Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Imposing "Write Tight" Rule

A tendency that I suffer from on my writing journey is swinging the pendulum.  I commit some heinous writer’s crime, turn into a blubbering fool over red ink splashed on my manuscript then vow never to violate the rule again.  As the pendulum swings to the pinnacle on the other side, I commit the antithesis writer's crime. 

I’ve grabbed my tissue, blown my nose and wiped my eyes.  I’m ready to give the true confessions of a write-tight-a-holic.

I thought writing tight meant carte blanche to cut descriptors of my characters and settings.  Who needed flowery descriptors of cobwebs hanging down from a skeleton wedged in rafters twenty feet overhead or details about a girl’s voluptuous walnut-brown eyes? The action would set the stage and jump-start my reader’s imagination into picturing each character and setting in his own way. True?

No? But my writing teacher said write tight, right?  That means cut words--make your point and move on to the next scene.

I thought writing tight meant cutting every adverb from the entire manuscript.  Not just –ly adverbs, but every adverb.  Did you know “not” is an adverb?  Thou shalt write strong verbs and meaningful nouns.  I searched my manuscript for any adverb with my handy-dandy “find” feature. I strangled each one with the delete key.  Muwahaha.  Even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t detect an adverb trace. 

I took these and other write tight rules to the extreme and sucked the life out of my novel. 

1.     Characters melted in a stagnant slough
2.     The plot turned to Swiss cheese--moldy Swiss cheese
3.     Themes turned monotone
4.     The flow had been dammed up with rules.
5.   My writing voice suffered from laryngitis

I needed help.  Thats when God reminded me of the saying: All things in moderation.

I scanned William Brohaugh’s Write Tight book for clues and found blessed chapter nine. “How Tight Is Too Tight?”  Brohaugh discusses: when tight writing robs rhythm, misdirects emphasis, draws away from the content, reduces clarity and other occasions when the pendulum might swing towards too tight writing including my favorite: when tight writing is just plain wrong.  I couldn’t believe he wrote those words!

Brohaugh gave me permission to use the necessary words to convey a thought, word paint a setting, breathe life into characters, proclaim a theme, weave a plot, and instill excitement, fear, hope, joy, trauma, etc. Next week I'll discuss how to steady the pendulum when writing tight.

I leave you with a parting example worthy of Goldilocks and porridge:

Too Tight:  Jeff ate the poisoned apple then died.

Too Loose:  Jeff gratefully gave into his hunger pains, reached into the overflowing teak fruit bowl on the marble kitchen counter by the porcelain dog-shaped cookie jar, and ravenously snatched the very first red delicious apple he touched. He hurriedly thrust the apple into his mouth and forcefully chomped deep into the white flesh.  Choosing not to delay satisfying his anguish, he roughly swallowed the meat whole. As he quickly drew the tantalizing apple near his face again he briefly noticed two tiny syringe-like holes near the stem. Jeff gasped in utter terror as he fearfully recalled the words of the illusive Mr. Black, and weakly collapsed on the cool red terracotta floor and died.

Just Right:  Jeff gave into his hunger pains. He snatched an apple from the kitchen and gulped the first bite before chewing. As he drew the fruit to his face again he noticed two syringe-like holes near the stem.  He gasped in terror as Mr. Black’s words replayed in his mind, “You’ll never survive to testify.”  The room swirled.  Jeff grabbed the counter to steady himself.  He couldn’t focus. A dark cloud enveloped him and yanked his testimony to the grave.

Learning newbie writing rules is important. Balancing the spirit of these rules is crucial. What rule have you sparred with in your writing journey?


Sandra Stiles said...

Oh thank you so much. As I am trying to re-work my first manuscript I was doing just as you did. I didn't like what it was turning into. Thanks for the heads up on the book.

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

You're welcome. Thanks for stopping by Sandra.
I plan to swing the pendulum the other way next week--anyone see Vincent Price?

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Mary, you are so smart! I have struggled with this very thing and felt like my story was slowly losing it's voice. Everything in moderation is such a good statement, isn't it? Great post!

Casey said...

I really love this post, Mary. I laughed aloud at your excerpts, but that is so right and when you are so new (myself included) everything needs to be followed, everything needs to be obeyed, the stress, ah the worry! But I think God freed you up to write... right? I agree with Sherrinda, great post!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Thanks Sherrinda and Casey
My teen daughter and I had so much fun writing the "too loose" version. We hunted for verbs to shove creative adverbs before and joked about how many adjectives we could shove before a noun. While that paragraph took the longest to write...I must admit my daughter and I had a fall on the floor and laugh session at how ridiculous it sounded when finished.
Maybe that's the key. By writing the too loose version, it really helped me to see what the just right version needed to look like. Something way better than the "too tight" sentence.

Casey said...

I think that is neat that your daughter helped you. I did get a kick out of all the adverbs. :)

this is not very me said...

Jeff snatched an apple from the kitchen and gulped the first bite. As he bit again he noticed two syringe-like holes near the stem. Mr. Black’s words replayed in his mind, “You’ll never survive to testify.” The room swirled. He tried to steady himself. A dark cloud overcame him and sent his testimony to the grave.

Carla Gade said...

Thanks, I needed that!

Bill Brohaugh said...

Excellent example of using my point about tightening up too much, to the point of barren prose. And thank you for the kind words about Write Tight. Have fun with the writing, and here's to an energetic and productive 2011 for us all.

--Bill Brohaugh