Archive for June, 2009

Emotion: How Much is Too Much?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

When describing a scene of extreme anguish or emotion, many writers want to convey every nuance of feeling directly to the reader. This attempt at literal emotional transcription can sometimes result in an overabundance of adverbs and adjectives—wordiness, in general. Often, the best way to convey extreme emotion is to under-describe it, taking the old “less-is-more” adage to heart.

The following is an unedited piece of text that tends to shroud the emotion in unnecessary wording. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life.

“What?” I said quietly, not really sure how to react. This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob.

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus.

“So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

After editing, the passage reads as follows:

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast.

“What?” I was not really sure how to react. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air.

“You heard me,” he said. “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin and put it by his plate, lining up his fork as well.

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly.

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears.

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said. “I have to go to work,” he added, as though it were any other day.

Here is the passage with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

“I never wanted to marry you,” Maurice said blandly, buttering his toast as though he hadn’t dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me, destroying everything I once held dear in my life. [The word “blandly” and Maurice’s act of buttering his toast sufficiently indicate that he is acting as though nothing has happened. The reader will understand that his comment is earth-shattering without the narrator having to mention this fact.]

“What?” I said quietly, was not really sure how to react. [Could the narrator say something other than “What”? If she made a slightly more irrelevant comment, you could show the reader her uncertainty. I eliminated “said” to avoid repeating it.] This was the worst comment anyone had ever made to me, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry or tear my hair out in desperation. The room seemed to get smaller, and I had trouble filling my lungs with air. I felt like I was on the verge of fainting, but I also felt like a surge of electricity had shot through me and like I was suddenly bursting with rage or shock. I wanted to throw dishes at Maurice or sit quietly and sob. [Your descriptions of this moment are very vivid, but using fewer of them gives the moment more impact. The sentence about the room getting smaller seems to encompass the ideas of the others and very graphically demonstrates the narrator’s emotion.]

“You heard me,” he said—arrogantly, I thought. [The adverb is unnecessary. Maurice’s spare language sufficiently indicates his arrogance and emotional distance. In addition, the narrator seems too upset to be able to assess Maurice’s true emotions.] “Never once did I really want to marry you.” He folded his napkin meticulously and put it neatly by his plate, lining up his fork as well. [The adverbs are colorful, but your pared-down words convey Maurice’s cold emotion very well.]

I thought he must be joking. I looked around frantically for a calendar, thinking it must be April Fool’s Day. My head was spinning, and I wasn’t able to focus. [Would the narrator really look for a calendar at this moment? Saying “I thought he must be joking” in the next sentence is sufficient, I think, to convey her sense of unreality.]

I thought he must be joking. “So why did you—marry me?” I asked foolishly. I couldn’t think of anything more logical to say. [“Foolishly” is sufficient to show that the narrator wishes she could think of something better to say.]

Maurice stood up from the table, quietly smoothing the hair over his temples. He always worried that his hair stuck out around his ears. He really was vain, I thought to myself. I felt my insides go cold and then hot, and I thought I would be sick. We had been married for eleven years, and I had thought we were blissfully happy—well, not blissfully, but happy. [“He really was vain” is not particularly necessary. The reader will see Maurice’s vanity when he stands smoothing his hair at this moment of great crisis.]

“I thought we were happy,” I said, knowing how hollow those words must sound and feeling my throat close over them as I uttered them.

“Maybe you were,” he said chillingly. [“Chillingly” feels unnecessary. Maurice’s unfeeling sentence is enough to convey this idea.] “I have to go to work,” he added, advancing toward the door as though it were any other day.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Passive Voice

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Writers often complain that their work lacks the sparkle or sense of urgency they would like it to have. Their characters seem languorous and unassertive, they say; their non-fiction feels timid. The solution to their problems is often fairly simple—a verb shift from passive to active voice. With this relatively minor change, characters take ownership over their actions, and ideas emerge from solid sources.

The following is an unedited passage in which the passive voice dominates. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The envelope had been left on Celeste’s table, and she was mocked by its silent presence. Little things had been left out of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watched. Celeste thought the mysterious occurrences had something to do with the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed by the police. In fact, Celeste was just told that the explosion had been an accident and that the mysterious occurrences in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now, Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if these actions had all been taken by the same mysterious person.

