Overwritten: a surfeit of words—PART 1

From Rick:

Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” is famous both for its typical Twain humor and for Twain’s rules for good writing.

I’ve mentioned this essay before. You can do a Google search for it, or you can search this blog for “Mark Twain” and you’ll find my previous post. I highly recommend looking at Twain’s rules if you haven’t done so before because every one of them is strong and excellent advice for every writer.

In this post, I want to focus on just one of Twain’s rules: ESCHEW SURPLUSAGE.

In typical Twain style, those two words give brilliant advice. In following two other of his own rules (“Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it,” and “Use the right word, not its second cousin”) Twain pokes fun at the rule with his amusing choice of words. Gotta love Twain’s humor.

But what I want to talk about is overwritten prose. “Overwritten” can have two meanings. In the first sense, it refers to overdone descriptions or exposition either in terms of flowery wording (sometimes called “purple prose”) or just too many words that lead to redundancies.

Wikipedia defines purple prose this way: “In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.”

Consider this excerpt from part of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. I have intentionally removed the line breaks in the original to make it into three prose paragraphs rather than poetry. In the third paragraph “fardels” means “burdens”:

=====

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. There’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?

Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?

=====

Whoa. Is this purple prose? Absolutely not, and I doubt that anyone familiar with Shakespeare would call it that. However, the Wikipedia article goes on to say that what constitutes purple prose is somewhat subjective. If we were to read a modern novel with that same style of prose that Shakespeare used (assuming the novel wasn’t intentionally written to mimic Shakespearean style or quoting Shakespeare), then I doubt that anyone would not call it purple prose.

Subjective indeed.

Let’s take one of my favorite examples of writing from the opening of Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld:

=====

On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.

Behind the manse and across the valley, low hills rolled away like dunes to the limit of vision. The sun projected shifting crescents of black shadow; otherwise the hills were unmarked, empty, solitary. The Xzan, rising in the Old Forest to the east of Almery, passed below, then three leagues to the west made junction with the Scaum. Here was Azenomei, a town old beyond memory, notable now only for its fair, which attracted folk from all the region.

=====

Would we consider this to be purple prose? Not at all. It’s descriptive, it paints a lovely picture, and it’s not overdone because Vance doesn’t use an overblown vocabulary. He uses common words, except for those that are made-up place names in his fantasy world. The only word one might argue is “manse,” being an older word for “mansion,” but to use “mansion” here would not carry the same flavor that Vance paints.

As an exercise, you might try rewriting this passage, with a thesaurus in hand, to turn it into purple prose.

My primary purpose in this post is not to discuss purple prose but to focus on the other meaning of “overwritten,” the one dealing with wordiness, and how you can recognize and avoid it in your own writing.

What prompted this post is a novel I’m currently editing. While the writing is clean, it contains two problems. The first is overexplaining, redundant information, and unnecessary information. The second, and biggest problem, is unnecessary dialogue tags. On top of that, the author headhops. I can’t use examples from that novel without permission, and I won’t embarrass the author by asking. I found a passage in my original Vampire’s Inc. novel that I was able to modify into the same form to illustrate my points. Even the original passage (which I wrote over ten years ago) is far from stellar prose. What I will do is first present the slopped-up, overwritten version, then show an improved version more in line with good writing practice.

As you read the first version, look for things that seem extraneous, unnecessary, or that disrupt the flow of the narrative. As you read the second version, see if you can spot what I removed, and more importantly whether you miss what I took out.

**********

[SLOPPY VERSION]

Eli came up beside Ling Lu on the Detroit Riverwalk looking out across the black nighttime water. The moon was full and there were some nearby streetlights, but he didn’t need them to see her Asian beauty because he had vampire nightsight. He considered her alluring brown eyes to be one of her strongest features. Tonight she was wearing a modern suit with classic Oriental red and black colors. She looks gorgeous in that, he thought. She didn’t wear this one often and he wished she would. Even though it made her slender body appear delicate, he knew that Ling Lu was anything but delicate.

Ling could tell by the look in his eyes that he approved of what she had chosen to wear. Her eyes rounded when he moved closer to her. “Why does he look like he hasn’t slept for several nights?” she silently asked herself.

“Thank you for meeting me here,” he told her, giving her a kiss on the cheek.

“Your phone call worried me,” she stated. “You look like hell,” she added.

He shut his eyes. All last night, he’d walked before finally returning home to sit in his library where he tried reading, meditating, and other ways to distract himself so he could relax and get some sleep.

