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Redundancy

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Often, when I read a submission from a newer writer or one who has just come out of a fiction class, I flag it for overwriting. What is overwriting? Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader. Sometimes I wonder if people who overwrite are trying to live up to some idea of “fiction writer” that exists in their heads…a scribe who uses $10 words and milks every image and otherwise packs every sentence until it’s dragging and bloated. They want to make sure we get they’re a real writer. Sometimes this process is at the front of their mind, sometimes it happens without them realizing.

Here are the two types of overwriting that I see the most often:

Overwritten Images

Lots of overwriting lives in the images. Writers often see perfect images in prose — images that work well — and they try their hand at creating something comparable, not knowing that the key to most perfect images is a) simplicity and b) isolation. Or they hear that images are supposed to be an objective correlative (a parallel for emotion). Or they know to load images with meaning, so they do their best to create multiple layers with each description. Or they hear that words are supposed to be mimetic of the action they’re describing, so they really bring out the active verbs. These are all fine instincts and great fiction craft tips, but they could easily go awry. For example:

Cold starlight shattered across the inky black-velvet expanse of the searching night. The frozen air sliced the last of the warmth from Cassandra’s lungs as she choked in a sputtering breath.

Wow! Lot’s of tension there. Each verb is razor-sharp and engineered to convey drama: “shattered,” “sliced,” and “choked.” The stars and the night sky are hostile (“cold” and “searching”). Cassandra is obviously in a dark and unfriendly world.

But imagine if every sentence was like this. Or every image worked this hard. It would get downright exhausting to read. Which brings me to the next sign of overwriting…

Hitting the Reader Over the Head

Simplicity is the natural opposite of overwriting (I’m Team Simplicity, if anyone is wondering). Just as overwrought description is common in overwriting, it often goes hand in hand with its sister troll: hitting the reader over the head. In the example above, the world was hostile and cold. We got it. Redundancy is another way that a writer can hit their reader over the head.

This often happens when the writer thinks of not just one perfect image (their imagination is mightier than that!) but two or even three. Instead of opting for simplicity and choosing the one perfect image to convey what they mean, they go ahead and cram all three in. Let’s go back to poor Cassandra:

She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like gossamer spiderweb. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel-cold night.

We get it! It’s still cold and now her jacket’s a broken mess. This writer (me) really wanted the reader to get Cassandra’s desperation, so they introduced us to the image of a drowning woman. Next, I really wanted you to get that the coat is insubstantial…cue spiderweb metaphor. Then, just for fun, I loved the noise of ice separating from the glacier and I wanted to toss it on the heap (plus, this reinforces that — news flash — it’s really cold out there…genius!).

One of these images would’ve been fine. Two is pushing it. Three, and then all the extra cold imagery heaped on top? That’s too much. Pick one image and make it do the work instead of piling on every single thing you can think of. If you’ll notice, overwriting stops action. We’ve had five sentences and only two (more like one and a half) pieces of information: it’s cold, and Cassandra’s jacket isn’t great, which relates back to the cold.

The Argument for Simplicity

Writers often get bored with the simple. A great example is the word “said.” To show off their chops (and their online thesaurus), they whip out all kinds of fancy “said” synonyms: “chortled,” “shrieked,” “argued.” Well, this is an amateur error because “said” blends in and it simply works. It doesn’t stop the action while the reader notices what a clever word you’re using, it keeps things flowing. Writers often think they’re saying something too simple, so they decide to jazz it up by going out of their way to say it differently.

This is where overwriting always swoops in. I understand it completely. Writers are chomping at the bit to write, to make up a new image, to really get their point across. But sometimes the simplest way of saying something — a way that’s still artful and expressive but also restrained — is the best. When you’re trying to show off in the prose, you lose sight of your real purpose: to tell a tale. When you’re trying to be understood through multiple images and repetition, you’re not giving your reader enough credit. Overwriting is all about trying too hard. Simplicity is all about letting the craft and the story speak for themselves.