The final story reads something like the following:

The envelope stood on Celeste’s table, and its silent presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed little things out of place all over her apartment, and she thought somebody might be watching her. Celeste suspected that the mysterious occurrences were somehow related to the explosion at her office, but the police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences in her apartment. Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. She wondered if the same unknown person had left it there.

Below is the text with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

The envelope had been left stood on Celeste’s table [With this revision, the envelope becomes the agent of the action, setting up your later idea that the envelope seems to mock Celeste. You could also say, “Someone had left the/an envelope on Celeste’s table,” emphasizing the unknown identity of the person who left the envelope.], and she was mocked by its silent [Do you really need “silent”? Can an envelope ever not be silent?] presence mocked her. For the past few days, Celeste had noticed Llittle things had been leftout of place all over her apartment for the past few days, and Celeste had the feeling of being watchedshe thought somebody might be watching her. [You could make “She thought…” a separate sentence to increase its impact.] Celeste thought suspected that [I changed “thought” to “suspected that” to avoid using “thought” in two consecutive sentences.] the mysterious occurrences had something to do withwere somehow related to [“had something to do with” feels needlessly wordy.] the explosion at her office, but her theory hadn’t been confirmed bythe police hadn’t confirmed her theory. In fact, Celeste was just told the police called the explosion an accident and said that she had merely imagined the mysterious occurrences [Could you replace “mysterious occurrences” with another term, so you don’t reuse it so often?] in her apartment were all in her imagination. But now,Celeste noticed the envelope on the table again. [“But now” is unnecessary. The reader will know that you have shifted back to the present moment.] She wondered if these actions had all been taken bythe same mysterious unknown person had left it there. [I replaced “mysterious” with “unknown” to avoid reusing this adjective. Making this unknown person the agent of the action adds to the menace of the final sentence.]

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Turning Narration into Dialogue

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

One of the most challenging tasks facing a fiction writer is to convey basic background information to the reader. Writers want readers to know their characters’ back stories, their early challenges, their professional backgrounds, their insecurities, and their hair color. But readers usually want to dive into the “real” action of the story, and they can find too much information tedious.

Therein lies the writer’s challenge—to provide enough information for the story to make sense but in a way that keeps the reader’s attention.

One of the most interesting ways for writers to convey important information painlessly to their readers is through believable dialogue. Many writers can rework narrative passages, turning them into information-rich dialogue that keeps the plot humming along.

What follows are two examples of narrative sections successfully converted into dialogue. The changes are major, but the passages read more colorfully and believably for the reader.

Example 1:

narration
Shirley had always been afraid of spiders. She wasn’t sure when she first noticed her fear, but it had been debilitating for a very long time. She couldn’t even look at a spider without feeling faint. Now, as she followed Steve into the cave, she could feel her fear resurface. She didn’t want Steve to know how afraid she was.

dialogue
“You’re not afraid of spiders, are you, Shirley?” Steve smiled as he held a branch aside for her.

“No, no. I mean, not particularly.” Shirley ran a finger over her upper lip, hoping Steve hadn’t noticed the droplets of perspiration.

“I mean—because this cave might be full of them.” Steve looked back at her.

“No, I’m fine.” Shirley took several deep breaths, hoping her lightheadedness would pass.

Example 2:

narration
Tommy was a spoiled child. He always knew what he wanted, and he argued with his mother until he got it. Sometimes, he made scenes in stores, threatening to throw tantrums if his mother wouldn’t buy him a toy or game. Today, he made a spectacular scene, and his mother bought him a new toy car, just as he wanted.

dialogue
“I want that car—that one—that red one. I want it. I want the red car.” Tommy leaned out of the shopping cart, nearly toppling it with his weight.

“Tommy, we’re not going through this again,” his mother said. “I told you the last time. I’m not buying you more toys.” She tried to keep the cart upright as Tommy leaned toward the toy.

“I said I want it!” Tommy put his foot on the seat of the cart. “I want it now.”

“Tommy, please. Don’t do this again.” His mother lowered her voice, trying to make Tommy talk more softly.

