Writing is the fruit of our labor and, like making a great apple pie, benefits from paring the tasteless bits. I’m not much of a baker but I know something about wordsmithing. I write, I read, I critique. One of my big bugaboos is wading through clumps of words that don’t contribute to story. It happens even in professionally published work but less experienced writers flub more often. First drafts are especially susceptible, resulting in boxcars of useless words. It compares to the yakking of a teenage girl.
Brandy twirled a wisp of her platinum hair. “So, like, I said to, um, him, ‘Like, when should we like do it, like, I mean, I wanna, you know, like, get to know you better before we, like, make a big deal out of this, like, um, you know?’”
Not much said here though it might be great birth control. An obvious vacancy of thoughtful dialogue so deep you’re rolling your eyes. Me too. But there’s a lesson here in how to tell when to excise surplus keystrokes. In short, how to make your book pound instead of dribble. Unless Brandy is an important character in your book, kill this baby. If she’s a person you just gotta have in your community, limit her vocalization to a paragraph no longer than the one above, and sprinkle the book with as few, but glinting, examples as possible. Readers will get the picture as soon as she bedazzles the page.
Dialogue is a challenge. We want our stories to be peopled with folks who sound like they’ve been raised on a dairy farm in Minnesota. “Ispoze ya dint bring in da meelk, deedja?” Or work in a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama. “I mi-aght could carry yo’all the can o’ beans but I don’t got a mi-and to do tha-et juss yet.” The strength of these examples is the trope and accents that pinpoint Minnesotan and Alabaman culture, imparting richness to the human landscape of your story.
Even in ordinary speech, a writer must limit words to propel the action of the story while still saying everything essential. Where to pare demands editing skill. Here’s a simplistic example of editing to improve content.
First take: It’s also the thing that makes me scared. The sentence drags with word stuffing.
Second take: It’s also what makes me scared. Pared down, still bursting with fluff.
Third take: It also makes me scared. Getting there.
Fourth take: It scares me. Now it’s powerful.
I often encounter vacuous dialogue when reviewing the unpublished work from my critique group. It’s the function of our members to help fellow writers build the suspense and insight that create good story, so even if my book is not being critiqued, I learn much from listening to the assessments about other works. Recently we read a chapter from a book long been in the WIP stage, the writer struggling but determined. Interestingly, even the newer members grasped the essential problem with the story. I’ve disguised the following section.
Ernie dialed his son. “Hello, son, this is your dad.”
“Hey, dad, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine, son, how are you?”
“Oh I’m OK. Getting ready to move in to the new place.”
“That’s good. Did you get the package I sent?”
“Yeah, that was nice.”
The cat jumped onto the table. Ernie scratched her neck as she rubbed his arm. “Well, got to run. I’ll talk to you again later.”
“OK, bye, dad.”
The son is being released from prison. His father hasn’t seen him in a year. The book attempts to ascertain where the young man’s life went so wrong. It hints at the lack of substantial connection between father and son and the ineffective parenting that let him drift away from a promising life into criminal conduct. But the story beats around the real drama between parent and son and presents empty dialogue in place of true insight. It could have been a scene exposing the conflict between the two and the chasm into which the son fell. Following is an imaginary rewrite.
Ernie pinched the bridge of his nose while dialing his son. He heard the irritation in Brett’s voice as soon as he answered.
“What’s up, dad? I’m awful busy, trying to get settled in my new place.”
“Sure, son, that’s why I sent a few things to help you out.”
“Really, a pack of socks? You think that’ll do it?”
Ernie had been hoping for a gracious thank you, but this was so typical of his kid. He tried to find an acceptable response that wouldn’t raise Brett’s ire, but the boy rushed into his next complaint.
“Ever think you could send me some cash so I can buy what I want? Or maybe put in a word with that buddy of yours at the auto shop and help get me a job?”
“He doesn’t know about you getting out…”
“Course not, none of your buddies know I been in the joint. You never talk about me, do you? Less you make up crap about how I’m away at school or whatever shit you say.”
Ernie’s jaw ached, the pain shooting up to explode the top of his head. “I’ll send some money in the next letter. How you feeling now, being out of there?”
“Out of the joint, dad, out of prison. Why can’t you say it?”
Brett was right. Ernie couldn’t face that he was out of prison because he couldn’t face he’d been incarcerated in the first place. He had no strength to talk about his boy’s actions that led to criminal behavior. “I care about…”
“Sure you do, dad, talk to you later.”
His son’s slammed phone cranked the pain in Ernie’s head no matter how gently he put down the receiver. He knew nothing about his boy.
The passage is longer, but it illustrates the friction between father and son. I shouldn’t rewrite someone else’s story, but I wanted to suggest how drivel can be turned into drama. Apple fruit, not parings.
Paring apples is perfect summer activity. Sharpen your knife and get to work.
Image courtesy Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples