Monday, August 2, 2010

Trimming sentences

You know, I like some "roundabout" in a sentence, if it fits the character, and when I first draft, I have a lot of longer sentences with a lot of roundaboutation. I'm not the writer you go to for terse, just the facts sentences. :) But... but character-revealing voice-ian roundaboutation might be acceptable, but confusing verbosity is not. Hence:
He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley to get back to the mews where he assumed was the door she had identified as the rendezvous place in the note.

The "he was just as glad" is the roundabout stuff I want to keep. (It really helps, when you're trimming, to identify precisely what you want to keep. Trim the rest. :) When you have a voice that allows for more fulsome sentences, more elaborate constructions, that doesn't meant it's open season on adding junk into a sentence. In fact, the rest of the sentence should be as trim as possible, so that desired roundabout stands out.

Fortunately, I always put in plenty of junk that can be trimmed. To wit:

He was just as glad to duck into the alley to get back to the door her note had identified as the rendezvous.
So I let myself keep "just as glad". The rest was trimmable! And everytime I look at this sentence, I find more places to trim. :) So, I'm sure, can you, but tell you what-- instead of revising MY sentence (that is my job!), take a moment and choose a sentence of your own and revise THAT. (Put in comments and tell us what you did! So we want the before and after. We're mean that way. :)

Now I'm not trying to eliminate every word that might not need to be there. I want to keep the setting in there in almost every sentence-- that is, I want to keep the characters interacting with the environment-- so while otherwise I might delete the alley, I won't here. (In fact, I might make it the "dark alley" or the "gloomy alley." So there. I am such a slut. :)

But once I decided to trim, I realize that "rendezvous" sort of implied place.
Also that he really wanted to get back to the door, so who needs 1) the alley, 2) the mews, AND 3) the door? In one sentence? Alley, yes (because the previous sentence has him on the Strand, a big street), but mews? Why, other than to show that I know what a mews is? If I truly want the muse, I should make this two sentences, alley to mews, mews to door.
One problem I have, and I see in a lot of submissions, is trying to put too many actions (I mean, little actions) into one sentence. Nothing wrong with two sentences with two actions each and some transition in between. In fact, that will likely lead to more supple narration.

Okay, so:
1. Trim redundant words.
2. Trim excess and "understood" actions.
3. Look for relative clauses and see if you can reduce them.

What's a relative clause? Well, it's a clause (has a subject and verb), and usually begins with a "wh" word (which and who are the most common), and performs as an adjective (modifying a noun).

Question: Do you need the relative clause? Do you need that thought even?

There are two relative clauses here, probably two too many! What, you say? There's only one "wh" word in there! Well, the other is "elliptical." That means it's there in meaning but taken out, just by custom:
He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley to get back to the mews where he assumed was the door (which) she had identified as the rendezvous place in the note.

Relative clauses are by nature interruptive, and because they are clauses (subject and verb), often feel more weighty than the meaning they impart. I think in conversation we often use them to mark time while we think of something else, or add some information we forgot to say. ("So John, who is my ex, called last night and wanted to go out.") When they show up in our written prose, they can often be trimmed outright (the "he assumed") or reduced ("she had identified").

I noticed that the "she had identified" was really clunky, and that "in the note" was misplaced at the end of the sentence. It was hard to figure out where to put "in the note" and "as the rendezvous" as they both go with the same verb (identified)-- what's first? what's second? Hey, whenever there's a conflict (in a sentence, not in the plot), punt! Prepositional phrases are (like relative clauses) adjectival, modifying a noun, and they're often reducible. Notice that I reduced "in the note" to make it actually the subject == the note identified... But then I thought I'd lost the "she" and the sense that it was her action, so I made it "her note" rather than just "the note." "She" is in there now, but in fewer words.

Anyway, I kept what I wanted to keep, but refined the sentence so that it's less verbose and thus less likely to attract the gentle attentions of the editor.

So everyone go out into your own work, and give us a "before and after" sentence, and tell us why you revised as you did, and what worked for you. And if you tell us you don't have any sentences that need trimming, we'll all hate you, so... just don't. :)


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

I tend to write short, and need to add voice and detail, but here's one I tinkered with. It's the last line in the chapter.

Otherwise he’d be duty bound to write and admit that Rosette was missing, which was the last thing Emery wanted to do.

I wanted to emphasize his reluctance, so I split off the clause.

Otherwise he’d be duty bound to write and admit that Rosette was missing. Which was the last thing Emery wanted to do.

Does that work for you, or muddy the waters?

Laura Kaye said...

This is a great -- and useful! -- post. I don't have a ready example, but I've just gone through the kind of editing you're explaining here. Turns out I have a signature sentence structure I didn't even know about. I tend to write a lot of ', and' sentences, like:

He sprinted down the hall toward the sound of the gunfire, and her sudden appearance in the doorway surprised him.

When my editor went through and colored them all pink, I was surprised at how many there were. (Hello, writing quirk, nice to meetcha!) These aren't roundabouts, necessarily, but they're definitely examples of verbosity!