“I want it! Get it for me! Get it for me!” Tommy had begun to bellow, his voice losing control in the way it always did when he and his mother went to the toy store.

“Tommy, sit down. You’re going to fall.”

A little girl stood in the aisle and stared at them. Tommy’s mother smiled weakly at her. “Look, Tommy, you’re scaring this little—“

“I said NOW. I want it NOW.”

There would be no reasoning with Tommy today. His mother ran her hand through her hair. “OK, but this is the last time,” she said. She handed Tommy the car and settled him back into the shopping cart. Tommy smiled quietly to himself.

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Six-Sentence Stories

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Flash fiction lovers often cite a poignant six-word story, erroneously attributed to Ernest Hemingway, as the high point of the genre. The story reads, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Although Papa Hemingway might never have really written it, the mini-story is a perfect example of flash fiction that works. The six words encompass all of the conflict, emotion and tragedy of much longer stories, illustrating the potential of a well-honed piece of flash fiction.

Word limits for flash fiction can vary, depending on the print or online journal that publishes it, although most flash fiction has fewer than 1,000 words. Six Sentences, an intriguing flash fiction blog, sets a sentence limit, allowing authors to use as many words as they can pack into six meaningful sentences.

The following are two original, unedited flash fiction pieces that follow the Six Sentences guidelines. Below the unedited versions are my edits of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

First Story: The Mother

“You’re going to love having kids,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulders and blinking so hard that Phillip thought she might have gotten dirt in her eye. “Ever since I had my son, I’ve been like a different person; I just feel so maternal to all children, no matter whose they are.”

Phillip started to say something, but she continued.

“I mean, I just see a child, and I want to take it into my arms.”

Phillip said, “It?” but she seemed not to hear.

The maid’s child darted across the lawn, chasing a round, red ball; the ball hit the woman’s feet, and she kicked it aside, examining her fingernails.

Second Story: Studying

Patrick never studied for tests, and he hadn’t studied for this final either. Everyone else walked into the classroom with notes and outlines, frantically cramming every last minuscule piece of information into their head before the exam began. Patrick knew the one exam question would be about Moby Dick, because it always was, in Professor Boylston’s class, as everyone knew. At least Patrick had read Moby Dick and knew every plot and subplot inside and out. “But what if he doesn’t ask about it this time—this one time?” Charlie asked as he sat down next to Patrick and rippled through his notes. Patrick looked at the exam question—“Please describe the concept of intellectualism as it relates to Casaubon in Middlemarch“—and witnessed the end of his academic career.

Below are the two stories with my editing marks. I have not included the stories in their final forms, because their authors will need to make modifications outside my scope as editor. My comments to the authors are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

First Story: The Mother

“You’re going to love having kids,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulders and blinking so hard that Phillip thought she might have gotten dirt in her eye. [I’m not sure about the relevance of Phillip’s dirt-in-the-eye thought. It detracts from the main point of the story, something you might not want to do in so short a piece. Couldn’t Phillip have some other thought about her blinking? Perhaps she’s batting her eyes coquettishly? Or is she adjusting colored contact lenses? You clearly convey the idea that this woman is self-centered, so her gestures should relate to this important quality.]  “Ever since I had my son, I’ve been like a different person; I just feel so maternal to all children, no matter whose they are.”

Phillip started to say something, but she continued. [In a story with a six-sentence limit, you don’t want to waste a single one. This sentence does not serve to further the plot or deepen the characterization of Phillip or the woman. If you cut this sentence, you would have an extra sentence for the end of the story, where I think it might be more useful. See my comments, below.]

“I mean, I just see a child, and I want to take it into my arms.”

Phillip said, “It?” but she seemed not to hear. [This is a good sentence. You succinctly add much to the character of the woman.]

The maid’s child darted across the lawn, chasing a round, red ball; the ball hit the woman’s feet, and she kicked it aside, examining her fingernails. [As I explained above, you could profitably turn this last sentence into two separate ones, because you convey a great deal of information here. I like how quickly “maid’s child” describes a child whom this self-centered woman would consider beneath her regard.]

