Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Overwriting Is Just That

By Chester Campbell

Early in my novel-writing career, if I may be so bold as to call it that, I signed with a large New York literary agency. I had submitted my third book to them, the last in a three-book post-Cold War trilogy, as yet unpublished. The first two novels had agents who fell by the wayside, but this one was written so it would stand alone.

After sending off the manuscript, I received a letter saying they liked the story but it needed a line edit by a professional editor. The main problem was “overwriting.” At that point, I had no idea what overwriting meant. And I had no clue about where to find a professional editor or what a line edit involved. I talked to the agency and was told the manuscript needed cutting. It was too wordy. Among other things, I indulged in too much description. As best I recall, it ran well over 600 typewritten pages.

I didn’t find a professional editor, but I sat down and started cutting. Whole chapters at first, then pages, then paragraphs, sentences, and, finally, words. I sliced it down by about 150 pages and re-submitted the manuscript. That’s when they accepted it and sent me a contract. What happened after that is another sad story. Suffice it to say they never sold the book (plus a couple of others I sent them), and I asked out of the contract.

What I gained out of the experience was an understanding that too many words can be a bad thing. I know, some big name mystery writers get away with describing everything their characters observe in great detail. And a few do it with such lyrical prose that I enjoy it. But very few.

When most writers get carried away with their descriptions, I start skimming. In writing the Greg McKenzie Mysteries, I honed my style to tell stories using only enough detail to paint a clear picture for the reader. I try to keep my dialog short and pithy. Such measures designed to avoid overwriting have resulted in shorter, faster-paced books. Page turners, as they say.

Overwriting also requires getting rid of duplicate explanations that sneak in when it’s necessary to clue in another character on a past event. Do it the easy way by saying something like she told him what she had learned from the visit to Mr. X. Another point I learned from my editor on the first McKenzie book was not to underestimate your reader. It isn’t necessary to explain every little point when you’re dealing with stuff they should already know.

Chris Roerden has a good chapter on overwriting in her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I wish I’d had it when I submitted that manuscript back in 1992.

5 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

My first novel was returned with the comment, "overwritten," and I started cutting, but not nearly as much as you did, Chester. Fortunately, it's in its third printing, and my subsequent reviews have all said, "fast-paced. But I think I now overdue the brevity. :)

Ben Small said...

Chester, when I first submitted ALIBI ON ICE, it had over 350,000 words, would have looked like WAR & PEACE. I did the same as you, cut whole chapters first, then paragraphs, cut the whole thing down by two-thirds. And it's painful to kill your babies, as Stephen King calls it.

Ben Small said...

Jean, your comment about overdoing the brevity is worthy of its own blog posting. I too worry about that. It's hard finding the happy medium. I stopped reading Kathy Reichs because I thought she'd stripped too much out of her books, narrative and dialogue both. Stopped flowing, so to speak.

Beth Terrell said...

It's a challenge to find the right balance between too bloated and too brief.

Chester Campbell said...

I agree with all of you. What's enough and what's too much is a subjective thing. Some people like more description, some don't. You just have to do your own thing and hope people like it.