Common writing mistakes—PART 4
Last time, I talked about overwriting, and I gave you one modest example of it. In its mildest form, overwriting leads to over-explaining and to telling where you should be showing. At its worst, it results in manuscripts of 150,000 to 200,000 words in length that should be half that.
Before we leave that topic and move on to its opposite, underwriting, I want to add a few more thoughts about overwriting. As humans, we’re not always brief and to the point in what we say or write. For a writer this can be both good and bad. In face-to-face conversations, our listeners can always ask questions—a two-way exchange—but in writing, it’s a one-way flow of information. A reader can’t ask the writer what was meant.
We face a problem when it comes to deciding how much detail to include in our writing. Some readers love details and lush descriptions, while others prefer leaner prose.
Let’s say that your main character has never flown in a helicopter and gets into one with another character who is piloting it. Further, you know a lot about helicopters. You or someone you know can fly one and you’ve had a lot of experience in one. If you’re writing a novel, it’s very tempting to show off your knowledge and to want to share your experiences, and I’m sure that some readers would relish knowing what it’s like to be in that helicopter from the main character’s perspective.
But where do you draw the line? Do you stop with the experience of flying in one, or do you have your character ask the pilot questions about how the helicopter operates and have the pilot explain it to the character, maybe even give your character a lesson in flying one? How much detail of what the character sees outside during the flight do you include?
Or what if you’ve created a fantasy world. How much do you describe it and the inhabitants to the reader? If you’ve seen the movie Avatar, think about how much of that world that you see on the screen you would want described in a corresponding novel.
These are not easy decisions, and the answers are never clear cut. Although I’ve never read any of Tom Clancy’s novels, I know that he tended to put a lot of technical details into them and they are on the long side. Several of his Jack Ryan novels have been made into movies. A quick perusal of the page counts shows they range from 500 to nearly a 1000 pages in paperback form. Established writers like Clancy know what their readers expect. At the same time, they also know the difference between too much detail that bogs down or stops the story, and detail that enhances the story.
And therein lies the answer. Overwriting can bore a reader with too much information, particularly when it’s only of moderate interest to the reader, but deftly written scenes where the information is slipped in as part of the action or suspense can make all the difference. Always ask yourself: Do these details matter to the story? Do these details matter to the reader? At what point do the details stop adding to the story and halt the story’s forward momentum? In other words, is something happening during the descriptions or have you simply paused to describe something, in effect interrupting the flow of the narrative.
On the other end of the scale, we have the problem of underwriting, whereby the writer leaves out information important to understanding the story. One of the best examples of this occurs with what we call “white room syndrome.” This refers to a scene in which one or more characters are involved and where the reader has no clue where or even when the action is taking place. It’s like watching a play on a stage without any scenery.
Granted, sometimes it’s not important where the scene is taking place—and some stage plays purposely omit scenery to focus on the actors because what is happening in more important than where it’s happening. But this technique rarely works in a novel because in a stage play we can actually see the actors, and we understand the lack of scenery is purposeful.
In a novel, two people could be talking on cell phones. We may know where one of the parties is located, but do we need to know where the other one is? Or possibly the locations must be kept secret for a reason. Most of the time, white room syndrome devoid of sensory input is a bad thing (unless the characters really are in a white room and have no clue to their location).
Keep the following principles in mind when writing:
—Make sure you orient the reader, especially when you open a scene.
—Make sure that what’s in your head is fully translated onto the page.
—Once you have established the POV character of the scene, make sure that the reader is seeing through that character’s eyes and senses. And remember that most readers today do not appreciate a distant omniscient perspective.
—Make sure that what you have written makes sense to an outsider and that everything that should be explained or made clear is clear to the reader (without overwriting).
Recently the Live, Write, Thrive blog has been doing a series of posts on the fatal flaws of writing. One of those was the flaw of underwriting. I’ve provided links to the five articles in that sub-series below.
I’m not sure that I consider all the examples to be good ones because some of them are so unnaturally underwritten that they make me wonder how realistic they are as examples. In my experience, most writers overwrite. While I have seen a few cases where necessary details are missing, I don’t see it often. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that it is possible to underdo or overly tighten a scene and to leave out necessary information.
I’m going to close this post with a rather long excerpt from my own writing. It’s the Prologue from More Than Magick. I’ve used parts of it before this blog and in other places, so some of you may recognize it. It’s about 2500 words, and the reason I include the entire prologue is that I want it to serve as an example of what I hope is a good balance between overwriting and underwriting as well as a good show/tell balance.