Second Story: Studying

Patrick never studied for tests, and he hadn’t studied for this final, either. Everyone else walked into the classroom with notes and outlines, frantically cramming every last minuscule piece of [The words “frantically” and “cramming” sufficiently convey the idea that these are small bits of last-minute information. The five words I cut are unnecessary.] information into their heads before the exam began. Patrick knew the one exam question would be about Moby Dick, because it always was, in Professor Boylston’s class, as everyone knew. [“It always was” indicates the idea that this fact is common knowledge.] At least Patrick had read Moby Dick and knew every plot and subplot inside and out [These words are also unnecessary. “Every plot and subplot” gets the idea across clearly.] “But what if he doesn’t ask about it this time—this one time?” Charlie asked as he sat down next to Patrick and rippffled through his notes. Patrick looked at the exam question [The time sequence is confusing here, because in the previous sentence, Charlie is still looking at his notes. How does Patrick so quickly have a test? Perhaps you could replace “as he sat down…through his notes” with something like “as Professor Boylston handed out the exam.”]—“Please describe the concept of intellectualism as it relates to Casaubon in Middlemarch“—and witnessed the end of his academic career. [I like this dramatic ending.]

[Please post your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit–and inclusion in a posting on this blog–please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]

Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Misplaced and dangling modifiers are common writing mistakes, and they usually manifest themselves when writers use a string of prepositional or participial phrases. The writer intends for the modifier to describe a particular word, but the modifier floats free of its intended object, muddying the meaning of the sentence. As a result, misplaced and dangling modifiers often suggest mistaken—and sometimes, inadvertently humorous—meanings for the sentences in which they exist.

A misplaced modifier, as its name suggests, finds itself in the wrong position in a sentence, perhaps modifying the wrong word. The following sentences have misplaced modifiers, which I have italicized:

The naughty boy in the hallway with the red hair is in trouble.
I never knew I had an aunt in the city named Sánchez.
The man in the river with the red striped bathing suit has a handlebar moustache.
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the baby cried as the evil man snatched him from his crib.

In each case, the modifier’s misplacement confuses the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence seems to describe a hirsute hallway, the second refers to a city named Sánchez, the third suggests that the river sports a jaunty pair of swim trunks, and the fourth that an infant has a nasty smoking habit.

A misplaced modifier problem is usually easy to solve. Merely switching the word order of the sentence will usually render its meaning clear, although some reworking of the sentence might be necessary.

The naughty red-headed boy in the hallway is in trouble. (While “The naughty boy with the red hair in the hallway is in trouble.” might work, it still seems to suggest a hallway with a hair problem.)
I never knew I had an aunt named Sánchez in the city.
The man with the red striped bathing suit has handlebar moustache. (Depending on the context, “in the river” might already be understood and might be unnecessary to the sentence. If “in the river” is an integral part of the sentence, some more significant rewriting might be necessary.)
Clenching his teeth on a cigarette, the evil man snatched the crying baby from his crib.

A dangling modifier is one that seems to modify a word that is not in the sentence at all. The reader is left to wonder what or whom the writer means to modify. The following sentences each have dangling modifiers, which I have italicized:

Wearing bright orange sandals, the dress looked very stylish.
Blowing out the candle, it was suddenly very dark.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, the test was impossible to do.
Driving a flashy sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

In each of the first three sentences above, the dangling modifier begins with a participle. In all four cases, the dangling modifiers confuse the meanings of the sentences, because the words they are meant to modify do not appear. As the sentences now read, it seems as though the dress is wearing orange sandals, the candle has been blown out by some unidentified entity, the test itself is having trouble with its own problems, and the gawkers are simultaneously on the sidewalk and behind the wheel of a flashy car.

Correcting a dangling modifier sometimes requires completely rewriting the sentence. The writer usually needs to determine and express the word being modified. When rewritten in the most basic way, the above four sentences read as follows:

Wearing bright orange sandals, she looked very stylish in the dress.
Blowing out the candle, he left the room in sudden darkness.
Unable to solve the difficult problems, we found the test impossible to do.
When he drove the sports car, we stood on the sidewalk in amazement.

Of course, all of the above sentences can be reworked with more panache and linguistic style, but at the very least, their modifiers now have words to modify.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about misplaced and dangling modifiers.