“I’m tired of it,” he said. His soft voice barely rose above the faint rippling of the water. “I’m tired of all the pain here,” he said as he rubbed his hands down the sides of his face and then braced his palms against the cool metal railing.

“But it can’t touch us,” Ling said, but she could tell by his expression that he didn’t believe that. Ling had met Eli in 1926, six years after he first came to Detroit in 1920.

When Eli first came to Detroit, the city was so different. It was full of hope and was growing and prospering. It seemed as if it would keep growing forever. He took a deep breath and exhaled it, then he said, “In 1920 when I arrived here, Detroit was so different,” Eli explained. “Today, kids can’t play safely on the streets, they respect nothing, and everyone sells drugs.”

From the corner of his eye, he saw Ling shake her head. “You’re living in the past, Eli,” she said. “These are human problems, not ours; they’ll pass us by.”

All vampires received that same indoctrination. He couldn’t fault her for saying it. “If the humans die out, so do we,” he said. “We’re still mortal, we still depend on them.”

“They’ve been around longer than we have,” she reminded him. “They outnumber us, and they haven’t died out yet.”

“It’s not like our kind haven’t tried more than once to encourage it,” he said. “I know you care about them, Ling.”

Ling studied him. “Since I’m twenty years older than you, take some advice from your elder and don’t get involved.”

Eli thought of Ling as a sister, but he never thought of her as an older sister. “My mother would probably have said the same thing,” he told her. “She died three years before I was changed. That was a blessing in a way. She wouldn’t have understood what I became.”

“You’re already doing enough,” Ling told him. “Why do you think you aren’t?” she questioned. “You teach young people how to avoid the sins of their predecessors.”

“That’s too slow a process to affect the present,” he explained. In some ways Eli was proud of the dual aspects of his life. As a teacher, he helped others understand man’s conflict and struggles. Would the day ever come when he’d be teaching about vampires?

“Why do you want to help the humans now?” Ling asked. She wondered why he had suddenly changed his outlook about humans. “What has changed your attitude?”

He clenched his jaw as he stared out across the water. “Last night, on the campus, I nearly killed two humans who tried to rape a woman,” he said. “I… lost control.”

He heard Ling’s breathing speed up slightly. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “You declared yourself a pacifist and have ignored what’s going on among our kind for the past half century. You’ve had no stress. Your hot-blooded emotions haven’t been an issue.”

Ling knew most of Eli’s past, but she had not told him of hers before she came to the United States.

“I’m a pacifist for good reason,” Eli said. He felt his hands grip the railing tighter and wondered if she noticed. Ling was a perceptive woman. She didn’t know that he knew more about her past than she’d revealed. Ling had her own demons, but he did not want her to think he was prying into her life. He figured she would tell him when she was ready.

“I don’t doubt you believe that,” Ling said as she put her arm through his. “When we first met, ninety years ago, you still had a feisty spirit. Despite the best intentions, no man or vampire—not even Eli Howard, not even over the course of a century—can force himself to change so drastically.” She hoped Eli believed her because she was trying to be honest without making him feel guilty.

Ling lifted her voice. “One vampire against all the evil of humankind is too large a task for even the great Eli Howard. Even if we can prevent a few crimes, even if we do make a small difference, the humans will undo it soon enough.”

“Does that mean you’ll help?” he asked, hoping she would be willing to help him try.

Ling wrinkled her brow. She didn’t disagree with him. Doesn’t he see that what he wants is a futile effort? she thought. “I didn’t say that, Eli. I do agree that crime here is a little out of control,” she told him.

He widened his dark eyes and the moon reflected in them. “A little?” he said.

“What can only two vampires do to stop it?” Ling said as she put her head against his shoulder.

“Between us we’ve got over three hundred years of experience with humans,” Eli reminded her. “We can make the city better. Others of our kind will see what we’re doing and follow our example to make their cities better.” Eli wasn’t sure he actually believed his own words. “It’s not like we have anything else to do,” he added.

“Do you honestly believe those interested in keeping crime and their drug trade alive will let you terminate their activities?” Ling questioned. “Where whole governments have failed, you expect to succeed?”

“I thought you, out of all of us, would understand,” Eli said.

“I do, Eli, but the odds are not in our favor. If one sleepless night has you looking this rough, Eli, I don’t want to see you when you fail in this endeavor.”

“Do I look that bad?” Eli asked her.

