Two more very important facets of writing skills were covered in Thursday’s writing class: “jump-starting imagination to capture the reader,” and that hook beginning I mentioned yesterday, and the importance of cutting the clutter. That is, getting rid of extraneous material that doesn’t contribute to the piece. If it doesn’t provide information relevant to the plot or help to establish the identify of your character, that extraneous material may end up as a boring read. Too often we new writers are too close to the material, dare I say in love with our words ❗ that we can’t really see what’s not needed, much less cut them out. It takes a lot of practice and may be one of the hardest things to learn, especially if–like me–you’re very very fond of words. (See how many words I included that aren’t really needed?!) But with practice it gets easier, and in time you can really see what a difference it makes. That’s what it takes to becoming your own editor. I try always to read my work as if I didn’t know who wrote it.
I once read pages from a book draft by another writer who asked me to read it and comment. He hadn’t grasped that concept yet. His characters, a man and a woman in this case, seemed to be working up to a crime of some sort. I never figured out what the writer’s intent was, whether it was a who-dunnit, a comedy, or a romance because unfortunately I, the reader, had to spend precious minutes with them going from one place to another and another and another in the draft. I followed every step from where they first met, to the car and the drive to the man’s apartment, then I had to suffer through a scene in the bedroom where he showed either his, or his protagonist’s, superior skill at sexual seduction and I don’t know what all. All this and then we had to get in the car (again!) and drive to another location, a lake or boatdock or something, and do a lot of swimming, before they got into a boat of some kind–or was it an island?–I forget. Anyway, when they got there they drank some more wine, which was described in detail, and made love again. That’s about the point at which I gave up. Puleeze! I have my own life to live, I can’t spend it following characters in a book! I’ve never been good at lying, and since he’d asked me to read and comment, I had to tell him how I felt, which was “sorry, but this needs a lot of work!” I tried to tell him gently, because it was clear that he was already convinced he had finished a best-seller. He knew how to write, he just didn’t know how to transition or sequence. If the extraneous material were cut, his book would deflate into novella or short story size. Maybe even a short-short story, I don’t think he appreciated my free advice because he never showed up in our class again. I share that only because it’s something I experienced again and again in reading new writers’ drafts, and why I eventually refused to read them any longer.
I’ve spoken to several editors from various book publishing houses over the years, so that eventually I realized that even then slush piles were fast becoming a thing of the past. I’m not sure it’s even possible today to submit anywhere without an agent. Now that old slush pile may exist only on an agent’s desk instead of a publishing house editor’s. Even if your work actually lands into one somewhere, the size of that pile is so huge that it may take months (or longer) for your story to make it to the top of the pile. When it does, editors far better than I cannot possible read entire manuscripts unless something in the beginning paragraph peaks their interest. Sometimes they never make it through the first sentence, so that first one is really important.
Our second in-class writing exercise was a five minute session to develop three beginning lines with a hook to make an editor want to find out what happens next. This assignment was actually fun, since one of goals the writing prof hopes to reach is that her students learn to relax, have fun, and enjoy the art. With only five minutes to come up with those three hooks, we didn’t have a lot of time to think about it or worry, and I decided to do free association writing. That means writing whatever pops into mind. Here are my three:
- When one-eyed Willie burst forth from his mama’s mottled thighs, the doctor plopped him into the nurse’s waiting hands and ran screaming from the room.
- “Don’t you dare eat another one of them worms, William, you gotta save’em for Grampa‘s magic potion.”
- Mabel thought she would puke, Aunt Willie was stinking so bad.
Which, if any, would hook you as a reader and make you want to find out what happened next?
For day two, I consider my assignment done with somewhere around 700 words, and several ideas for continuing Ellisville (offline). I just hope I can locate the associated word files. It would be painful to have to begin again. Have a restful weekend. Hope it’s spring weather where you are.