Early on in my writing career, I submitted a manuscript to Harlequin. To my extreme excitement, they responded asking for exclusive consideration. As I’m sure all newbie authors have done at one point or another (to our collective chagrin) I thought I’d made it. I’d get a publishing contract, I’d have a dedicated team of marketers, and my sales would start skyrocketing! Oh yes, I was going somewhere. The proverbial foot was in the proverbial door!
Well … wizened as I now am, I can laugh at my rosy misconceptions of the publishing world. Harlequin’s response? My manuscript was overwritten.
Overwritten. That is a hard word for an author to hear. And yet, I see now that Harlequin was right. My manuscript was overwritten. As authors, we love words. We love that we can manipulate, and arrange, and rearrange words to create just the right feel for our precious stories. Unfortunately, sometimes we can take it too far. In fact, this tends to be a novice mistake. That fine line between brilliant prose and heavy-handed indulgence is hard to spot. When does fixing the “not enough” turn into “too much?”
It took me a while to figure this out, but a major part of honing your craft is knowing when to pull back. I’ve learned since then, and I’ve been able to apply those lessons to my current collection. If you’re wondering whether your work is overwritten, here are three hints that it might be.
We all know that run-on sentences are a no-no. We learned that in school. But there is a distinct difference between a long sentence, and a run-on sentence. The first is a literary technique. The second is poor grammar. Unfortunately, for the unpracticed eye, the two can look very much alike.
The best example that I can give of when a run-on sentence is not a run-on sentence comes from Gary Provost. It’s genius:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.
And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
A manuscript of nothing but paragraph three becomes hard to read. But every once in a while, it’s thrilling to have a paragraph that has no periods. Honing your craft means learning to recognize when a run-on sentence is appropriate, and when it needs to be broken up to achieve an overall flow for your book.
Distracting Similies and Metaphors
I was once told by my fourth-year writing professor not to use predictable and cliched descriptors. “Pounce like a tiger,” “the whispering wind,” “a ribbon of highway.” These are all things which have been used so often they’ve lost all meaning. They no longer evoke an image or a feel. Instead, I was told, you need to find creative ways to say things. Instead of a “ribbon” of highway, what about “The highway was a streak of black paint across a canvas of red, Arizona desert.”
There’s a downside to this, though. Sometimes the creative descriptors we use can be distracting. Take this example from an unnamed historical romance I read recently:
Before the woman had time to answer, Eveleen appeared at the door. “Adel, come into the great hall. There is someone who wishes to speak with the O’Shea.”
Little worms of apprehension curled in Adel’s stomach. “Oh, dear, what must I do?”
Worms … eewww! I hear “worms” and I’ve completely forgotten what I’m reading. Now I’m picturing slimy, white maggots curling and twitching in Adel’s stomach. Now I’m thinking of parasitic infections and Adel’s bowels. Now I’m feeling a little twitchy myself … Not what the author wanted me to be thinking, I’m sure.
I see what she was trying to do, though. And I applaud her for it. At least she’s not resting on over-used cliches. I just wish she hadn’t landed on that particular wormy descriptor, which wrenched me from the story in which (until then) I was comfortably immersed.
There’s no greater joy as a writer than to create vivid, colourful worlds for our readers. Unfortunately, sometimes we get carried away with describing everything. Every facial expression of our characters, every gesture, every turn of the head. When we start doing this, it weighs down our story, like too many layers of clothing.
In honing your craft, you need to find that delicate balance. Describe only what is necessary, and let your reader’s imagination do the rest. One thing you have to remember is that, most of the time, your reader is not paying close attention to the world you’re creating for them. You can put that chest of drawers against the north wall, you can deck your heroine out in frills and polka dots, and you can draw your hero’s chiselled good looks all you want. But chances are, your readers have something else in their head already, and your story is going to fit around the images they’re visualizing.
This is not a bad thing. Embrace it. Draw from it. It relieves the burden on you of writing all that detail. Instead, you can focus on developing the more important parts of your story: relationships, interactions, dialogue and plot.
Celebrate Your Overwritten Successes
Overwritten work is not a crime. Quite the opposite, in fact. It shows a writer who is willing to take a chance, who is thinking about her or his manuscript and trying to make it as interesting and engaging as possible. It shows a writer who loves words. Overwritten work is what you see when an author is in that intermediate stage, crossing the bounds between beginner and pro. We’ve all been there, and as much as we want to cringe at our earlier, overwritten attempts, we need to learn to celebrate them.
Celebrate them, yes. Just make sure you don’t stop there. Take that next step in developing your craft, and learn when to pull back and when to open the literary throttle.