The Curse of the Overwritten

I’ve been teaching a class for teen writers at the local library, and like any teaching job, the teacher gets as much out of it as the students. These kids are all there because they want to be, and they’ve proven through our first revision pass (my notes on their stories) that they can take editorial comments without freaking out. Even better, than can then implement those comments and improve their stories, often in ways the notes didn’t actually suggest. In other words, they’re real writers.

One particular issue, though, runs through all their work: a tendency to overwrite. They describe everything a character does, or the physical environment, in far too much detail. Their transitions, where a character leaves one location and goes to another, are especially problematic. This falls under number 10 of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing: Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

Now, me being a professional, you’d think I’d be long past that problem, right?

In my upcoming novel Wake of the Bloody Angel, my hero Eddie LaCrosse has to hire a ship to track down a pirate. He’s also brought along Jane Argo, a fellow sword jockey with a background in both piracy and pirate hunting. I wrote page after page, chapter after chapter, detailing how they found their ship, the Red Cow, and negotiated with its captain. I had them put together a hand-picked crew, each with his or her own story. And no matter how hard I tried, the whole section just sat there like a lump. Despite my best efforts, it seemed determined to be one of those Leonardian parts that readers tended to skip. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t write this any better.

The most boring part of any trip.

Then my wife, aka the smartest person I know, put it all in perspective.  “He’s basically buying a ticket.  How exciting can that be?”

Boom goes the dynamite, as they say.

I deleted the chapters because, just like I tell the kids in my writing class, there’s no point in writing it if the reader’s going to skip over it looking for the next interesting thing. I put the whole section offstage, in the break between two realizations. One chapter ends with Eddie exclaiming, “Son of–” following one bit of insight, and the next begins “–a bitch!” after another. In the first, he’s on land. In the second, he’s already aboard the Red Cow, weeks into his hunt for the pirate Black Edward Tew.

I could have probably left that bit of overwriting in, and with a lot of effort gotten it presentable. But it would still remain unnecessary. And that’s the concept I’m going to try to convey to the kids in my class.

Because, hey: I’m long past that sort of thing myself. Right?

2 Comments on “The Curse of the Overwritten”

  1. That had to have been harsh, but your wife is a wise woman. By keeping that stuff in, the speedometer of the novel was dropping toward zero. And lose a reader in this interconnected world, and you might not get them back…

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