Second-hand advice (2): Specificity

I recently wrote a story for a specific open call, and upon completion found that it had exceeded the maximum word count indicated in the guidelines. This was not terribly surprising. I tend to run wordy anyway, and this particular anthology was based around something of a double-theme, which naturally meant I tried to cram twice as much information into the narrative as I might have otherwise. If the preceding context seems overly vague, I beg forgiveness; but since I haven’t heard back from the publisher in question as of yet, I don’t want to jinx myself by naming names. However, the very concept of vagueness makes an excellent springboard into my second-hand advice for today: make your writing specific.

There are two very good reasons to follow this advice. One has to do with establishing your authority. It should be obvious, if nothing else due to the common root of the words, that the author of the story is the authority on everything that happens in it. Yet many a writer, particularly early on in finding his or her voice, declines to embrace this notion. And I include myself in their number, though I try to increase my awareness of this tendency and fight against it. I imagine there’s an element of humility, real or affected, coupled with a fear of failure. To create something and put it out in the world is hard enough without imagining hypothetical critics challenging your claims. Better to hedge your bets, to provide an easy escape hatch in the form of equivocations and approximations.

Except, no, that’s not better. Ambiguity is rarely memorable, and a timid author who doesn’t trust himself or herself won’t earn the trust of readers, either. Moreover, if you are writing genre fiction of any stripe, there’s even less reason to build wiggle-room into your statements. It’s one thing to avoid specifying how many miles a person walked before collapsing in exhaustion, fearing that someone somewhere with an advanced degree in kinesiology would nitpick the details. Guarding against the possibility that someone will challenge an assertion as to how many miles a vampire can fly in a single night misses the point of writing fantastical stories in the first place.

The second reason to commit to specificity is because it will make your writing cleaner, tighter, and ultimately better. Backing away from precise descriptions usually involves including qualifiers, which in turn are almost always filler words. Stating something definitively can be done in fewer words. Lowering a story’s word count is sometimes helpful when writing within editorial constraints, but even if you find yourself with a 4200 word tale in response to a call for stories between 1000 and 10,000, the 3900 word version of your story would probably be the more dynamic one.

Below are some of my suggestions for revising a draft to increase specificity and lower overall word counts, all of which begin by typing a keyword into your search function and considering every instance found in your story.

Almost – There are a couple of ways “almost” (or synonyms like “nearly”, “not quite”, etc.) works its way into narratives: physical descriptions and actions. Often a thug is “nearly seven feet tall” or a femme fatale’s hair and makeup are “almost flawless”. And there is just as often some logic underpinning the word choice. To be exactly seven feet tall must be rare, not to mention hard to gauge unless the person in question is standing next to a measuring tape. And nothing is ever perfectly without flaw, so in order to sound like we know how the world works we must make allowances. But this logic isn’t worth much. If word count is your main concern, you have two choices: let the thug be “seven feet tall”, or describe him as “towering”, which is evocative without quantifying. “Nearly seven feet tall” wasn’t precisely quantifying, either, even quadrupling the words. If you don’t care about adding more words, then insert a metaphorical yardstick to measure against. Similarly, let the femme fatale’s look be “flawless”, in the name of poetic license. Or let it be “meticulous”, which implies human effort, and assume your audience is smart enough to understand the inherently imperfect nature of humans.

Actions are also allowed to take advantage of poetic license. Consider the following three sentences:

She ran so fast she almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She almost flew across the room to answer the phone.
She flew across the room to answer the phone.

The first example vastly underestimates the audience, heading off potential confusion about literal flying by relegating it to a modifier of the action already named as running. The second example is better, except for the superfluous “almost”. Reminding readers how figures of speech work by drawing attention to them is not the writer’s job.

The other justification for an almost-action is the counterfactual: “she lost her balance and almost fell off the roof.” She specifically didn’t fall, but not in the exact same way as someone who was never in danger of falling at all. This comes down to pacing, and it may well be best to acknowledge what almost happened in just those terms and move on, but it’s worth at least considering describing the actions that did occur, rather than those that did not.

Start – Or its synonyms, “begin”, “set to”, “embark” etc. By definition, everything that happens had to at some point start happening, in order to no longer not be happening. Rarely does this need to be specified.

My alarm started to shriek.
My alarm shrieked.
The sun started to rise.
The sun rose. (Or possibly, The sunrise appeared.)
His resolve started to weaken.
His resolve weakened.

There may be reason to refer specifically to the start of something. For instance, to set up the possibility of interruption. Have I seen the Suicide Squad movie? Well, I DVRed it, and started to watch, but got sleepy half an hour in and still haven’t finished it. Alternatively, to tie the beginning of a longer action to a specific point in time. Maybe I shouldn’t have started watching Suicide Squad at 11 PM. Otherwise, focusing on the initiation of an action, rather than the entire action, is arguably too precise, while still resulting in filler words your story could easily do without.

Try – Or “attempt” etc. Effort implies action and vice versa. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and thus you have to try to get out of bed in order to get out of bed. Unless you recognize the truth in “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Much as specifying a “start” can work if being contrasted with a subsequent failure to finish, a specific “try” may be a setup for a resultant failure, as in the victim who tries to scream but finds his voice stolen by terror. In such cases the gap between what is intended and what is possible is the entire point. But consider:

I tried to turn the doorknob. It was unlocked, and the door swung open.
I turned the doorknob, and the door swung open.

