Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between

Murky Writing

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Anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard has made mistakes, and the process of creating vibrant fiction is rife with potential errors. I should know; I’ve made most of them. Malcolm Gadwell said it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something, and after spending a lot of those hours writing, I can see that he was right. As Jimmy Buffet said:

Simple words can become clever phrases,
And chapters could turn into books.
Yes, if I could just get it on paper.
But it’s harder than it ever looks.

Indeed it is, harder than it ever looks. At least, it is for most of us. But I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can see the mistakes — even in my own writing (because it’s always harder to spot the problems in your own work; you’re just too close to it). That’s half the battle.

There are many reasons why I have reached this point in my writing career. One, of course, is all the practice. Another is all the reading, and by that I don’t mean just reading the really good writing. I also mean reading, shall we say, unpolished writing. Murky writing. Writing where the writing itself, through its unpolished nature, gets in the way of the story. And the fact is, all good writing starts out as unpolished or murky writing, a point Stephen King makes quite clearly in his book, “On Writing.”

Murky writing can be fixed, of course. And that’s kind of the point. We all strive to make our writing better, and with time we do get better. But here’s the cool thing: no matter how good you get as a writer, you can always get even better. You SHOULD always be getting better, if you’re doing it right. Language is such an amazing and complex process that no one ever gains total mastery over it. I don’t think total mastery is even possible. Those 26 letters in English alone can form a virtually infinite number of words, and those words can form a virtually infinite number of sentences, and those sentences can be used to create a virtually infinite number of stories. How could any one person master an infinity piled on top of an infinity piled on top of another infinity of possibilities? (Though, granted, some people have come perilously close. Here’s where you name William Shakespeare and your other favorite authors who can make prose sing.)

So, all that being said, here are a few mistakes that writers (including me) make that clouds their prose and impedes their stories. These are mistakes that I’ve seen in nearly every self-published novel I’ve read — or started to read and couldn’t finish.

1) Too many words. And by too many words, I don’t mean the novel is too long (though it may well be). I mean the writer is using more words than necessary to get the information across. Extra explanation and extra exposition. These extra words clog up the prose and impede the story. Why make the reader sift through lots of extra words to get the meaning, when the meaning becomes abundantly clear and precise with fewer words? The trick to clear writing is to use only the absolute minimum number of words necessary to impart the information or get the point across. Any more than that is clutter. Example:

“The conductor called out the name “Rollinsford Station” a few minutes before the train rolled to a stop. Tom grabbed his briefcase and stood. The only other person in the dining car was an old man. He’d boarded at the last station, when most of the other people had disembarked. Now he just sat nursing his drink and didn’t look up when Tom passed him on his way out.”

(Let me establish here that we will never see the train or the old man again, and no one else who was on that train will appear in the ensuing story, nor will their brief mention have any bearing.)

You can make the case that the old man helps set the scene and establishes the moment. You can also say he’s irrelevant, especially since the setting is about to become utterly unimportant when Tom disembarks the train. But let’s leave the old man in for now. What about the rest? Does it matter to the story that everyone else got off at the last stop? No. Does it matter that the old man got on at the last stop? No. All of that is just clutter and can be eliminated.

If the information is not important to the story, if it doesn’t move the story forward, or if it doesn’t establish the present scene or illuminate character, it simply isn’t needed. And I would say that, in most cases, it should do at least two of those things.

Getting rid of extra words can be as simple as eliminating unnecessary “said” attributions in dialogue. Prose also benefits by eliminating a few commonly over-used words, such as:

2) The indeterminate words “seemed” and “something” (and, by extension, “somehow, someone, and sometimes”). These words are dreadfully overused, and they almost never do any good. They cloud prose with vagueness when clarity is required. Every writer should do a global search for these words and eliminate most of them. “Seem” can be used as part of dialogue or inner thought (“It seemed to him that Tom was being a bit vague.”), but when it’s part of exposition it rarely works. “It seemed cold.” No, it either was cold or it wasn’t. Make up your mind. And, in fact, just saying it’s cold is telling, not showing. Another error (see below).

In the same vein, “something” is a throwaway word. “Something like anger rose up within him.” What is “something like anger”? It was either anger or it wasn’t. Diluting the anger with “something” robs the moment of its punch. And again, this is telling, not showing. And since I’m on the subject:

3) Telling instead of showing. We all hear this a zillion times. It’s drilled into us. “Show, don’t tell.” Yet we all still do it. I know I do. The key is spotting it and eliminating it. Often this “telling” is as simple as using a couple of sentences to summarize an incident or a series of actions that precipitated the present fictional moment. I call this “in-place flashback” (as opposed to actual flashback sequences where action is shown). Sometimes summarizing previous events is unavoidable. Obviously, we don’t want to show everything, only that which is necessary to the story. But if there’s too much summarizing, it bogs things down. It usually means there’s a problem with the story itself. Too much telling makes the story go dead to the reader. The action and tension die.

Generally, if those preceding actions were important, they should be shown. If they were not that important, can they be eliminated? If they cannot be eliminated because they are critical to setting the current scene, but not important enough to expand into a scene, then keep them short and move on. Or re-write the scene.

At a one-on-one at a conference once, an agent told me that there was too much telling in the ten pages she saw. I was shocked. I had gone over those pages a zillion times, polishing them to make them shine. I thought I was showing. But she was right. I looked again with fresh eyes, and I, too, saw too much telling. Too much summarizing. I had to go back and breathe life into those pages.

4) The word “as.” Every writer should do a global search for this word in every manuscript and eliminate 95% of them. “As” is used most frequently to denote simultaneous actions, but in reality, actions are rarely simultaneous. One almost always occurs before the other. Even worse, I have noticed that when a writer uses “as” in this way, the action after the word “as” almost always occurred before the action that preceded the word. This forces the reader to do mental gymnastics to put the actions in the proper time sequence. It’s probably subliminal, but it still is like throwing sand in the fictional gears.

I see “as” used in this manner way too frequently in unpolished and/or self-published work. It drives me nuts. Here’s an example:

“The engine roared as he pressed on the accelerator.” Obviously, he would have to have pressed on the accelerator first, or the engine would not have been fed the fuel to make it roar. It would be much more direct to say: “He pressed on the accelerator and the engine roared.” This reads more clearly and doesn’t make the reader have to do a miniature, mental time flip to make the sentence make sense.

The word “while” is often used in a similar way and to similar ill effect.

I’ll no doubt have more to say about these subjects, as well as other elements of language and writing, but for now I hope other writers out there in blog-land may find these observations useful.


Author: jimmastro2

I've rescued wild dolphins, trained seals and sea lions, scuba-dived in the gloom under 15 feet of ice, done stand-up comedy, directed plays, and spent winters in Antarctica. I've been a biologist, professional dancer, laboratory manager, college professor, drummer in a band, professional diver, research assistant, photographer, surfer, and water skier. Now I write full time (except when I'm directing plays -- or surfing). Originally from San Diego, I now live in New England with my wife, son, and a small dust mop masquerading as a dog.

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