Overwriting on Purpose

Minneapolis corner

It’s a good thing for us writers that we come at our craft differently, in our own ways. Some folks dwell over every sentence, taking a long time to make it through the first draft of a manuscript. Others of us are barnstormers and get languid later, during rewrites. We talk about writing skeletons and adding on, or finding ourselves in a process of paring down our original prose like a sculptor looking for the form inside that block of marble. It’s good that we take our individual approaches because we get individualized end products out of this, and a diversity of voice is a good thing for readers, much as some critics insist on all literature sounding the same.

I’ve noticed that my stories themselves have their preferences toward being written in a certain manner or other. I shot through the first 150 pages of The Unintentional Time Traveler, and then slogged through the next 135. Rewrites came to my aid to help smooth the narrative out, thank goodness. My latest work-in-progress is like wading through golden molasses, every step of the way, but I’m liking the base writing more than I usually do.

One goal I have on every project is to hypervisualize each scene in the story. List every object in the room, who lives behind the doorways on the block where the protagonist lives, what the weather was like the day before, whatever will get me into that universe. After all, if I walk into my kitchen and need one of my 500 gadgets for something, I know immediately where it lives. Lemon juicer? Short drawer to the right of the sink. Silpat, bottom wide drawer in the corner. Dutch oven, under the microwave. I aim for knowing my fictional world that well, or I risk not writing it honestly enough. Speaking of honesty, I also have a pet peeve against inconsistencies in a text. So if someone has run to the south end of a house to escape a pursuer, then don’t put the glaring sunset in their eyes. Knowing how buildings are oriented = good planning.

I’ve written before about developing good back story in order to understand the motivations and intentions of the characters, and be able to write them as fleshed-out people. There are more benefits to creating a thoughtful universe more generally — the setting will be more interesting, give you more to work with in the way of character action, help you see plot points better, and perhaps even improve the direction of the story.

That said, just like back story, a lot of this writing will make its departure before the manuscript is finished. Because readers don’t need to know that the bench at the bus stop has a faded photo of a real estate agent who hasn’t worked that neighborhood in the last decade, unless they do. Is the character afraid of sitting in rickety chairs? Folding chairs? Hammocks? Do they flinch at the smell of sandalwood incense that assaults them every morning on their walking commute to work? Kick a pebble out of the crumbling concrete? Perhaps these elements aren’t germane to the story, and can get tossed, relegated to the writer’s brain, but anything that’s written moves the story forward, even if it doesn’t live to the end product.

Sometimes I’ll sketch out and write a scene that takes place between the beginning and end of the tale but that doesn’t need to present in the telling of things. I want to know what was said, to feel the words coming out of the characters’ mouths, but I could hide this moment from readers for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Building suspense
  • Deciding it’s not important enough to show directly
  • Saving it for later disclosure

The devil may be in the details, but so is the storytelling deliciousness. Consider writing thicker prose to get a closer sense of the world you’re creating, even if some of that prose will fall to the cutting room floor. It’s still working for your story.

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Categories: Writing


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One Comment on “Overwriting on Purpose”

  1. Lyra Rose
    March 5, 2012 at 7:03 am #

    I tend to overwrite and then just pare down. If I don’t write everything in my first draft then I risk not including something, and I find it easier to cut down rather than add to when editing.

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