Friday, December 6, 2013

Are you an OVER-WRITER?

We are writers. Our words are our hearts spilled on the page. Our stories often becoming our babies. It takes a lot of care and planning to birth a story. But while all kiddos need love and nurturing, they also need discipline

A common behavioral disorder that hinders the potential of beautiful storytelling is something called over-writing. (Over-directing is also a sneaky little hitch-hiking virus that can flatten your tires.)

Over-writing is an ailment that comes very natural to me. I get caught up in the scenery, in the senses (both important), but while I’m whipping up a tasty little turn of phrase (or two, or three to really ramp up the magic) the rest of the concoction I was stirring up for the main course sours.

Because I recognize this as a weakness I make a conscious effort to prop up the baby-gate before I tumble down the stairs and mangle my story.

 Here's how you can too...

Trim the fat. Close your eyes and envision your scene. Very often utilizing all five of your senses will insert your reader into the storyworld you created. But explaining every detail down to the color of the rug on the floor and the pattern of drapes on the windows doesn’t necessarily create atmosphere. Play up the details that create a feeling as you visualize them. Which ones stir your senses? Which ones don’t? Trim the excess and trust the reader to fill in those gaps. Sometimes it’s important to see your heroine wrapped in that hand-knitted heirloom afghan, staring thought the crackling fire, self-medicating with a cup of hot chocolate, dreaming of a love like the her grandparents who overcame everything to be together. The scene can invoke a feeling, and you’ll spend less time in those draggy introspective paragraphs. Other times it’s enough to know she’d simply snuggled up on the couch, nursing a broken heart with the world best remedy. Chocolate. But be aware that fat-free chocolate probably isn't very appealing either. Leave enough marbled in to give it flavor. Snip the rest. Lean and mean!

It’s okay to tell. (But don’t tell anyone I told you.) Think about those two examples above. The first is overly descriptive and showy, you could almost see the scene in a Hallmark movie. The other is understated but gives you the pertinent information so you can move on to the action. Sure, we’ve all heard the rule, show don’t tell. But showing a whole story is not only impossible, but really, really tedious. With things of little consequence, don’t dawdle. We really don’t need to know the way he dragged the towel through his wet hair unless the heroine is intensely preoccupied with the process. More than likely she’s more focused on the beads of water trailing her eyes to more interesting scenery than the blue striped towel you felt compelled to dwell on. (Sorry, not so G-rated here but we’re all adults, right?) The point is, determine when you need to show, and when it’s more effective to tell. (And when to cut all together!)

Actions speak louder than words. Yes, now we are into what is called over-directing. I’ve read a lot of stories where they dictate each characters movements like staging a play. In a production, it’s important to know your position on the stage, the choreography of your movements, your entrance and exit points, ect. You really don’t want to upstage a primadonna, trust me, been there. But in a book you don’t have to waste words explaining every pace of motion, every hand gesture, nor every fidget or throat-clear… UNLESS it informs the reader of unspoken emotions. 

For example, crossing ones arms is a clear defense mechanism. If your character does this while in a heated rant with the hero, she’s protecting herself. Therefore, you can skip saying she rose to the defensive because her body language speaks clearly. Just like a jutting hip or poke in the chest is more antagonistic. When the actions speak, you don’t have to explain their intention. This will save you words and will let your reader know you trust them enough to draw the right conclusions. At the same time, I don’t need to see a volley of activity. He crossed his arms, she shifted her weight, he shrugged his shoulders, she tapped her foot, sighed, tossed her hair, and narrowed her eyes. Be picky. Make your actions count for more than simple movement. Let them enlighten your reader. And leave out the place-keepers that cut up the dialogue with unnecessary staging.

Don’t get too attached. Ooo, this one is tough. This is my baby, remember? It’s kind of like that first haircut, and you just want to save all those feathery soft pieces. Yes, your words are valuable. After all, they ALL come together to create your story. But some, you’ll come to find, are necessary. Some are less so. Know your genre and be sure to consider the pace. Romance, women’s fiction, and historicals can have a more relaxed cadence. Thrillers, suspense, and mystery gotta keep the clip or they lose the reader. Though you never want a muddy plot! I write romantic suspense, which can be tricky. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stop and smell the roses, other times those buds are getting trampled under the pursuit of a killer, so if you stop, you die. Make sense? As a general rule of thumb I recommend reading your story out loud. (To another person is immensely helpful, though not always realistic.) You’d be surprised by the lull you’ll find when you are dragging your voice through each word. Pay attention and put your pride on the shelf.

Over-writing can be fatal. Many a good story has died a slow and painful death to the trappings of a draggy pace. Now, I’m off to go heed my own advice. Go exercise those trimming sheers. Snip, snip. You’ll thank me later! 

