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TIGHTEN THE WHOLE THING UP



So, your critique partner says your work needs to be tightened. But what in hell do they mean by that? 

It used to confuse the hell out of me. People would write things like it’s ‘overall okay, it could just do with some tightening.’ And I’d be wondering if that meant it needed edited, or words changed, or some magical ingredient. Mostly, I thought it meant I had to take words out (and, at the start, it often does. Check your that’s and see if any can go. Take out your looks, heards and felts, and think about those you leave in.)

But tightening is more than that. For me, it’s the detail that gives the final polish. To get from the first to final version takes me multiple edits by me, a review(s) by an editor, and a copy edit.

To illustrate, I took two versions of the same snippet from Abendau’s Heir (Tickety Boo Press, 2015). The first dates to around 2012, and it’s a perfectly serviceable scene:

The darkness, that was the first thing. The cold and fear. They were all distractions.
So were Kare’s thoughts about the attack and the worry for his family and friends. He knew the focus had been on him: the drug for his psyche, the personal guard, Beck, all evidencing it. Beck. The name from his father’s visions caused a wave of fear to wash over him. He remembered Karia telling him if they ever heard the name, they’d run.

The next version is the version which was released. It’s around 70 words longer – so that’s the first thing. Tightening doesn’t always mean making a scene shorter.

The darkness, that was the first thing. The cold and fear. They were all distractions from the pain spasming down his back. His legs were cramped; his chest burned each time he tried to take a breath.
Kare wrenched his thoughts away. The attack: the base was gone and the death toll must have been huge. Had Sonly made it to the reserve base? His breath hitched – he knew where it was. How long until shed move, knowing he held the information? He didnt know, but he silently thanked himself for placing the block.
The block. Fear came rushing, attacking him, and he had to think of something, anything else. Beck. The darkness filled with pinpoints of light. Beck, whom his father had screamed for mercy from. Karia had pressed against Kare and theyd promised each other if they met him, theyd run.

So, let’s break down how version one became version two. First, the two opening paragraphs:

The darkness, that was the first thing. The cold and fear. They were all distractions.

This has very little information in it. We don’t know what the distraction is from. We don’t know anything about the character experience. Compare:
The darkness, that was the first thing. The cold and fear. They were all distractions from the pain spasming down his back. His legs were cramped; his chest burned each time he tried to take a breath.

Here, we’re brought into the character. We know what he is feeling. We know a lot more about how he is, physically, and the first line now makes sense.

So were Kare’s thoughts about the attack and the worry for his family and friends.

How much telling is in there? The thoughts and worry – they’re distant from the character’s thoughts, they’re telling devices. Compare it to:
Kare wrenched his thoughts away. The attack: the base was gone and the death toll must have been huge. Had Sonly made it to the reserve base? His breath hitched – he knew where it was. How long until shed move, knowing he held the information? He didnt know, but he silently thanked himself for placing the block.
We’re still being given information – extended information in fact – but this time we’re in the character’s thoughts and we’re told what the worries are. We’re kept with the thought process that follows. That is the thing that makes one excerpt telling and one showing – the first makes a bald statement, the second adds the character experience. 
Then we get to meat of the scene, and this paragraph. I’ve highlighted the unchanged sections. 
He knew the focus had been on him: the drug for his psyche, the personal guard, Beck, all evidencing it. Beck. The name from his father’s visions caused a wave of fear to wash over him. He remembered Karia telling him if they ever heard the name, they’d run.
 
The block. Fear came rushing, attacking him, and he had to think of something, anything else. Beck. The darkness filled with pinpoints of light. Beck, whom his father had screamed for mercy from. Karia had pressed against Kare and theyd promised each other if they met him, theyd run.
Two lousy words survived. On first glance, the information is the same,  but the second version is more active. We don’t have a wave of fear, we have pinpoints of light. His father didn’t have visions, he screamed for mercy.  
Part of the difference, too, is to do with the word choice. Fear washing over him is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a bit wishy-washy. What does that actually mean? But to have fear rushing at you, attacking you, so you have to think of anything else. That’s much more immediate, and scary.
Note, too, how the last line has become active. He doesn’t remember Karia’s words now, distantly – he is in the scene with her. She’s pressed against him.
So, how to get from a to b? What does that ‘tightening’ process mean? Here are some of the things I look for:

Adverbs. Stephen King is often quoted as saying not to use adverbs, but he uses them. Actually, if you read his advice, he tells you they’re a tool, to be used sparingly.
The first thing I tend to do is review the adverbs I don’t feel add. (Adverbs also are evil telling words, often. Instead of silently, could I have described that? Possibly… his lips moving as he mouthed the words? In this case, I felt removing it added little enough I kept it.)

What information belongs where? So often, for me, tightening involves cutting and pasting. Telling us his back is spasming at the end of the scene has less impact than at the beginning, when it can be used to place the reader in the scene.
Also, ask what information needs to be in a scene. I call giving information that is too obvious my sledgehammer and boy am I good at using it. Here, the line about the focus being on him is so hideously redundant, it makes me wince. Of course the focus is on him. He’s chained to a chair, in pain, waiting for his tormentor to come back. An awful lot of my tightening consists of removing information my clever readers already know, or can work out for themselves.

The actual sentences and punctuation. The finished sentences are a little shorter, and snappier. This is a character terrified of what’s going to happen next. It’s a scene building tension. It’s not a scene to use purple flowery language. He’s barely holding himself together. It’s clipped and quick and to the point.

Time. I cannot do this kind of edit soon after I’ve written a scene. The sledgehammers don’t stand out. It’s impossible to tell if I’ve jumbled information. This is the sort of edit to come back to a few weeks later, with a fresh eye. Then I see that it’s not about superfluous words, but something much more. Polish, if you like.

All this adds up to the second version feeling, to my eye, stronger. The information flows logically. The telling is – largely, there’s still a bit in there – removed. The character’s thoughts are central in the scene and we don’t get time to look away. Any punctuation niggles have been ironed out by the long-suffering Sam Primeau, my copy-editor. Any character experience that’s weak will have been passed under Teresa Edgerton’s eye. This isn’t a single person’s version, anymore, but the end of a collaborative road to publication. 

My lovely tight books can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jo-Zebedee/e/B00VM61TZG









Comments

wonderactivist said…
It can be so hard to tighten but it brings out the ART in your words. Good post.