Trust me that I put a lot of work into this opening over the years that I was writing and revising the novel because I wanted a tight and hopefully compelling opening. As with all of my writing and examples, I make no claim to perfection, but I hope that it serves as a decent illustration of the points I’ve been trying to make here. It also demonstrates how to sprinkle in backstory, setting details, and explanations in a natural way without disrupting the narrative flow.
Could it use more descriptive details? Possibly in spots I could have added a bit more, but my purposee was to maintain the focus ON THE CHARACTER and his perception of the setting. He’s not there to sightsee. He probably observes more than I have depicted, but just because the character might see more detail does not mean you need to show it to the reader. The key question in a writer’s mind must always be this: Is more description required to make the scene work, and what story purpose would be served by elaborating, for example, on the details of Bryce’s RV? Does the reader care how big it is or what color it is? Do we need a description of the landscape? When Jake sees Bryce’s fiancée, he notes her facial features. Would a detailed description of her attire and the rest of her serve the scene and advance the story line? My answer to all of these was “no.”
But these are questions a writer must consider. Always bear in mind the effect on the narrative. Perhaps if this scene were one of lower tension and less mystery, and we had a different type of character, it could support more description, but here—I felt—the spare description allowed me to keep the story moving forward and let the reader’s imagination fill in the minor details because this isn’t a story about Diane or the RV in the woods. It’s about the reason Bryce called Jake in the first place. Besides, we never see Bryce again in the novel, except for one phone call Jake receives from him. Otherwise, he’s only mentioned a few times after that, all related to that opening scene, because most of the rest of the novel takes place four years later, much of it not even on Earth, and Bryce is not involved. Therefore, anything more would push into the realm of overwriting.
Next time I will conclude this series with a potpourri of errors useful tips.
Enjoy the excerpt below. Even if you’ve read the novel or seen parts of it before, pay attention to the techniques I employed. Pay attention to the details and what they tell you about the characters.
Four Years Ago: Monday, July 15, 2000
Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.
He recognized the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?”
“Your one and only grad school roommate.”
“It’s good to hear from you. What’ve you been up to?”
“Still digging up the past, except I have a small problem that requires your kind of genius. Can you hop a flight tomorrow morning to scenic Upstate New York?”
Granted, Jake hadn’t seen him in over two years because they’d both been busy, but this was a bit too impulsive, even for capricious Bryce. Still, a short vacation from this hot, humid Illinois summer sounded good. But…
“Can’t do it. I’m in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?”
“That’ll be too late.”
Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryce’s voice. “Bryce, what’s this about?”
“I can’t discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticket’s waiting for you at the airport.”
“Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“No, not yet. I’m relying on you to keep me out of it. I know you’re never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. You’ll have to switch planes a couple of times, and there’re no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. I’ll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon.”
* * *
Bryce met him at Clinton County Airport wearing a khaki shirt and shorts. He wasn’t quite as lean as Jake remembered. His sun-bleached brown hair now touched his shoulders, and he’d learned how to use a comb. It was good to see him, but… “What the hell’s going on, Bryce?”
“Did you eat anything?”
“Only from the vending machines. Why am I here?”
“Well, I guarantee you a dinner to make up for it.”
During the fifteen-minute drive to Ausable Chasm, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, Bryce refused to talk about why he’d asked Jake to come here. He wanted to know all about Jake’s research at Illinois.
They drove up to an RV nestled in the woods. “Whatever happened to roughing it?” Jake asked.
“It’s out of fashion.”
Bryce unloaded Jake’s overnight bag from the trunk and pointed to a woman standing next to a gas grill. “Diane and I live in Plattsburgh.”
“You got married and didn’t tell me?”
“Not yet. Next June. Will you be my best man?” They walked over to the grill.
“Bryce, I’d be honored to be your best man, and I’m glad to see you again, but what’s so urgent you had to bring me here?”
“Patience. We’ll get to that. Diane, this is Jake Kesten.”
She turned around: full dark hair, wonderfully prominent cheekbones on a tanned face, captivating brown eyes. “Bryce told me all about your times as roommates,” she said, tongs in hand, “and the wild parties.”
“We two geeks never got invited to any wild parties,” Jake said.
Bryce grinned. “Right. I met Diane a year ago. She was a journalism major and wanted to interview an archaeologist. As I recall, the interview lasted all night. How’s your situation at Illinois? Any serious relationships?”
“Just tension relief and sanity maintenance. That’s about all I can handle for now. Most of the unmarried women at U. of I. are either too studious to be interested in anything serious or were cursed with cruel genes.”
Bryce nodded. “Let’s get you settled.” He opened the door of the RV and Jake stepped up inside.
