Writing: Shaving Pains

“We edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
—Arthur Plotnik

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Last week, I started building a metaphor between writing and shaving. In my example metaphor, I had irregular hair patterns after knee surgery that kept drawing the wrong sort of attention in public.

In fiction, anything that calls undue attention to itself is a problem. The secret to a captivating story isn’t just artistic words and phrases, but the camaraderie that exists between them. Every time a reader comes across a misfit word—even a beautiful one—their suspension of disbelief risks being damaged. I tried to read The Fellowship of the Rings in second grade, but I spent more time in the dictionary than in the story. Granted, I probably should have been reading something else at that age, but . . .

One priority for fantasy and science fiction authors is transporting us from our reality into an alternate reality. Words that break that magic, by being inauthentic, confusing, or awkward, should be cut. Even a gentle reader will become a critic if they get bumped from a story one too many times.

Here are a few issues I see often in the manuscripts I read:

Overly Dramatic Adjectives
Overt attributions of emotion/drama (e.g. merciless army, breathtaking vista, furious opponent) should not be used in place of more descriptive narrative.  A reader should feel these things through the actions taken by characters, rather than by getting beaten over the head with the word itself.

Example: “The merciless army advanced upon our breathtaking city.”

A reader can tell if an army is “merciless” independent of the word if the author has already shown (1) the body count, (2) a city in ruins, and (3) a parent so desperate to protect her daughter as to consider killing the child in advance of the army’s arrival. All of these things do a better job of casting an invading army as “merciless” than the word itself.

Smart words
Sesquipedalian. Pontificate. Prognisticate. It’s fun to show people how smart you are, but words like these score way more points on a Scrabble board than they do in a manuscript. There are exceptions—a character that uses big words to annoy your protagonist (and readers), perhaps?—but generally, if it isn’t an everyday sort of word, think carefully about using it.

Example:  “As he ran, Vance cursed himself for not being more perspicacious.”

One of my beta readers marked this word out in bold red strokes and replaced it with the more pedestrian word “clever.” This alters the meaning slightly, but works better for commercial fiction.

Awkward Expressions
These are expressions that get in the way of the story. They often stem from an author’s desire to be poetic, or say things in a new way, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth to the average reader. If the average reader has to spend too much time decoding a book of idiosyncratic (unusual) expressions they’ll get irritated. (And editors have an even lower tolerance for awkwardness.) It’s okay to use conventional language.

Example: “The stillness halted his feet with fear.”

This is an awkward way to say, “He stopped walking when he noticed the eerie quiet,” or “He halted, suddenly apprehensive in the unnatural silence.” Feet don’t feel fear and stillness won’t halt them . . .

🙂

Obviously there’s more to revising than just shaving out these little indiscretions, but if you find beta readers, agents, and editors looking at your manuscript funny, it might be time to go hunting for dramatic adjectives, smart words, and awkward expressions. And if you are getting weird looks, pat yourself on the back. It’s a sign of progress. It means you have a knee worth shaving.

 

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Writing: Shaving Pains

Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)

“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing?”
–Gimli

I need a bigger razor finished

I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .

Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance.  Or perhaps I should say “I played.”

Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field +  Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery

One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of knowing you screwed up.

They help you get to your feet and tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.

It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.

I don’t do things halfway.

Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time,  family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with them, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)

The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because my knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.

I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.

ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”

During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the surgery prepper left off with her power tools. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.

But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”

Don’t laugh.

Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.

Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action.  I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.

I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .

Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.

There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.

This is why I will never tear my ACL again.

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Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)