SYWTBAW: Anatomy of a Rejection, part two–"Resist the Urge to Explain"

My interview with Superromance senior editor Victoria Curran delved into a very in-depth look at my manuscript, which she did say was quite well written. (Yay!) Of course, there's always room for improvement, and I learned a whole bunch of stuff. Here are some more talking points from our interview:

Writing Style

Victoria said she loved my writing for the most part. Said it was a pleasure to read because it was so clean and exact. But its exactness slowed things down--she called it "one-note pacing." Details were actually slowing down the action, and gumming up moments of intense emotion.

Once she mentioned it, it jumped right out at me as I took a gander at my MS, so out came the (proverbial) red pen.

Here's an example (not one she pointed out), ripped straight out of my rejected manuscript, Fighting for Her Love:

“Hi, Mom!” Sean greeted, wiping the back of his hand over his brow. “This is Mr. Payette. He’s teaching me how to fight.”

Dom sent her his most brilliant lady-killer smile. “It’s Dom to my friends.”

The invitation to intimacy went unacknowledged. She scowled. “What do you think you’re doing?” she repeated.

He blinked slowly, hearing the tetchy notes plucking her voice. “Sean very graciously volunteered to help me move my stuff in. He asked if I could teach him some self-defense moves.”

You can almost hear the stuttering stop and go that stalled what was supposed to be a charged moment for the hero and heroine upon their first meeting.

It seemed my formula for describing a scene went like this: "[Dialogue]," [dialogue tag], [action to describe speaker's state of mind], or some such iteration of this. While most schools of writing tell you to always be exact, it shouldn't come at the sacrifice of the pacing, or the reader's ability to imagine the scene for him or herself.

Another issue tied to this was my tendency to describe emotional states as living things. Some examples: "Outrage sparked hotly...", "Guilt slid through her like a fileting knife...", "Remorse twisted through him like a shredded flag in a windstorm..."

Okay, I made that last one up, but I've probably used it somewhere.

I don't remember if I ever wrote like this until I started reading romances steadily. Describing what an emotion is doing or how a reaction affects a character as though it's a separate entity is a method of writing often adopted to escape using the passive voice. Instead of "He was angry," or "He got mad," the emotion itself acts on the character's behalf. Victoria called it a "movement of emotion."

The funny thing is that I've spent the better part of my life writing much more sparingly. But the romance genre has always demanded a little more purple prose, and as I wrote this MS, I remember actively including metaphors and similes where I really didn't need them simply because it was how they were written

When I pointed out to Victoria that it seemed to be the norm to write romance in this fashion, she said, "I know. But I love spare writing. And there's a slow movement away from the tropes of the genre." Part of that, I assume, might be so that more romance stories are accessible to the general reading public.

On my writing style, Victoria gave me this advice:

"Resist the urge to explain."

Back to my original point--exactness is good, yes, but less is more. The reader can fill in the blanks--he or she doesn't need a step-by-step description of everything that happens. It's not necessary to describe the heroine spilling milk, [insert some dialogue], pick up a dish cloth and run it under water, [dialogue] and wipe the spill up.

Victoria recommended a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (She wasn't exactly sure of the title, but I will confirm this.) She also quoted two points from Elmore Leonard's Ten Points on Writing:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

I knew the "Don't use 'ly' words" rule from my high school writer's craft class. But using only the attribution "s/he said" was something I picked up in journalism school, and it always felt a little stilted and repetitive in fiction, especially when characters got into long conversations.

So if you're not supposed to use other dialogue tags, and I don't like using said all the time, what's a girl to do?

Two things:

1) Make sure the dialogue tone and voice makes the speaker clear. The litmus test is to remove the dialogue tags to see if you can identify the speakers. A random example:

"Oh! You...you charlatan! My father will have you thrashed!"
"Whatever you say, little lady. Though I doubt Big Daddy'll be able to find me."
"The constabulary will deal with you then. Assaulting a lady!"
"I doubt it, sugar lips. You were in that kiss, too."

You can hear distinctly the kind of character speaking by the colloquialisms, the tone, the vocabulary, etc. Of course, writing good dialogue that can do this for you is a whole other lesson.

2) Actions speak louder than words. So if you want to show (instead of tell) the reader who's speaking, give the speaker something to do.

"Oh! You...you charlatan!" She pulled her skirts down. "My father will have you thrashed!"
"Whatever you say, little lady." His slow smile hooked one corner of his mouth up and crinkled his twinkling blue eyes. "Though I doubt Big Daddy'll be able to find me."
"The constabulary will deal with you then. Assaulting a lady!" She jammed her mashed hat on her head.
He tugged on the brim of his hat and gazed into the distance. "I doubt it, sugar lips. You were in that kiss, too."

For pacing's sake, vary it. Don't put actions and tags in every sentence.

More to come from my interview with Victoria!

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