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At last, another good picture book querying question! Plus, this one is useful to novel writers, too (if only a bit less relevant). Read on, everyone! Megan asks:

How often is too often to query an agent with different projects? For example, I’m in the process of sending queries for project A and writing project B. By the time I wait for agent responses to trickle in, I may be ready to query project B. Is it crazy to send another project to an agent who rejected me within 3 or 4 months? Am I just being annoying? Or, since picture book manuscripts can be written, revised, revised, revised, and polished faster than other genres, maybe this frequency for queries is expected?

I tell my picture book writer clients — AND THESE ARE CLIENTS…people who’ve already cleared the “hurdle” — that one out of every ten of their picture book ideas/manuscripts is going to be saleable. Picture books are “easy” to write and generate and revise and get 700 or whatever words into shape, sure, but it’s infinitely harder to hit upon a winner idea. GOODNIGHT MOON was first published in 1947 and parents still read it to their kids every night, all over the world. Publishers are tightening their lists and, ideally, would love a book with that much power and longevity. In other words, everyone wants something that will backlist for eternity. It’s not easy. I would even argue that’s it just as hard to hit upon such a picture book idea as it is to write a publishable novel, especially in this current marketplace.

Personally, I balk a little when writers hit me up with picture book after picture book, even if some time lapses between attempts. The point is to evolve and go to the next level between picture book manuscripts. Every submission round to agents will bring you valuable feedback and insight. (If you get absolutely no personalized feedback, that’s feedback in and of itself.) Keep writing while you’re on submission, of course, but you should also, in my opinion, wait to see how a submission round goes before you jump back into the querying game. You don’t want to give off the idea that you’re just churning projects out without stopping to learn and grow in between attempts.

Look at it from my angle. I have, oh, six picture book clients. They can all, in a good year, give me 10 manuscripts. That’s 60 manuscripts. Say I decide to just go out with them all (which I would never do). For each submission, I go out to about 8-10 editors at various houses. That would be between 480 and 600 picture book projects that I would send out. About 10 submissions a week. There are about 300 editors actively acquiring in children’s books these days (at the major, mid-size houses, and smaller houses), so even if I cast my net as wide as possible, I would still hit up every editor at least once, sometimes twice, regardless of whether they’re a good fit or even looking for picture books (if you want to know, that particular number of PB-hungry editors is at about 70-100). You also have to consider that, if an editor and I have a good relationship, existing projects together, or similar tastes, I will send to that  group of particular editors more frequently over the course of the year. Those editors — the ones I really love and want to work with — would probably get more like five or ten projects each.

Do you think all those editors are going to see my email or get my phone call and think, “Wow, I haven’t heard from Mary in a while, and I know she only goes out with projects she thinks are really top notch, so I am really excited to hear all about this one!” Absolutely not. They will most likely think, “Yikes, another call/email from Mary. What does she have for me this month and how quickly can I get it off my desk?”

I don’t go out with everything my clients give me. I have to be selective and keep my currency with editors high, so that if they see something from me, they don’t roll their eyes. The worst position you can be in, I think, is if someone gets an email from you and groans. So I’m selective. And I have extremely high standards for the work that I pitch to publishers (just ask some of my impatient clients…and we all know how I feel about patience). You should strive to be this way, too, so I don’t groan when I get your second or third or fourth query for the year.

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ChristaCarol asked this question a bit ago and I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since it really is on people’s minds. I almost hesitate to get into this discussion publicly but, well, that’s never stopped me before. :)

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts. I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully-chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, right now, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside. It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there. I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic. Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your word count is anything over 100k in children’s, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your babies,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. :)

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some maximum word counts for different types of projects.

  • Board Book — 50 words max
  • Early Picturebook — 300 words max
  • Picturebook — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max
  • Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max.
  • Chapterbook — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max.
  • Middle Grade — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. (Disclosure: Early Readers and Chapterbooks are not my personal forte.) If a manuscript goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “Tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut! And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

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Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

1) Dialogue/Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

2) Choreography

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china). You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

3) Adverbitis

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing. Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

Recap: How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

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Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:

I’m so bored, she thought to herself.

I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.

Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!

That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!

The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Simple, effective!

If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then… press the delete button.

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There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.

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