The first example makes all kinds of assumptions and preemptive explanations regarding the character not knowing whether the door is locked and thus not being sure if it will open until making an experimental attempt. The second limits itself to observable actions, gets the same points across, and does so in fewer words.

Seem – Or “as if”, “look like” etc. Not to be confused with visual comparisons, as in “his face looked like a moonscape” (although I would argue that metaphors are stronger and better than similes, and would drop and swap words in favor of “his face was a moonscape”) but more egregiously something such as:

She looked like she was reaching for her sword.
She reached for her sword.

Neither of which is as succinct as “She grasped her sword.” “Reached for” is closely related to “start” and “try” in that it only makes sense to acknowledge if the expected outcome will never come to pass. Otherwise, the prelude to the action is less important than the action itself. Moreover, admitting that appearances can be deceiving and intentions are unknowable does not enhance the story (unless that is in fact the theme of said story). It merely makes the author look apologetic, providing excuses up front for contradictions yet to come. Yes, it is possible that she was not grasping her sword, but rather scratching her side, and context should determine how important that is. If the POV character perceives things correctly, and responds accordingly, then dwelling on the other possibilities is moot. If the POV character is mistaken, then describing actions and reactions accurately, without editorializing, will convey everything the reader needs to determine where the disconnect occurred.

As I mentioned at the outset, I’ve been guilty of all of the above, and I tend to use those crutches multiple times per story, to boot. Stripping them all out hasn’t proven to be a magic bullet that shrinks a draft by twenty percent, but every little bit helps, and taking the time to excise the noncommittal phrasings throughout always leaves me feeling better about my writing.

Second-hand Advice (1): Show and tell

I don’t consider myself any kind of expert fiction writer, with my bare handful of published short stories to my name, but I am a longtime student of the endeavor. I consider the learning process to be an ongoing thing, and I have had my fair share of “a ha” moments over the years (and years and years). In some of those cases, I’d like to think that I’ve processed the lessons learned to the extent that I could make a fair attempt at passing them along myself. So, starting with this post and continuing on an irregular basis whenever I’m reminded of an example, I’d like to offer my own takes and insights on some of the things I’ve been taught about writing which I believe bear repeating.

Someone asked recently if it ever got tiring hearing the same old advice over and over again to “show, don’t tell”. It was not so much an indictment of the frequency, or a request for some new advice since the old has been repeated so often that everyone has internalized it and gains nothing from hearing it ad nauseum; it was a genuine questioning of the validity of the advice itself. The asker’s attitude more or less boiled down to “shut up and let me tell my story my way, or if you want a show go to the movies!”

Personally, I don’t ever get tired of being urged to “show, don’t tell”. It’s something I struggle with on the regular, and I consider each and every reminder helpful. I think it goes without saying that it’s good advice for storytelling, but apparently it’s not self-evident, since at least one person is capable of doubting its utility.

Part of the problem, I think, arises from confusion over what exactly is meant by the word “show”. It’s not intended to mean a hyper-focus on visual imagery and descriptive details. It simply means to demonstrate, as in the old math teacher’s insistence to “show your work”.

So, assuming a writer composing a scene in which a protagonist escapes from a prison, the text might read as follows:

Roy slipped through the unlocked door and quickly padded to the end of the corridor, where he bumped into two guards on patrol. He fought his way past the guards, leaving them unconscious in his wake, and continued toward the main gate.

Not the most scintillating prose in the world, I readily admit, but I think it’s perfectly serviceable and, more to the point, it doesn’t violate the spirit of “show, don’t tell”. Yes, it includes a reference to a fight without actually conjuring up a clear blow-by-blow of attacks and injuries. It tells us the fight happened rather than showing it to the audience in detail, but that’s basically a stylistic choice.

Consider, on the other hand, a passage like this:

Roy was normally a pacifist, but he was out for blood now. The evil warden had spent months torturing Roy for no apparent reason, and Roy burned for revenge. Within a few paces of the main gate, he stopped and changed direction, intent on finding the warden and leaving him a permanent reminder of their time together.

This is the kind of writing I would call out for ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. This prose isn’t just condensing action down to a summary level to get the same idea across quickly, it’s asserting value judgments and drawing conclusions, all of which is best left to the readers. The text is telling that Roy is a pacifist, that the warden is evil, that the torture was without cause or explanation, and that Roy has a plan to settle the score. These are the kinds of things that could be shown in less presumptive ways. No need to tell the reader that Roy is a pacifist if he can be observed living that philosophy, or to label the warden as evil if his violations of order and goodness can be narrated.

Not that any of the above is absolutely inviolable. Sometimes “show, don’t tell” feels like beating around the bush. Sometimes a writer might be working in first person and want to state explicit conclusions and value judgments because that’s the way the narrating character thinks about the world. Above all, sometimes breaking a rule is a really effective attention-getting move. But to break a rule in a memorable way, it helps to know why the rule is there in the first place, and the above is how it finally made sense to me.