Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Editing, Wordiness, and Sucking Majorly

I've been spending the past few months re-writing my sci-fi book 'Formland' within an inch of its life. Has the plot changed? Barely. Have the characters undergone any massive shifts? Not one bit. Have I had to fix any major plot-holes that violated the fictional rules of the world I had created - well, a little. But that's not what I've been spending hour after hour over the course of months doing.

I've been just trying to make the story I already wrote not suck. The main way in which it seemed to me to suck was the way it was written.

Everybody learns different things at different rates, and I guess somewhere in my first year and four months of writing, I had yet to learn that a good story that is written like crap will be no more enjoyable than being beaten up with a really beautiful baseball bat. How do we define 'crap?'

Like pornography, I think we all know it when we see it. As I've hacked over 6k out of the first 20 manuscript pages of my book (which was 106 pages and 96,000 words long before I began re-writing), I feel I've developed a better sense for 'knowing' this crap when I see it.

But talk is cheap (otherwise I wouldn't have cut out those six thousand words!). I thought I would give myself a little writing exercise, and then share the results with you. I encourage you to try this yourself.

It's easy. Take one of your favorite books of all time, a book you can't imagine being any better. (It helps for our purposes if this book is in digital form.) Now, choose a scene at semi-random: I say 'semi' because I don't want you to go necessarily for your favorite scene or the most exciting scene, yet I want you to pick a scene you feel is exciting, has some kind of action, and above all drives the plot forward in some way. Not even in a big way - it just can't be a sort of 'deleted scene' flashback that wouldn't affect the scope of the entire book.

For my scene, I pulled open an e-copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. I must have read that book a billion times when I was 9 alone, and my battered original paperback copy has the BBQ sauce stains to prove it. Spamming my page down key, I chose a suitable scene from around the middle: Tim Murphy stuck in the jeep in the tree, alone and desperate to get out of the Land Cruiser before being smashed into squab. If you don't know that scene, my writing advice then becomes 'develop some clue whatsoever.'

So I hacked 1,343 words out of the source document: I started at the beginning of the chapter and went until the first space between paragraphs, i.e. the first block paragraph. This seemed like plenty for this experiment. (I still haven't told you what the experiment is, building either tension or apathy in you. I can tell it must be tension because by this point, your apathy would have led you to stop reading). Then I started a file, pasted the scene in, and saved it as 'Jurassic Park Experiment,' which sounds much more frightening than what it was.

And now, for the meat and potatoes: I then tried to insert as many phrases and words into the scene as I possibly could without changing the underlying words. I added phrases that seemed 'descriptive,' I added adverbs, I gave backstory. I added 'flourishes.'

And, aside from my continued insertion of 'suddenly' in an attempt to show how pointless that word is in a story, I tried to put things that might seem normal to add in when writing - things that, at the time, seem like they are providing detail:

'Should I explain what this pain felt like to Tim's skin? YES! Should I tell the reader what the creaky metal door's creaky sound sounded like? Why the hell not! Sure, he's trying to lift the door handle and can't, but if I don't specifically say so, will my reader understand that he tried his hardest to turn the handle? Probably not!'

He didn't just crawl away from the falling metal jeep that could have killed him, he crawled hurriedly away. Don't want the readers thinking he was calm and collected while this van was trying to smoosh him! Better make it completely clear that being scratched enough to draw blood hurt, that running away from the jeep was scary, and above all that every unexpected movement was sudden.

The original scene was 1,343 words - it was tight, made sense, clearly painted what was happening in the mind. My nine-year-old self never threw down the book in outrage at this point, demanding to know if the bleeding scratches hurt or if nearly being smashed was frightening. I have no memories of screaming 'But you didn't expressly state that the unexpected lurching movement of the jeep was sudden! How can I be expected to buy into this crap!?!'

My pointless additions seldom added a sentence - I strove to merely add to the sentences that already existed. The excerpt grew by 150%. Nothing was added that helped progress the story - indeed the additions severely muddied it - and yet these simple 'descriptive' phrases and useless comments and adverbs have made a less than two manuscript page excerpt three full pages long.

This experiment has really made me realize the difference between a story and writing, and I shudder to think what the six pages of pointless crap I have removed from 'Formland' would have done to the flow of it's story.

Anyway, for your excitement and perusal I have included the results of my experiment. The boldened portions are the material I have added. To the estate of the late Michael Crichton, my apologies for the use of the good man's work but also my opinion that if someone reads two pages of Jurassic Park they will be filled with a need to read the rest, rather than feel satiated and not buy it.

