I’ve written about this before, as have many of you writers.
When you write a manuscript for a novel, short story, poem, or whatever, you look at your words with a critical (aka incredibly harsh) eye.
Do the words say what you mean to say?
Do the words move the story along?
Are the words worthy of a reader’s time?
Are the words complete and utter drivel?
As a result of such scrutiny of my own words, I inadvertently do the same review of the words in the books I read. It has rather spoiled the pleasure of a quiet afternoon with a book (or Kindle) on my lap.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I am reading a book with an interesting storyline, good character development, and moves along nicely. Except, and this is a big except, the author spends way too much time and ink on mundane details.
We find ourselves with our protagonist at a pivotal moment in her life. Her husband cheated on her and she learned that the man she knows as her father might not be her father. She needs to clear her head and think about the implications of these revelations. The author writes of the momentous moment as such:
“I pulled into the parking lot of Glacier Point, put the car in park, turned off the ignition, took off my seatbelt, opened the door, and walked to look at the view. I felt more calm with Half Dome before me.”
Really? Your husband cheated on you and I should care that you parked your car and took off your seatbelt? Honey, what you need is a shot of Jack Daniels.
Being the editor in my head that I am, I said to myself, “So, smarty pants, since you think you are God’s gift to writing, how would you capture the moment?”
So on a lark (you know how we writers love to write on a lark), I took a stab at capturing what the woman was feeling in the face of devastating news.
“My troubled heart longed for the peace that can be found while gazing upon serenity of Yosemite Valley. I went to Glacier Point and uncorked my bottle of wine as I walked to the edge of the cliff. Without having to mediate, a blanket of calm came over me. God’s church was before me and with that, I could begin to breathe again. Faltering breaths, but they were deeper than any I had taken in days.”
Maybe not Nobel Prize winning prose, but I would say it is better than a description of how to park a car. It is the whole “show don’t tell” thing.
If you write about someone brushing their teeth because they threw up after a drinking binge, you don’t need to tell your reader that they took the cap off the tube of toothpaste, wet the toothbrush, put toothpaste on the toothbrush, brushed their teeth, spit the foam into the sink, and then dried off their mouth.
Maybe you should write:
“With three too many martinis under my belt and an unfortunate encounter with Julio, my head felt like lead and my teeth were wearing wool sweaters. After an intimate moment with my toilet while on my knees, I turned on the bathroom light. It seared my eyes like the searchlights at Alcatraz. When I groped for my toothbrush, every prescription bottle in my medicine cabinet flew like hail over my bathroom floor. I really needed to stop drinking and dump Julio, or whatever his name is.”
The point here is if your character drank too much on an evening out, we don’t need to know the color of her toothbrush. We need to know the color of Julio’s eyes. Use your words to tell us the juicy bits.
Is it just me, or do you want to know more about this Julio dude?