Making Ever Paragraph Count, Part 2

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

Last time we introduced the idea of Making Every Word Count.  Now let’s get more specific.

Make every paragraph count.  Make every scene and description count.  Ask yourself, as you edit, if this event is important.  What am I learning about the situation and the characters?  Every word counts.  Your book is your baby.  Your reader wants to enjoy it, but in the end, it’s another book on their shelf.  Even if they adore it, they can’t spend their life studying it.  Appreciate and respect this fact by making every paragraph count.

What does this look like for the writer?  Emotion.

Sometimes rough drafts can be quiet dry.  They have all the plot points and all the action but little of the emotion.  (Sometimes they’re the other way around: all emotion and no plot. But that’s a different problem.)  This is especially true of new or young writers.  Never fear.  It’s all part of the process.  What you have to do, after you’ve written those two great words, THE END, is go back and add in the emotion.  You have to go back and make every paragraph, every word count.

There are a two key places I regularly see this problem as an Alpha Reader, and as I edit my own work.

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Description:  You know the paragraphs where you spend several lines and a few hundred words talking about clouds, trees, grass, sand, snow, and wind?  Or maybe you invested some words in the description of a beautiful car, a surprisingly fast motorcycle, or the long limbs of a racehorse.  Descriptions shouldn’t be dry.  They are the playground of the writer and the soul of the story.  Descriptions are mood setters.  Wait!  What’s that?  They effect emotion?  Yes!  Descriptions pull the reader away from their world and into yours, be it the same one they inhabit or a fantastical one.  Adjectives and adverbs clue the reader in on who to love, who to hate, when to be nervous or at peace, to slow down or quicken their reading pace.  If you write an emotionless description, go back and look at your word choice.

Have you read Lord of the Rings?  If you haven’t, I highly suggest it.  If you have, think back and remember how you felt when the Hobbits entered the Old Forest.  Did you feel its twisted nature?  What about the feelings you experienced in Fangorn Forest, the Misty Marshes, Lothlorian, Rohan, or the Shire?  These places take on a life of their own because Tolkien harnessed the power of descriptions, and used them to set the emotional stages of the story.  They feel alive, almost separate from the people who live in them.  Emotion in descriptions is a powerful tool in your writing smithy.

How do you do this?  Easy.  Ask yourself how your character feels as they observe the world around them, or what you want your reader to feel as they look in on the world you’ve created.  Are the clouds overhead ominous or uplifting?  Is the car a deathtrap or a thing of beauty?  Does the dog’s hair stand on end while its lips curl back, or are his ears perked and his tail wagging?

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Plot:  You know the little in-between plot points were your character cleans the house, goes grocery shopping, travels from point A to point B, and does their laundry?  We all know they have to do these things.  Even if you’re writing a futuristic story, there’s always laundry to do.  Maybe you cover a few non-important days in their life by listing out all the mundane things that they did.  Or maybe you tell us how their friends were late to see a movie, or their car needed to a wash.  These scenes should be filled with emotion or cut.  Noting is more annoying to a read than a pointless list of events….especially if it looks a lot like their own To Do list.

If your character is doing laundry, how do they feel?  Happy, content, defeated, frustrated?  Maybe the laundry time is just an excuse for the character to think, giving us needed insight into their mind.  Don’t tell me they did the laundry, give me a point for the laundry that drives the story forward.  If you need to tell your reader several days had passed were nothing happened, then just tell them.  Don’t give them a list of all the mundane things done.

Back to Lord of the Rings, no one thinks that Aragon didn’t shower and wash his clothes ever.  We all know he did at one point in time or another, but Tolkien never tells us this.  Why?  Well, it wouldn’t fit in the story.  It wouldn’t drive the story forward.  It would bog us down.  He does tell us about making campfires and eating.  Now eating is pretty normal, but Tolkien uses food and pipes to show us the comfort of home, or the lack of comfort.  The lack of pipeweed on the journey to Mordor is used to show us how out of their element the Hobbits are, and how far from civilization they are.  Tolkien doesn’t give us a list of Sam’s backpack contents.  He uses those contents to drive the story forward or to help us look back at crucial moments.

How do you combat useless plot points, or lists?  Easy!  Ask yourself if the reader is learning anything about the character based upon what is going on.  Is this scene driving the plot forward?  If yes, than draw out the emotion of the scene.  Develop it.  If no, cut it!  If you aren’t sure, see if it can be used.  Ask yourself how your character feels as things slow down a bit and work that angle of the story.  Make sure there’s a point.

Waste nothing.  Every moment, breath, scene, paragraph, and word counts.  They’re all important.  Look for clues.  The longer you write, the more books or articles you get under your belt, the more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses you will become.  You will find words that clue you in that a scene needs to be developed.  It becomes your personal short hand.  When the words are flowing let them flow.  Then go back and add, develop, and cut, as you need.

And for goodness sake, if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, go do it!

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Making Every Paragraph Count, Part 1

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

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.)

funny-star-trek-pictures-bacon-wrapped-media-12

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!

B Meme

Look for the next Writing Lesson where I will go into more detail about description and plot issues specifically!