It’s amazing to me what I learn when I’m trying to teach others. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Mom – you must feel constantly under the knife, excited, and exasperated. That’s how I feel when I’m working on my writing classes’ work. Every time I tell them to fix something, I need to go fix it in my own work. It’s exciting to see them learning and growing, even if it’s just little by little. Sometimes I feel like I have to find a new way to say the same thing I say every class hoping this time it gets through to them.
One of the things I’ve been faced with recently is the idea of making every paragraph count. Every. Single. One.
This means you have to stop and really look at your work. Study it. Mock it. Look for errors in logic, rules you’re world functions by, themes, characters, and setting. Stop seeing it through the lens of your love for your own art, and look at it through the eyes of a critic. (Boldly go where no one wants to go! – you may use your Kirk or Picard voice here.)
I ran into a scene in one of my student’s stories where two friends met to talk about a wedding over coffee. Sam shows up and there’s a paragraph about her sitting by a window waiting because her friend Maiden is late. Neither the setting nor the late arrival of Maiden are used in the story as it goes along. Neither are important. They set no mood, they spark no conversation, they enhance the story in no way, shape, or form.
I wrote – yes, in nasty red ink – ‘Who Cares?’ in the margin of my student’s paper. A little harsh? Probably. But I need her to sit up and think about what she’s writing. Don’t waste your reader’s time if you want to keep them as a reader. Writing may be your life, but to them you’re one of millions of forms of entertainment and enlightenment. Humbly respect that. If it’s important that Maiden was late, it should come up either subconsciously, in Sam’s inner-monologue, or directly in the conversation. If the window is important, even just for mood, then keep it and develop it. If it doesn’t even set the mood, cut it. Tell me what Sam feels while she looks out the window waiting on her friend. If you don’t, you run the risk of an emotionless character who bores your reader to death.
So, how do you address this issue? First, get out that awful red pen. Just do it. Next, sit down with your work in a quiet place and don’t read it. Resist the temptation to get sucked into your own story. (Don’t worry, we all do it.) What you need to do is see, not read. You need to take each paragraph and see if it’s important. Does it add flavor, emotion, and character roundness to the story? Does it drive the story forward? Yes? Good. Keep it. If the answer is No, then you need to either edit it or cut it out. Either make it important, or get rid of it.
Always remember that these things don’t matter in the first rough draft. The first rough draft is like a detailed outline. You just write as the words flow out of you. Only after the rough draft is done do you go back and start marking it up. Sometimes these useless paragraphs can actually be road markers and flags to remind you that greater development is possible if you just flesh out the scene. Other times, they are useless and need to go. If you’re really unsure, get some Alpha Readers to help you!
This may seem really elemental to writing – writing 101. But, remember, the basics are the basics for a reason and we all need to be reminded of them. Go and SEE your story!
Look for the next Writing Lesson where I will go into more detail about description and plot issues specifically!