Last week at an RWA workshop on active settings, the instructor offered a similar perspective. 1) does the reader need the information?, 2) does the reader need the information *right then*?, 3) reader will focus on what you focus on, so if you spend a lot of time on the setting or a particular series of actions, the reader will assume their importance, so you have to be sure what you've written into that scene IS important.

Great post!

Adrian said...

I'm with Deb. I tend to over-edit as I write. Most of the editing advice I've read is how to trim. I've internalized that too much. Now, I instinctively trim all the "roundabout stuff" as I write. Thus I end up with just-the-facts sentences and a thin manuscript. A large part of my "revision" time is trying to get back into writer mode to put some flesh back on the corpse.


Right now, I'm reading _The Maltese Falcon_ (Dashiell Hammett, 1929). I expected it to be a tough read because of its age, but it isn't at all. It's amazing to me just how good the writing is, even though he breaks nearly every modern rule. Participle phrases galore. Miniscule action described in painstaking detail (often with zillions of little actions strung together into long compound sentences). And, most obviously, true third-person narration--not the close third writing we're all accustomed to. About the only thing that feels modern is (except for the occasional Tom Swifty tag) how he handles dialogue. I wonder if fiction style has really evolved, or if it's a pendulum that will swing back.

Edittorrent said...

Deb, well, you've got a fragment there (Which). I am duty-bound to point that out. If you substitute "This" for "which," it's suddenly a real sentence. :)

Laura, I like that technique of changing the font color! Then you can really see what's repeating.

Adrian, good example there. Taut prose, but still plenty descriptive.

Lisa Eckstein said...

This morning I tripped over this sentence while rereading:

"My desire for the pills wasn't quite as strong as my shame at the thought of her seeing me take them."

Maybe the meaning is clear (it's so hard to step back and judge, when I know what I mean!), but the syntax gets really clunky. I ended up removing half this sentence, then combining with the next:

"My desire for the pills wasn't quite as strong as my shame, and I retreated to the bathroom to gulp them down."

Again, I can't be sure if the meaning is clear, but I think the sentence does enough to explain the source of the character's shame.

Great topic!

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

"This" didn't fit the rest of the paragraph, unfortunately. I used "Which" for emphasis, rather than "That", which struck me as boring and voiceless. (Not to mention "that" is overused. ;)

As an editor, would you still change it?

LOL! My word verification is "offoo" - a hint that I won't like your answer?

green_knight said...

I'm afraid that at this point of drafting I haven't spotted any sentences that are awkward enough to need revising.

So I'll have a go at this:

He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley to get back to the mews where he assumed was the door she had identified as the rendezvous place in the note.

I think the problem here is the near-endless chain of nouns: the alley leading to the mews with the door from her note. By the time we reach the note we've forgotten the alley. Also, other than rendevous with it's slight undertone of dangerour liaison, the most emotionally-laden word is 'glad'.

(On a further note, 'He was just as glad he had to duck into the alley' does not, in my idiom, make a great deal of sense: ducking into an alley is something you'd do to hide from pursuers, so why is he glad to _have_ to do it?)

I'd break the sentence up:

He was just as glad to be able to duck into the alley and hoped he'd find her there; her note had been somewhat vague.

Anonymous said...

I'll play :) Oh, and I always need to trim, lol.

This was before:

"He insanely thought he was almost happy it was the Shadowless Mistress who’d sacrificed his son, and not Vadas."

I wanted to keep "he was almost happy". This is after:

"Insanely, he was almost happy the Shadowless Mistress sacrificed his son."

Thanks for another stimulating challenge, Alicia :)

(aka undercover - for some reason, Wordpress and Blogger don't like each other at the moment)

C.L. Gray said...

This is from the chapter I edited last night: Here is the original: Forrrest had given his men a day to enjoy the adulation of the crowd before he had ordered them to return to their station in Tennessee.

Here is the final (for now): Forrest allowed his men a day to enjoy the crowd’s adulation before ordering them to return to their station in Tennessee.

Edittorrent said...

Lisa, yes, I see what you mean! I like your revision. If in the sentence before, you have her looking at him, maybe that will put that idea of her seeing him take the pills?

Thomas, I don't know if it's a pondian thing. I hope in The Birthplace of Dickens they're not as ruthless as here! :)
I am not sure about lightning laughing. It would all depend on whether the voice has been whimsical all along. If so, go for it, but if the narration is generally straightforward, that might stick out.

Deb, I don't know if I'd edit it. It would all depend. :) Really, if you're deep in the character voice, and the character is "thinking" in staccato, sentence fragments can work.
But if you're deep in character voice, you have to keep it up, and not slip accidentally into author voice. Always a tradeoff!
CL, that's a great choice, to take out "of the crowd." I think that can be read as implied. Good thinking!
Rachel, that "Insanely" modifying (and starting) the whole sentence works better for me. Good revision.