Friday, August 6, 2010


Time for a change in pace. I was listening to an RWA tape lately and heard editor Jennifer Enderlin from St. Martins Press talking about two of the signs that a writer is writing for herself, rather than for the reader.

The first of those signs is inserting every bit of research you’ve done into the manuscript. The research grinds the story to a halt while details not necessary to understand the action are revealed.

I’ve seen examples of this myself recently while critiquing historicals. Usually, I’ve noticed, it’s accompanied by a change in voice. The author switches out of whatever character’s POV that section of the book is in and into what I call “professor mode”. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m reading a text book, rather than a novel.

Jennifer Enderlin suggests that authors only put in as much research is necessary to understand that moment of action – no more. She says to use research sparingly, and in small drips.

The most effective use of research I’ve seen is where it’s incorporated into the action. In a work I just critiqued, for example, a character is shown making soap. The steps blend with the other action going on around her, with the other action often interrupting her job. By the time I had finished reading that passage, I knew how they made soap in the middle ages, but I didn’t feel the soap-making had intruded on the story. Very effective.

There are, of course, authors who can pull off big sections of research-exposition and entertain the reader with it. James Mitchner was a master at this. His Space left me breathless at how he could entertain me with highly technical stuff. But Mitchner knew how to turn the background into a character in his book – in fact, it was the essence of his voice. Plus it was a skill he developed over time.

The other sign of a writer writing for himself, according to Enderlin, is over-writing. This is when every detail of a simple action is drawn out in minutia.

Her example went something like, “She got up. She went to the window. She pulled aside the curtains. She pushed open the sash. She looked down. In the garden below she saw a small black dog.”

Her advice was to cut to the chase, which I interpret to be something like, “She pushed open the window and saw a small black dog in the garden below.” (Assuming the dog is important).

Jen’s remark has made me extremely conscious of two-verb sentences in which the first verb is the beginning of an action and the second verbs finishes it . For example, “He reached over and touched her.” Why not just “He touched her?”

Usually the beginning of the action isn’t necessary and slows the pace. You can cut dozens of words from a chapter just by doing a find on “and” and checking the usefulness of the verb that came before it. A real blessing when word count is important, yes, but even more of a blessing in creating that tight prose we all want.

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