Revising the Novel: Adding Forbidden Words
I just met with my novelist friend for feedback on the full draft of my novel (after she kidnapped it) and she said–above all other concerns she had–that I needed to “cushion” the language a little more.
I leaned back into her luxuriously wide sofa and cocked my head. “What do you mean?” I asked. Maybe whatever she was going to say next would have something to do with “letting the prose breathe,” another thing people like to talk a lot about.
“I mean, do you ever use a ‘to be’ verb?” she asked.
|A snapshot of the whiteboard during my last ICCA Memoir course.|
A flip-book of images of every course I’ve taught for the past six years ran through my mind’s eye. I saw whiteboard after whiteboard, handout after handout, marked with my suggested edits and corrections of “to be” verbs. “Kill your be’s!” I always tell my students, making a point that verbs are the only part of speech we have to move the story forward, therefore they’d better be doing their work. Words like “was” or “is” hardly hold their weight, with a few exceptions. Of course, there’s more to verbs than just action (they’re the key to metaphor, but that’s a different lecture). Suffice it to say, I found myself frozen.
“Oh,” I said to my friend. “Well, no. Not really. Not often, at any rate.”
She nodded. “The novel is gorgeous, but the prose is flashy. It’s so tight. I want to rest sometimes, as a reader. I want a cushion. I miss the word ‘that.'”
Another bullseye! The companion dictate to my “Kill your be’s!” theory is “Kill your fillers!” (as in, words like: that, the, just, most, seem, and many more).
“Ok. I said. I think I might die. Like, actually die, if I did that.” I took a sip of tea and let the advice roll over me. What did I have to be afraid of? If I can cut words, surely I can add them just as easily. “Omitting be’s and fillers is what I do. It’s how I wrote my last book. It’s how I taught myself flash fiction. It’s so pervasive in my fiction that I don’t even miss those words anymore.”
She smiled. Sipper her own tea. Thumbed patiently through a few more pages of my manuscript on her lap.
I smiled back; squirmed a little. “But I hear you,” I confessed. “So can you show me an example?”
And like the amazing friend and writer that she is, show me she did. Here are a few:
BEFORE: Spartan missed Mail Call the day before, out on a mission, and now Nathan sees someone plopped it here for him to do the honors.
AFTER: Spartan missed Mail Call the day before, out on a mission, and now Nathan sees that someone plopped it here for him to do the honors.
BEFORE: The soldier worries him slightly, that look of insane confidence plastered across his face in the same way a corpse’s expression might pull tight into a smile, days after death, heat bloating features into clownish proportions.
AFTER: The soldier worries him slightly, that look of insane confidence plastered across his face in the same way a corpse’s expression might pull tight into a smile, days after death, heat bloating its features into clownish proportions.
Through further conversation, I expressed concern about losing my style as an author if I added too many be’s and fillers in, and we studied a few more examples together. In time, I was able to see that there’s a reason to give the reader a cushion during certain scenes or junctures in the novel, and there are other reasons to give the reader zero cushion when the stakes are high in the story. Killer fillers and killer be’s, then, aren’t just a sentence-level tool for tight prose. Such edits aren’t just a gateway to metaphor, either. They’re a pacing tool; a way of manipulating language to control the heartbeat of the reader, to so speak (or in the very least, control the tempo of your own plot). Stay tuned for further thoughts on the feedback I received, as well as how my 6th revision kicks off at the desk.