“Tonight you are not a handsome man, Eli.” She put a hand against the back of his head and bent his head down at the water so he could see his own reflection. The ripples in the water distorted his face. “The ripples aren’t doing you a favor. Maybe talking to Dietrich and the Council could help. They’re meeting here at the end of this month.”

She meant the Vampire Council. Dietrich Etter was its adviser and the oldest living vampire. He was extremely wise and intelligent. Dietrich never told anyone his true age, but Eli knew that he was over four hundred years old. Eli knew that Dietrich was the only vampire or human who knew the entire history of vampires but had not told even Eli what he knew. Over time, Dietrich had worked with a few key people in world governments and had been instrumental in the creation of the Vampire Council. He was born in Germany and played a role in the downfall of Hitler and the Nazi party during WWII. The many changes in Germany and the world since Dietrich’s birth have made it possible for him to keep his origin secret. He trusted and respected Eli, and he saw a kindred spirit in Eli.

Until recently, Dietrich rarely visited the United States, but he maintained a lavish apartment in New York City that he purchased in 1972 when the Council was engaged in purchasing office space for its headquarters in World Trade Tower Two. The Tower opened in 1973 and the Council moved into its office there in 1974.

Eli already knew what the Council’s answer would be. Dietrich was Eli’s mentor, but Dietrich wouldn’t help in this. Beyond keeping humans and vampires from fighting one another, Dietrich didn’t care what humans did to one another. As for the Council, they would follow Dietrich.

==========

[CLEANED-UP VERSION]

Eli came up beside Ling Lu on the Detroit Riverwalk looking out across the black nighttime water. Having vampire nightsight, he didn’t need the light of the full moon or the nearby streetlights to see her Asian beauty or to appreciate the modern suit with classic Oriental red and black colors she wore. She didn’t wear this one as often as he wished she would.

He kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

“Your phone call worried me, Eli.” Her eyes narrowed. “You look like hell.”

“That bad?”

“Tonight you are not a handsome man.” She bent his head down toward the water. “The ripples are doing you a favor.”

He’d spent much of last night walking before he returned home and sat in his library reading and meditating to distract himself so he could relax and get some sleep.

“I’m tired of all the pain here.” His soft voice barely rose above the faint rippling of the water. He rubbed his hands down the sides of his face then braced his palms against the cool metal railing.

“But it can’t touch us,” she said.

“In 1920 when I arrived here, Detroit was so different. Today, kids can’t play safely on the streets, they respect nothing, and everyone sells drugs.”

From the corner of his eye, he caught her shaking her head. “You’re living in the past, Eli. These are human problems, not ours; they’ll pass us by.”

“If the humans die out, so do we. We’re still mortal, we still depend on them.”

“They’ve been around longer than we have,” she said. “They outnumber us, and they haven’t died out yet.”

“It’s not like our kind haven’t tried more than once to encourage it. I know you care about them too.”

She studied him. “Since I’m twenty years older than you, take some advice from your elder and don’t get involved.”

Eli thought of her as a sister, but he’d never thought of her as an older sister. “My mother would probably have said the same thing. She died three years before I was changed, a blessing in a way. She wouldn’t have understood what I became.”

“You’re already doing enough, Eli. Why do you think you aren’t? You teach young people how to avoid the sins of their predecessors.”

“That’s too slow a process to affect the present.” In some ways he was proud of the dual aspects of his life. As a teacher, he helped others understand man’s conflict and struggles. Would the day ever come when he’d be teaching about vampires?

“Why do you want to help the humans now? What has changed your attitude?”

He clenched his jaw as he stared out across the water. “Last night, on the campus, I nearly killed two humans who tried to rape a woman. I… lost control.”

She gasped almost imperceptibly. “I’m not surprised. You declared yourself a pacifist and have ignored what’s going on among our kind for the past half century. You’ve had no stress. Your hot-blooded emotions haven’t been an issue.”

“I’m a pacifist for good reason.” He gripped the railing tighter. He knew more about her past than she’d revealed to him. She had her own demons and would tell him when she was ready.

She put her arm through his. “I don’t doubt you believe that. When we first met, ninety years ago, you still had a feisty spirit. Despite the best intentions, no man or vampire—not even Eli Howard, not even over the course of a century—can force himself to change so drastically. One vampire against all the evil of humankind is too large a task for even you. Even if we can prevent a few crimes, even if we do make a small difference, the humans will undo it soon enough.”

“Does that mean you’ll help?”