“God, do I smell peppers and onions? I’m salivating.”
“Oh, yeah. I remembered how much you like them. Throw your stuff on the bed in back. Bathroom’s here.”
Jake washed up and joined Bryce and Diane at the foldout table up front a few minutes later. Before Jake could ask him the question, Bryce said, “Eat and enjoy. We’ll take a walk afterward.”
Why was Bryce so calm today when he had sounded so nervous on the phone yesterday?
After they each ate a pound of medium-rare sirloin, Bryce took him outside—an hour or two of daylight was still left—to talk. “My boss, the esteemed Dr. Ferraro, has been pissed lately at his grad students who—through no fault of theirs—have not produced anything he can publish. He expected me, his postdoc, to remedy that situation. He knew my attention for detail, so he sent me here to re-survey this old Indian site for something useful. I didn’t argue. Given his foul mood, I was glad for the time away. Even though he’s tenured, he takes ‘publish or perish’ too seriously.”
“Bryce, I’m getting pissed off. You yank me here for something you said can’t wait another few days, then make it sound like it can.”
“I just wanted you to relax first.”
“I haven’t been able to relax since I got your call. Explain. Now. What does this have to do with me?”
“Language translation.” He gave Jake a sideways smile. “I think I forgot to mention that on the phone.”
Jake shook his head.
“I’d been digging here a few weeks, finding nothing. Then I got lucky. I’m not sure yet if it’s good luck or bad luck. In any case, I doubt that we’ll be able to publish my findings.”
They walked down a slope. A pair of lanterns hung next to a cliffside entrance. Bryce lit both and handed one to Jake. “I spotted a crack in the hillside behind the overgrowth. It took me two days to clear the debris and rocks. Duck. There’s a nasty protrusion.” Bryce rubbed the top of his head and faked a wince.
They entered a small cave about eight feet high and twenty feet in diameter. A uniformed body lay on the floor near the center. After Bryce brought his lantern close to it, the skeleton under the uniform became apparent.
“His skull was cracked,” Bryce said. “I cleared away a lot of loose rocks around him. I suspect a cave-in killed him and buried the entrance.”
“You flew me here to see a dead body?”
“Note the uniform is perfectly preserved despite the flesh having completely decayed away.”
Jake noted the coal-black shirt, tight-weave pants with an Oriental-appearing insignia on the leg, and dark green boots.
Bryce squatted and undid a press-seal on the shirt. “Not Velcro. It’s something I’ve never seen. The pants have a fly front with the same press-seal. Except for a bit of mustiness in the cave, there was no odor when I opened it. This fellow’s been here a long time. Tomorrow, I expect the military to be all over this place like fleas on the family pet. That’s why I needed you here today.”
“Military? You find a body and you call the military instead of the police?”
“Trust me, this isn’t a police matter, and I wasn’t the one who called the military. A few inches from the skeleton’s hand was a smooth, black stone. I work out of Stony Brook, too far from here for a quick trip, so I took it to the SUNY college in Plattsburgh, to a discreet technician I’ve worked with before. We measured the stone’s density at two point seven, same as granite. The fluorescence analysis equipment to determine mineral composition was down for maintenance, so we x-rayed it. Here, take a look.”
Bryce pulled out of his pocket an object the size and shape of a charcoal briquette. Jake ran his fingers over the surface—they dragged slightly against its matte finish—and handed it back.
“We would have been fine if his boss, an asshole who we thought had left for the day, hadn’t walked in and gotten a look over our shoulders before we could stop him. We knew we were screwed. He called his friends at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base.”
“Why would he notify the military?” Jake asked.
“Besides being an asshole, he got a nice research grant from the Air Force, so he sucks up to them every chance he gets.”
“So, what did he see?”
Bryce grinned evilly. “The x-ray showed what we think is a microchip embedded in it. There’s another twist, though. I sent a bone sample for carbon dating. It came back with a carbon-14 content one point three times greater than what a living specimen should contain.”
“I don’t understand.”
“While an organism is alive, the carbon-14 ratio in its body maintains an equilibrium with the environment. After it dies, the radioactive decay takes over. Every 5700 years, half of the C-14 decays.”
“I think I remember some of that from a freshman chem course, but what do you mean that the carbon-14 content was too high?”
“Any organic material should have a C-14 content equal to or less than what’s in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If it’s greater, then either the lab screwed up—but they said they ran it three times to be sure they hadn’t—or else the sample was exposed to radiation. The black stone was not radioactive, and my Geiger counter picked up no radiation around the area.”
“There’s no other explanation?”