YOUR TURN: Are you an over-writer? Where do you notice you over-do it? Plot points? Descriptions? Actions? Staging? Knowing your weakness can be the best defense against it.

Edit happy! Your story is shaping up!
Amy Leigh Simpson writes Romantic Suspense that is heavy on the romance, unapologetically honest, laced with sass and humor, and full of the unfathomable Grace of God. She is the completely sleep deprived mama to two little tow-headed mischief makers and wife to her very own swoon-worthy hero. Represented by the oh-so-wise and dashing Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Inc.


Jeanne Takenaka said...

My name is Jeanne, and I'm an over-writer.

I just didn't realize in how many ways!!

I'm revising my current manuscript and seeing much of what you've described. Thank you for this. Your tips for trimming are going to be implemented beginning today! I especially tend to dictate every movement. I was just thinking about a couple scenes THIS morning that I needed to figure out how to cut that out without making it jar the reader. LOVED THIS.

BTW, I LOVE that pic of you and hubby with one of your babies. :)

Angie Dicken said...

Oh my goodness, Amy! I love your analogies and voice. I am DEFINITELY a recovering over-writer (with many slip-ups time and again), and a full bloom over-writer in rough draft form! I look at the first thing I ever wrote, and it is page after page of description. I just LOVE details, especially to render a sense of place (what can I say, I have a degree in Landscape architecture). And as far as action goes, I was an actress once, so it's really hard for me to not include each character's stage direction. UGH. Can't wait to start writing with your advice in mind. Thank you!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Oh Jeanne, I am so glad this was helpful! I felt a teensy bit like a hypocrite writing this because I catch myself falling into these traps All. The. Time. Seriously! But once you are aware it gets slightly easier to recognize where you are over-doing it. And thus the magic and agony of editing :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Ang, wow... I so remember just paging through unnecessary description on my first drafts!! I'm with ya! I totally linger in the scenery, finding some unexpected beauty I'm just certain the reader needs to see! Funny too because all of my books take place in STL... Ha! Not nearly as much if interest to see as some places. Ahh, well, were all learning together. Thanks for commiserating. ;)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I am an UNDER-writer! lol I love dialogue and action, so I tend do skim over the description and even characterization and get right to the plot. Bleh...I need some of your problems to rub off on me!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Lol! You can have all my excess, Sher! There's a lot of it ;)

Unknown said...

Is there a support group for us? Yes, I have this problem. I love description. But I've noticed that many best-selling authors describe very little. Some don't even give the color of their protag's hair. Even if they do, I'll just replace it with my own image anyway. I practice by noticing what I notice first about people and places. Realizing, of course, my character may notice something different, depending on his background and situation.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Ron, I've noticed that too! It's infuriating! I'll realize I'm halfway through a novel and still don't have a clue what the characters look like. Shocking also when they don't even slightly resemble the cover art! I can't tell you how many times I've seen a brunette on the cover of a book with a blonde heroine. I sort of assumed I was the only one who noticed this since the publishers keep pumping out these non-descriptive stories. Hmm. Puzzling correlation, huh?

Pepper said...

You know my answer to the question :-)
Yes, I am an overwriter. And it's okay to be one in the draft-stage...but oh, your words are true - I shouldn't get too attached.
One of the BEST things to be is teachable, and I think if we wish to grow and develop our skills, we have to continue to step back from our babies and learn from what we see (or what others show us)

Hmm, where? Descriptions, probably. I'm sure you could think of a few more ;-)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

This was for BOTH of us, Pepper! :) but I think you're right descriptions tend to be the biggest trap , but having a teachable attitude is key!

Rajdeep Paulus-Writer of Young Adult Fiction said...

Great post, Amy. I'll keep it short and sweet to keep from, ah-hem, over-you-know-what. :)

Seriously good reminders as I edit. Edit. Edit.


Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Thanks for stopping by, Raj! Go forth... Edit... Snip... Feel the burn! :)

Casey said...

My name is Casey and I'm an over-writer.

It's JUST SO MUCH FUN! You mean I have to cut all my pretty purple prose? All those phrases that I love because they took me by surprise when I wrote them?

ACK! Don't say it's so!

This is a fantastic post, Ames. One of the best I've seen on overwriting. They come the best from those who understand the trials. ;-) But don't cut too much of your overwriting, I love it! :)

Krista Phillips said...

I'm with Sherrinda! I'm a TOTAL underwriter!!!!!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

I know, Casey! Sniff sniff! Heartbreaking isn't it? What doesn't kill you ... Sighs. Love ya!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Krista and Sher are a rare and talented breed!