Chapter - Tim

Tim Murphy lay in the Land Cruiser, his cheek pressed against the car door handle like a lover in a ballroom dance. He drifted slowly back to consciousness, feeling tendrils of wakefulness trying to spread themselves within his mind. He fought them off - he wanted only to sleep. He shifted his position, and felt the pain in his cheekbone where it lay against the metal door spark through him like electricity. His whole body ached, as though he had been exercising vigorously. His arms and his legs and most of all his head-there was a terrible pounding pain in his head. All the pain made him want to go back to sleep: an unfeeling sleep where no discomfort could trouble him.

He pushed himself up on one wobbly elbow, opened his groggy eyes,
and retched thickly, vomiting viscous slime all over his shirt.
He tasted sour bile and felt a second wave of revulsion as he wiped his
mouth with the back of his hand. His head throbbed like the inside of a
; he felt dizzy and seasick, as if the world were moving, as if he
were rocking back and forth on a boat in a tempest.

Tim groaned, and rolled agonizingly onto his back, turning disgustedly away from the puddle of reeking vomit. The pounding pain in his head made him breathe in short, shallow gasps, like a beached whale waiting for death. And he still felt intolerably sick, as if everything were moving in slow, concentric circles around him. He opened his eyes and looked around the dark, ominous woods surrounding him, trying to get his bearings in this terrifying situation.

He could tell that he was still inside the Land Cruiser. But the car must have flipped over on its side like a tipped cow, because he was lying on his back, pressed against the passenger door and looking up at the steering wheel and beyond, at the branches of a distant tree, moving in the wind, indifferent to Tim’s sufferings. The torrential rain had nearly stopped, but intermittent water drops still fell on him through branching fissures in the broken front windshield.

He stared curiously at the fragments of glass as though he had never seen them before. He couldn't remember how the windshield had broken. Hell, he couldn't remember anything except that they had been parked on the road and he had been talking to his idol Dr. Grant when the massive tyrannosaur came galloping toward them like a beast unloosed from the most depraved inmate’s darkest dreams. That was the very last thing he remembered.

He felt suddenly sick again, and closed his eyes tightly shut until the wave of nausea passed. He then became aware of a rhythmic creaking sound, like the rigging of a boat. Dizzy as a drunk, and sick to his stomach, he really felt as if the whole car really were moving beneath him. But when he opened his eyes yet again, he saw it was true-the Land Cruiser he had awakened to find himself in was moving, lying on its side, swaying back and forth like a snake-charmer.

The whole car was somehow moving.

Tentatively, not knowing what to think or do, Tim rose to his feet. Standing precariously on the passenger door, he propped himself up on his elbows and peered over the glass-shard covered dashboard, looking out through the jagged fragments of the shattered windshield. At first he saw only dense foliage, moving in the wind. But here and there he could see gaps, and beyond the foliage, the ground was-

The ground was a full twenty feet below the place where Tim sat.

He stared uncomprehendingly. The scene he now descried made little or no rational sense. The Land Cruiser was lying on its side in the gnarled branches of a large tree, twenty feet above the ground, swaying back and forth in the wind like a hulking, metallic palm tree.

"Oh shit," he said, ignoring his mother’s admonitions to never speak language like that in his fear. What was he going to do in this desperate situation? He stood on his tiptoes and peered out into the darkness, trying to see better, grabbing the steering wheel for support for his shaken frame. The wheel spun free in his hand, and with a sudden, loud crack the Land Cruiser shifted position, dropping down a few feet further in the twisted branches of the old tree. He looked down, peering through the shattered glass of the passenger-door window at the ground so far below.

"Oh shit. Oh shit." He kept repeating it. Ordinarily, his ten-year old self would have relished getting away with such a string of profanity. Now, however, he felt only fear. "Oh shit. Oh shit."

Another loud, vicious, sudden crack-the Land Cruiser jolted down another foot.

A sudden realization occurred to him: he had to get out of here.

He once more looked down at his feet. He seemed to be standing on the door handle. Wonderingly, he crouched back down on his hands and knees to get a better look at the handle. He couldn't see very well in the dark shroud of night, but he could tell that the door had been dented outward so that the handle couldn't turn properly. He'd never be able get the door open with conditions like that. He tried his best to roll the window down, but the window was stuck solidly shut, as well. Then he suddenly thought of the back door. Maybe he could find a way to open that. He leaned over the front seat to accomplish his goal, and the Land Cruiser suddenly lurched with the abrupt shift in weight.

Carefully, as though his life depended on it (which it may well have), Tim reached back and twisted the straight metal handle on the rear door’s surface.

This handle was stuck, too.

How was he going be able to find a way to get out?

He heard a sort of snorting sound beneath him and looked down. A large and dark shape passed lumberingly below him. It wasn't the tyrannosaur, luckily enough. This shape was tubby, like a fat rhino, and it made a kind of snuffling sound as it waddled along. The thing’s tail flopped back and forth like an eager cat’s, and Tim could see the long spikes sticking proudly out from the tail’s end.