“Just one. After the C-14 results, I took a second bone sample to a biochemist at Stony Brook who works with ancient DNA. To cover my ass, I told him I thought it might belong to a Pleistocene mammal. He said it was more human than anything, but it matched nothing in the databases. He was curious about where I’d gotten it. I said I’d get back to him. Meanwhile, I had given a small piece of the uniform and the scroll to a forensic chemist I know.”
Bryce reached into a crevice and pulled out what resembled a six-inch-long roll of paper an inch in diameter. “Feel.”
Jake rubbed his fingers over it. “Plastic?”
“Protein. Similar in composition to spider silk, but with a couple of unusual amino acids. It’s highly stable, which explains why it didn’t decay. The chemist said it was similar to stuff he knew the military’s working on. He’s still analyzing the uniform. It’s a polymer he’s not familiar with.”
“So exactly what are you suggesting?”
“This guy is not from Earth. And this is where you come in.” Bryce unrolled the scroll. “I need you to decipher these.”
Jake examined the scrawls. “They look Oriental, like the insignia on the uniform.”
“They’re nothing I recognize, and my research came up negative. I called you because you’re the expert in this area.”
“I don’t know anything about ancient languages.”
“That paper you wrote on language decoding algorithms from your PhD research was brilliant. This is a new language. Here’s where you test your work in the real world.”
“Bryce, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Remember, I know what your grad school GPA was, genius. You’ll figure out something. Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep your name out of it. Here’s how I see it happening: I lie and tell them I found the black stone outside the cave. Then, I say this may be an Indian burial site and they’ll need permission from Indian Affairs to move the skeleton or anything inside the cave. They’ll cordon off the area, and no one will get in or out. An Indian Affairs rep will come out and, seeing the uniform, agree that it’s not an Indian skeleton and let them take it away. At that point, they will strap me to a chair, aim nasty bright lights at me, inject me with turn-your-brain-to-mush drugs, and threaten to dissect my nuts for good measure if I don’t spill my guts.”
“That’d dampen your wedding plans.”
“I’m glad one of us finds this amusing.”
“You’re exaggerating, Bryce.”
“Yeah. There are stories about what happens to archaeologists who find certain stuff and fail to report it to the proper authorities in a timely manner. I made photo enlargements of the scroll for you. I’ll put it back and pretend surprise when they find it.” He gave Jake a serious look. “Diane is the only other person who knows you’re here. I paid for your plane ticket with cash. I won’t mention you until I have no other choice. You should be safe for a few days.”
Jake picked up his lantern. “Safe from what?”
“A government incursion into your private life.”
“Shit, Bryce. There goes my government grant.”
“If you can decipher that writing, we’ll be heroes. They might offer us cushy government jobs.”
“Or your imagined interrogation session might become a reality. Why didn’t you report it right away?”
“Because last year I made an important find near an Indian burial ground. I reported it, waited for permission to proceed, and got it. Know what happened? Someone along the way, who knew for sure it was not on a burial ground, got there first, and took the credit! That skeleton isn’t Indian, and this cave is not on Indian land. It’s public land, no permission needed. But I guess we still get screwed.”
Jake took a deep breath. “Maybe not.”
The next day, Bryce drove him to the airport, after a much shorter vacation than Jake had counted on. He got on the commuter plane, not sure what Bryce had really discovered but determined as hell to find out.
* * *
Jake got back to his apartment around nine that night. He dropped his overnight bag on the floor and flopped onto the couch, facing a black TV screen. Two days ago he’d been comfortably entrenched in near academic anonymity. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Sure, his language translation program worked. His thesis proved how it could break down a language into its basic linguistic elements, but he’d only tried it on known Earth languages. Bryce’s mystery language defied description, other than a vague Oriental appearance. If Jake was certain that no way could he decipher even the smallest part of it in a few days, he was more certain that, as beat as he was from the last two days, no way could he sleep now. He closed his eyes anyway.
He had finally relaxed and slowed his breathing enough that he felt sleep might be possible when his body began to vibrate. A shiver shot through him. A moment later he landed on a hard floor, not on a carpeted one, and his eyes flew open.
Where the hell was he? Candles, in sconces evenly spaced around the dark-wood-paneled walls, lit the room. Lightly fragrant spice scented the air.
“Please forgive the abrupt transference.”
In front of him stood a humanoid figure in a dark red robe. Behind this person were a desk and bookcase.
“Who the hell are you, and where the hell am I?”
“I am Arion, an Elfaeden Mage. You are in my keep because I need you to prepare a young man named Scott Madison for his future.”
Jake pushed himself to a seated position on the floor. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“I will show you where to find him.”