Monday, April 18, 2011

Mentor Monday - Good, Better, Best

Nope. This is not a blog about grammar or the rules of English. This is about making a good manuscript a better manuscript, and a better manuscript the best manuscript. It’s about taking your work to a level a notch or two higher than it already is.

How do you do that?

The secret - like God - is in the details. Unlike God, it is easy to explain and understand, and even easier to do. Simply take the generic and make it specific. In every single case, it will make your manuscript better.

Here are some examples.

John went to the store.

Let’s say we don’t really care how John got to the store. The important thing to the story is that he got there. Why worry about the sentence? If you have a good story, no editor is going to turn it down because of that line. The truth is, an editor probably won’t even notice it.

Still, if you change the vague ‘went’ to something specific - walk, run or drive - your plain factual statement becomes a sentence that conveys mood. Walk makes us think everything is fine and dandy, run makes it seem like something is wrong, and drive indicates he’s in a hurry. You, of course, will choose a word that conveys the mood you are trying to create, and mood is something an editor will notice. Now, a section of your story that didn’t stand out, suddenly will, and all you did was change one word. Imagine the effect if you changed all the vague words in your manuscript?

Another way being specific helps a manuscript is in turning a piece of description that is just there for description’s sake, into description that matters. Let’s say your MC is on her way somewhere and stops to pick a flower. The flower will have no major bearing on the plot. You’re just doing a bit of description to set the scene. You can say she stopped to pick a flower, or you can say she stopped to pick an aster.

Why does it matter one way or the other if the flower isn't important? Again, it doesn’t really. It won’t prevent you from selling an otherwise good manuscript. But ‘a flower’ tells us nothing. An aster, on the other hand, says it is fall, and now the reader knows what time of year it is without the writer telling them, (Although you did tell them, in a sneaky, unobtrusive way) and that allows the reader to envision the surrounding scenery, too - the reds and golds of autumn rather than the green of summer and spring. Your irrelevant sentence becomes relevant - not to the plot, but to your scene setting. You've added an extra layer to your work just by changing a vague word to one that is more specific.

Now let’s suppose something does matter to the plot. Here is an excerpt from M. T. Anderson’s Feed. The MC and his girlfriend have gone out to the country to tour a farm.

It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running up and down.

Anderson could have written, It was a filet mignon farm and there were steaks growing everywhere. It’s simple and direct and tells the reader they are not in Kansas any more, and if that was all Anderson wanted to convey, it would serve his purpose.

But by this point in the story, we already know we’re not in Kansas. The point of the description is to convey just how out of whack society has become, and the more detailed he is - the tubes, the marble patterns, the tissue and blood - the more out of whack his world seems. This is more than a futuristic world where steak grows on a stalk. This is a world where things have gone horribly awry, (or magnificently wonderful, depending on your personal take on life) and Anderson makes it so easy to see and understand because he gave us the details.

The above examples, I think, show the differences specificity and details can make in a story. Nobody is going to say, “Oh, I loved that you used the word aster instead of flower.” It’s just not all that noticeable. But when you’re looking at the big picture - the novel as a whole - that’s where it makes the difference. It gives your writing nuance, mood and tone. It takes your writing a step higher than it was. And it will make your work stand out above the work of others in the slush pile who aren’t being specific.

The road to publication is long and hard. If you’re a beginner trying to break in, you need to be above average. Give yourself every advantage you can.


Sally said...

I LOVE this. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's instantly applicable, and it's effective. Thank you for the reminder and the super (specific!) examples.

Andy said...

Terrific advice as usual, Barb!