Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Self Editing Advice from Novelist Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy is an award-winning YA novelist who wrote the excellent novels pictured above. His “Divided We Fall” trilogy was painfully prescient about our current moment. How did he get to be such a good writer? He has a skill that every writer needs: rigorous self-editing. I’m Facebook friends with Trent and he uses that forum to humorously beat himself up for things he finds as he self-edits his work, and I asked him if I could reprint some of those here. Here’s a few things we could all learn from Trent:

Avoid needless plot digressions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody wants to read about the oh-so-brave explorers who go on a 3 page venture deep into a hole and back up for no reason. 

Avoid using the same word, even in different forms, in the same sentence:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! “These murderers had murdered members of his crew” Eh. Golly. No. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever

Don’t reuse descriptions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! You can't keep describing every single fast action as happening “in seconds.” Pound Sign: WWE

Don’t describe things the hero wouldn’t notice, even in third person:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody swinging from a cable and crashing through a window into the Burj Khalifa to collide with a sofa is going to take the time to recognize that said sofa is “expensive-looking.” Pound Sign. Worst Writer Ever

Avoid unnecessary adverbs and similes:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. It's just a hallway, even if it’s on a space ship. Nobody cares how they walk down it. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever.

Police yourself for phrases borrowed from other writers:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot, you can’t put “speed born of desperation” into a book. That “I've heard that phrase before” tingling in the back of your mind is right. Just Google it. Pound Sign. Worst Writer.

And, of course, like anyone trying to improve their behavior, sometimes Trent has to tell himself something twice, as these two separate posts attest:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. People can say things. They can shout, yell, and maybe even exclaim, but unless it’s the king, nobody in this book is going to proclaim anything. Pound Sign: dialogue tags on steroids Pound Sign: WWE
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! It is almost never necessary to use “proclaimed” as a dialogue tag. If the words themselves don't convey a proclamation, the tag is never going to make up the difference!

Trent’s brand-new book is “Gamer Army” and it looks fantastic! Check it out right now…


Harvey Jerkwater said...

A piece of editing advice I like a lot: to keep character voices separate, check their dialogue for prepositional phrases and three-syllable words. If those repeat in the speech of different characters, it sounds stilted. (From Howard Tayler in the podcast "Writing Excuses.")

My go-to counter-example is The Goodbye Girl by Neil Simon, in which two characters use the word "amicably" several times in the same conversation. The repetition may have been intended as one character mocking the other by repeating the word choice, but that was not how it came across when I saw it.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

And from John McPhee, nonfiction writing legend, three cool bits from a recent book of his:

When there’s a word that feels not quite right, don’t go to a thesaurus to find a synonym, go to the dictionary, a good one. The dictionary explains and rephrases the meanings of words, which can be fruitful. Also, since the dictionary is a precise tool, you run less risk of accidental imprecision.

Consider the magazine editorial step of “greening.” An editor writes on a draft the word "green" and a number, then returns it to the author. The number is the number of lines the piece needs to be shortened to fit in the space available in the magazine. The author has to go through the piece with a green pencil and cross out individual words or phrases to get it to the right length. The trick to greening is that you're not removing substance - everything you wrote still has to be there - but you have to say it in fewer words. McPhee and Calvin Trillin swear a "greening" pass improves their prose.

When referencing anything, it’s wise to “pay back” the reference. Don’t say that “he looked like Wilford Brimley,” because that assumes the reader knows who Wilford Brimley is. Better to write “he had the aged solidity, walrus mustache, and disapproving eyes of a Wilford Brimley.”

Unknown said...

"Don’t describe things the hero wouldn’t notice, even in third person."
I've been thinking about this one a lot lately. It seems to me that a great deal of the magic of "voice" resides in knowing what each character will notice. (Particularly notable in the works of David Mitchell, who seems to have an uncanny ability to embody each character and never makes, say, an angry urban adolescent notice and identify rare birds.)