected swords of every samurai in the history of Japan would have been helpless against it.

“Bertrand!” Ermintrude’s back snapped into even greater perpendicularity to her hard chair. “You’re not listening. Upset tummy again?”

He could barely hear her over the ringing of his ears. He could swear he heard their well-manicured lawn creeping up the doorstep to smother them in seductive normalcy. The very wallpaper seemed to be gasping in horror at the prospect of having to live here any longer. “No,” Bertrand said. “I just had a long day at work.”

See the difference? The essentials are still here, just expressed in a less obviously thought-based manner.

Go back and take another look at your marked-up manuscript. How yellow is it?

All of the types of sentence you just identified are in fact necessary to a successful narrative, so ideally, you have ended up with a very colorful sheaf of paper. Using too many of one type or another, believe it or not, can be boring for the reader, just as using the same sentence structure over and over lulls the eye into skimming.

If you don’t believe this, try reading a government report sometime. One declarative sentence after another can be stultifying.

The telling details of your manuscript will be nestled in those red- and green-marked sentences — note how frequently they appear in your chapters. If you find more than half a page of yellow between those Christmas colors, you might want to go back and mix it up more.

If you find any pages that are entirely yellow, I would suggest running, not walking, to the nearest used bookstore, buying three or four battered paperback editions of books that sell well in your chosen genre, and carting them home to perform the three-marker experiment on them. Could you revise your manuscript so that the yellow-to-color ratio in it replicates that in those books?

Yes, this is time-consuming, and a test like this is rather nerve-wracking to apply to your own work, but it’s a great way to start getting in the habit of being able to see your pages as someone who does not know you might. (If you want to get a REALLY clear picture of this, trade chapters with a writer you trust, and apply the same experiment.) Good self-editing takes bravery, my friends — but I know you’re up to it.

Keep up the good work!

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