Cleaning the Crap from Prose

First I want to apologize about not making a post last week. My family and I took an impromptu vacation to Florida and I didn’t really have much of chance to finish editing this and getting the post live. That said, this post is going to be a bit  embarrassing (which is a massive understatement), because I am going to be sharing the first, two paragraphs of the first novel I ever wrote. Just so you are warned, it is bad, like really bad. The original story was a military sci-fi, zombie-with-magic kind of thing. Though you will get a solid idea of how cringe worthy it is in a bit, trust me, this should be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

I am sharing it because I will end up doing a line edit of the excerpt for the bulk of this post in order to demonstrate my thoughts on line level revision as well as to show the reasons why I reject stories that I see in the slush pile. (For anyone who hasn’t seen the other posts, check it out as I give more in depth details on how I respond to submissions as an Associate Editor with PodCastle.)

Cleaning the Crap from Prose: Line Editing

construction-worker-concrete-hummer-vibrator-38600

 

Example of Terrible Writing

As I said, this except has not been edited or revised since I wrote when I was 18 years old. The entire story is derivative and just awful, but the focus is on the prose itself. Hopefully, the example will help you grow as a writer and maybe give you ideas on how to fix something in your own work. (Btw I just reread and literally cringed.).

“This is freaking ridiculous!” exclaimed a young man as his cell phone service dropped from four bars to nothing in a split-second. “I always have service. I don’t understand what is going on.”

If a stranger was around this young man they would have noticed he had a peculiar habit of vocalizing his thoughts, which would leave some people to believe that he was in fact talking to himself, and is possibly someone who forgot to take their medication that day. The reality is that this was about as far from the truth as possible. This man went by the name of James Gale and as of 19 years of age he did accurately depict the “young” description. The second half of the description is the part that is mistaken at best. Though James Gale is young and occasional talks while he thinks he has proven to a certain organization that he is an extremely competent individual who is far away from being mentally unstable.

God, I can’t believe I actually wrote that (face palms). Anyways, I am pretty sure anyone reading this and knows its crap. If I received a submission that started off like this excerpt,  at quick glance, it would immediately be rejected for the following reasons:

1. The characterization of James Gale is god awful.

2. The dialogue is stilted.

3. There is literally no sense of scene

4. Lack of appropriate grammar makes it confusing

5. The prose is fat and amateurish

A Poor Attempt at Literary CPR

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Before we delve into some of the examples, I honestly do not believe that there is anything in these paragraphs worth saving. The best way to revise the excerpt is to cut the entire thing. The reason why this is the best answer is because the entire second paragraph is an awful attempt at characterizing the viewpoint character. This doesn’t push the plot forward or help the reader become grounded in the scene.

That said, that first paragraph is really rough, but I can see how it can help start a story however poorly it is accomplished. For the rest of this post we will only focus on the first paragraph and try to add some polish to make it a little more palatable.

Since the majority of this paragraph is dialogue, we need to make sure that the dialogue reads naturally and not like a melodrama. In addition, it is important to capture the character voice and make it distinct as early as possible. Right now we have:

“This is freaking ridiculous!” exclaimed a young man as his cell phone service dropped from four bars to nothing in a split-second. “I always have service. I don’t understand what is going on.”

One of the easiest ways to handle revision is by trimming. Let’s cut out some of the bits of dialogue to more closely mirror how people actually talk. In addition, adjusting dialogue tags only using “said” or replacing it with an action tag will help improve the flow of the entire piece.

“Ridiculous.” Four bars blipped to zero; the call dropped to silence. James locked and stuffed his phone away. 

The last bit of dialogue is a poor attempt at vocalizing an internal thought. There are two options to handle this. Put the info in italics or use Jane Austen’s favored technique of free indirect speech. Personally, I like the former for this instance so we are changing:

“I always have service. I don’t understand what is going on.” 

to

 A hundred bucks a month for this service? 

By having a character reference something familiar to the reader it makes them more relatable and helps build sympathy. In addition, this can help the character come alive as they start thinking of them as a person rather than a device used to experience the plot.

Comparing the Two Pieces of Writing

cars-yellow-vehicle-vintage

Honestly, there is a bit more work we can do, but this is a good place to show the difference.  Originally, we had:

“This is freaking ridiculous!” exclaimed a young man as his cell phone service dropped from four bars to nothing in a split-second. “I always have service. I don’t understand what is going on.”

If a stranger was around this young man they would have noticed he had a peculiar habit of vocalizing his thoughts, which would leave some people to believe that he was in fact talking to himself, and is possibly someone who forgot to take their medication that day. The reality is that this was about as far from the truth as possible. This man went by the name of James Gale and as of 19 years of age he did accurately depict the “young” description. The second half of the description is the part that is mistaken at best. Though James Gale is young and occasional talks while he thinks he has proven to a certain organization that he is an extremely competent individual who is far away from being mentally unstable.

And after our revision were left with:

“Ridiculous.” Four bars blipped to zero, and the call dropped to silence. James locked then stuffed his phone into a pocket. A hundred bucks a month for this service? 

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even keep this because I would want to start the story in a stronger part, but that deals with a structural edit rather than a line one so we will not get into it. I hope you enjoyed reading and sorry again for not posting last week! Have an awesome day, and good luck with your writing.

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7 thoughts on “Cleaning the Crap from Prose

    1. Thanks so much Adele!

      Honestly, I remember he was in the military but I don’t remember the specifics of what had happened to him. Eventually, they ended up in Chicago as first responders against zombies and he ended up getting infected, but I’d have to reread to get the details.

      Liked by 1 person

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