It was the stegosaur, and it had apparently made a full recovery from its mysterious illness. Tim wondered where the other people who had been with him now were: Gennaro and Sattler and the vet, who’s name Tim could not recall. He had last seen that group near the stegosaur. How long ago had that been, exactly? He looked quickly down at his digital watch, but the face had been cracked; he couldn't see the numbers anymore. He took the now-useless watch off and tossed it aside.

Beneath him, the scuffling stegosaur snuffled about before deciding to move. Now the only sound Tim could hear was the whispering wind
in the trees, and the metallic creaking of the Land Cruiser’s frame as it shifted back and forth amongst the branches.

There was no question about it whatsoever in Tim’s mind: he had to get out of here.

Tim viciously grabbed the door’s handle, tried to force it with all of his might, but the handle really did seem to be stuck solid. Despite Tim’s best efforts, it wouldn't move at all. Then, with a sudden flash of insight, he realized what was wrong: the rear door had been, at some point unknown to him, locked! Tim pulled up the small pin that locked the door and once more twisted the door’s handle. Finally, the rear door swung open, downward, with a loud metal screech - and came to rest with a small buffeting sound against a branch situated a few feet below.

The opening was very narrow, but Tim thought that with a little effort
he could wriggle his way through it. Holding his breath like a deep sea diver, he crawled slowly back into the car’s rear seat. The Land Cruiser creaked, but despite the shift managed to hold its position. Tightly gripping the doorposts on both sides, Tim then began to slowly lower himself down, through the narrow angled opening of the door. He mentally
congratulated himself, for s
oon he was lying flat on his stomach on the slanted door, his legs now sticking out of the car. He could feel the door handle sticking into his stomach uncomfortably. He kicked in the air and smiled as his feet touched something solid-a branch-and he rested his full weight on it.

As soon as he had managed to do so, the branch bent down under his weight and the door swung wider, spilling him violently out of the Land Cruiser, and he fell to the earth below-leaves scratching his face-his body bouncing from branch to branch-a jolt-searing pain, bright light in his head-

He slammed to a sudden stop, the wind knocked completely out from him. Tim lay doubled over a large, gnarled branch, his stomach burning pain.

Tim heard another loud crack rip through the night air and looked up at the hulking Land Cruiser, a big dark shape only five feet above him.

Another crack broke through the night. The car shifted its position.

Tim, filling with fear, forced himself to move, to climb down. He recalled
from his younger days how h
e used to like to climb trees. His father had even complimented him on it once – a rarity in Tim’s childhood. He was a good tree-climber. And this was a good tree to climb, the way it’s the branches were spaced close together made it almost like climbing a staircase. . . .

Crackkkk . . .

Tim could see that, like it or not, the car was definitely moving.

Tim then began to scramble downward, slipping over the wet branches, feeling sticky sap on his hands, hurrying as fast as he possibly could. Exerting himself fully, he had not descended more than a few feet when the massive Land Cruiser creaked a final time, and then slowly, very slowly, nosed over. Tim, horrified, could see the big green grille and the front headlights swinging down at him, coming right for his face, and then the Land Cruiser fell free like a boulder from a tower, gaining momentum as the thing’s hulking bulk rushed toward him, slamming against the branch where Tim had just been-

And it suddenly stopped.

His face, wrinkled now in a look of fear, was just inches from the dented grille, which bent inward almost like an evil mouth, a sinister face with glowering headlamps for eyes. Acrid oil dripped on Tim's face, it felt warm.

Tim saw that he was still twelve feet above the ground. That wouldn’t do at all. He reached his way down, found yet another branch, and moved his way down once more. Above him, he could see the tree’s branch bending under the weight of the Land Cruiser’s metal body, and then it cracked like a branch struck by lightning, and the Land Cruiser came rushing down toward him with a murderous finality, and he knew that try as he might, he could never escape it, that no matter how he strove or struggled, he would never be able to get down fast enough, so Tim just let go.

He, his eyes clenched shut and wind whipping around his hair, fell the rest of the way to the earth below.

Tumbling as he fell, banging his head and limbs against rough bark, feeling shooting, stabbing pain rip through every part of his young, weak body, hearing the earsplitting sound of the ruined Land Cruiser smashing down through the snapping branches after him like a pursuing animal intent on its meal, and then Tim's shoulder hit the soft ground, and he rolled himself away as hard as he possibly could, and pressed his tense body against the hoary trunk of the tree as the doomed Land Cruiser tumbled the rest of the way down with a loud metallic crash that rang in the air for seconds afterwards, and a sudden hot burst of flying electrical sparks that stung his skin painfully and sputtered and sizzled out on the wet ground all around him.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting....I think that experiment is a good idea. I can definitely think of a few published authors who would benefit from it :P