“I didn’t say that. I do agree that crime here is a little out of control.”

“A little?”

She put her head against his shoulder. “What can only two vampires do to stop it?”

“Between us we’ve got over three hundred years of experience with humans. We can make the city better. Others of our kind will see what we’re doing and follow our example in their cities.” He wasn’t sure he actually believed his own words. “It’s not like we have anything else to do.”

“Do you honestly believe those interested in keeping crime and their drug trade alive will let you terminate their activities? Where whole governments have failed, you expect to succeed?”

“I thought you, out of all of us, would understand,” he said.

“I do, but the odds are not in our favor. If one sleepless night has you looking this rough, I don’t want to see you when you fail in this endeavor. Maybe talking to Dietrich and the Council could help. They’re meeting here at the end of this month.”

She meant the Vampire Council. Dietrich Etter was its adviser, being the oldest living vampire. Dietrich was also his mentor, but he wouldn’t help in this. Beyond keeping humans and vampires from fighting each another, he didn’t care what humans did to themselves. As for the Council, they would follow Dietrich.

**********

So, what do you think? The first version is 1463 words; the cleaned-up version is 868 words. That cut 40% of the words in the scene! The reduction came from three sources: I eliminated unnecessary dialogue tags and wording; I removed most of the thoughts, particularly those that violate the POV (which is Eli’s) and which really distract from the scene; I cut unnecessary information. You might wonder why I deleted some of the information near the end about Dietrich and the Council’s office location. That seems relevant and probably important to the overall novel because of the location in one of the World Trade Towers. Yes, it is important, but this scene isn’t the place to insert it. All that’s relevant here is who Dietrich is and his relation to Eli, which sets up later events in the novel.

This scene, which occurs very early in the novel, needs to focus on Eli and Ling and on his intended mission with as few side details as possible. You have a whole novel to work in, so you can spread out the details and insert them as needed and where they fit.

Some readers might complain that I didn’t give enough description of Ling, that I didn’t describe Eli at all, and that I didn’t describe much of the setting. Again, remember, this is part of a NOVEL. This is not a short story. If I had given a more detailed description of Ling, I’d have stopped the action. As for Eli, this is his POV. Who is going to describe him? He’s not going to describe himself.

These are big mistakes that many writers make. They feel they must dump tons of description and background information every time they open a new scene or introduce a new character, and they describe something that either can’t come from the POV in the scene, or the description is out of character with the POV character. This is part of that balancing act that I did in two posts one on July 22 of last year, and the second post on September 23.

Pay close attention to how I eliminated many of the dialogue tags. There are only two people talking, one male, one female. Most of the time I don’t need to use their names. In that novel I’m editing, the writer makes the frequent mistake of adding unnecessary tags when it’s already clear who is speaking. And I sometimes found TWO tags in the same piece of dialogue (which I did put in a few places in the first version of this scene.

As for describing the setting, in this scene it’s nighttime, along a river, and there’s not much to see. The characters, not the setting, are important. You might argue, didn’t I give that long and lovely description from Jack Vance’s novel? How is that different? Well, his novel opens with setting because there is no immediate action and because it’s an unusual fantasy setting and it’s during the day. The description itself pulls the reader in. Plus, there are no characters to see yet, but they do appear shortly after.

The key to good, tight writing is for you to ask yourself what the reader needs to know, not what you feel like throwing down on the page. Why do you need that dialogue tag, that inner thought, that particular piece of information? Will it make a difference if it’s not there? And if you do need it, what’s the best way to provide it? A related question to ask yourself is whether the reader will be confused if you leave out the information or the tag or the description?

IMPORTANT NOTE: “But I really want to tell the reader this” is NEVER a valid reason for overwriting.

I plan to follow up with more on this topic, probably next week.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with one good piece of advice that I’ve given before about dialogue tags: Most of the time, if you need to tell the reader with a dialogue tag how the words were spoken or delivered, then you haven’t done your job as a writer, and your dialogue is therefore weak.

–Rick

One thought on “Overwritten: a surfeit of words—PART 1

  • 03/07/2020 at 9:30 AM
    Permalink

    As always, lots of food for thought, Rick. Overwriting is cringeworthy when you see it in the work of others. Too bad such writing isn’t always so easy to see in one’s own prose. It’s necessary, but not always easy, to step back a bit when editing your own writing, so your focus isn’t so much on finding the perfect word and more on the overall effect of the paragraph or page. Yes, I know. This comment probably could use some editing as well.

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