Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking—this is an odd subject for someone who pushes the limits of romantic passion in Christian fiction, but even I will admit there’s a grain of truth to the statement that sometimes less is more.
For instance, in the case of spaghetti sauce, I learned the hard way that less—way less, to be exact—is definitely more. You see, I was only 22 and single and just learning to cook for myself, so I got this hankering one night for some homemade Italian meat sauce made from scratch. The recipe called for two cloves of chopped garlic, and yes, I was really this stupid—I thought a “clove” of garlic was a bulb of garlic. With all the flair of a naïve Julia Child, I chopped that sucker up until I had a mountain of garlic so high, it could have been in the Himalayas. I remember squinting at it thinking, “surely one is enough …”
As luck would have it, I only used one pile of garlic in the sauce … which I then proceeded to slow-cook overnight in the crock-pot … and then all day while I was at work. When I got home that night, my apartment smelled wonderful, teasing my salivatory glands with the promise of the world’s best spaghetti sauce. And it was—absolutely delicious—so I had several servings before I got ready to go to the theatre with my girlfriends. The moment I stepped foot in the car, my friends cranked their windows down with a collective gasp and shouted, “Omigosh, what in the world did you eat?” I told them I made my own spaghetti sauce, and when they found out how much garlic I used, they were rolling in their seats (heads out the windows, of course), quite certain that I was not only the world’s stupidest chef, but now also the stinkiest.
What happened next was not pretty … or sweet smelling, for that matter! We found our seats at the theatre, and as luck would have it—bad luck—my seat was right next to this incredibly good-looking guy who was sitting by himself. I can still hear my friends snickering that the poor man would need a gas mask before the evening was done, so when he left at intermission, everyone was certain he was gone for good. Unfortunately, I wasn’t that lucky. Because when he came back, the hunk tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a tentative smile … uh, right before he handed me a little bottle of breath drops. “I thought you might need this,” he said quietly, loud enough for my girlfriends to hear. Trust me, not only did I learn a valuable lesson that night that sometimes more is less, I also learned that one’s chances of making a good impression on a good-looking guy become WAY less—as in “less” than nil—when one dabbles in garlic.
As an aspiring writer, it didn’t take me long to figure out that sometimes in writing, “less” can also be “more.” For instance, when it comes to heart-throbbing romantic passion, all one has to do is glance at the CBA Bestseller List to see that a whole subgenre—Amish Romance—has sprung up on this very philosophy.” Likewise, the ornate and flowery “purple prose” of yesterday’s Victorian Romance with its abundance of adjectives and adverbs, forced or ridiculous similes, alliteration and/or clichés has long since given way to today’s cleaner, simpler style of writing where less is definitely more.
Take it from a woman who edited her original manuscript of A Passion Most Pure from 726 pages to 443 pages—I have learned that the key to “less is more” is revise, revise, revise. One of the most valuable things I gleaned from contests was a simple statement made by a very wise judge who told me “the best writers say the most in the fewest amount of words.” One of my favorite examples of this has always been a line I read in a Nora Roberts’ book years ago called Irish Born: “They were lace-curtain Irish, righteous as three popes.” Wow … in nine words, this woman gives you a microcosm of the heroine’s Irish family. I was in awe of anyone who could say so much in so few words, which means as an author who writes 500-page books, I obviously have a long way to go! So for we long-winded types (ahem … like Ruthy and me) and really every writer on the planet, most of the time “less” is definitely “more,” because revisions and edits—sentence by sentence—are essential to the rhythm and flow, clarity and impact of any novel, taking your baby from less to more by editing it from more to less.
So, how do I personally do that? Well, I have a number of tricks I’ve learned through contests, seminars, critique partners, my fabulous copy editor at Revell, and just plain trial and error, so I thought I’d share a few of those with you today. Ready? Here we go:
1.) LESS adjectives/adverbs and MORE powerful verbs. When you’re trying to convey a feeling it’s easy to throw in a bunch of adverbs and adjectives to accomplish this. BUT, too many extra words can clutter and steal the impact of a sentence and thereby, the scene, diminishing its power and in the particular case of this scene of passion I’ve posted below, make it sound like a cheap dime novel.
In a quick, harsh catch of her halting breath, he took her soft, pink mouth by lightening force, his gruff, late-day beard incredibly rough against her smooth and silky skin. A faint and quivering moan weakly left her quivering lips and all firm resistance was gone, achingly burned away by the fiery and hot heat of his touch, leaving her woefully weak and wanting. His hungry mouth moved wildly at will, no longer gentle and kind as he roughly kissed her, ravenous against the smooth, white curve of her soft and slender throat, the soft, tender flesh of her ear. With a deep and growling groan, he tightly pulled her achingly close with powerfully muscular arms, taking her mouth with a kiss surely prompted by the sheer will to take control.
SAME SCENE WITH LESS IS MORE:
In a catch of her breath, he took her mouth by force, his late-day beard rough against her skin. A faint moan escaped her lips and all resistance fled, burned away by the heat of his touch, leaving her weak and wanting. His mouth roamed at will, no longer gentle as he devoured her, ravenous against the smooth curve of her throat, the soft flesh of her ear. With a guttural groan, he jerked her close with powerful arms, consuming her mouth with a kiss surely driven by the sheer will to ravage.
A Hope Undaunted.
2.) Avoid overuse of names AND use direct-address names sparingly. When I speak to people, I tend to say their names a lot because I want them to know they are special, which is nice in the real world, but tends to get old in novels. I’m grateful to my wonderful copy editor Barb Barnes who’s gone a long way in curing me of this “more vs. less” tendency. Here’s an example of what I mean, exaggerated so you can see how annoying it can come become to repeat a name two or three times in several paragraphs:
TOO MUCH DIRECT-ADDRESS/NAME REPETITION:
“Emma, Mrs. Peep loves you and wants you to be safe. She’ll watch your cats, she already told me so.”
“But I can’t,” Emma said.
The blue of Sean’s eyes steeled to gray as he peered at Emma, the flicker of a dormant temper in the hard muscles of his face. “I won’t stand here and argue with you, Emma. I’m not a volatile man, and you know that, but this is too important. Trust me on this—I will take you by force if I have to. So I suggest you pack your bags, while I warm up the soup. Do you understand?”
Emma nodded, and Sean moved down the hall where sunlight streamed into Emma’s kitchen.
He turned, hands on his hips and a wariness in his eyes. “Yes, Emma?”
“Thank you,” Emma whispered.
LESS IS MORE:
“Mrs. Peep loves you and wants you to be safe. She’ll watch your cats, she already told me so.” The blue of his eyes steeled to gray as he peered at her, the flicker of a dormant temper in the hard muscles of his face. “I won’t stand here and argue with you, Emma. I’m not a volatile man, and you know that, but this is too important. Trust me on this—I will take you by force if I have to. So I suggest you pack your bags while I warm up the soup.” He turned away, disappearing down the hall where sunlight streamed into her kitchen.
He turned, hands on his hips and a wariness in his eyes. “Yes?”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
A Heart Revealed
3.) Avoid clichés and over-used phrases. When I was a travel writer, one of the first lessons I learned was NEVER to use the word “beckon.” Why? Because back then, it seemed almost every travel piece you read used the word “beckon” as a “lure” to a given destination (i.e. Kauai beckons with sugar-white sand and swaying palms). So, since I have been an author, I couldn’t help but notice that there is one phrase that I see in almost every book I read, including my first novel. It’s become SO obvious to me (and readers, I’m sure), that I literally groan when I see it. The phrase? Here it is—some variation of “his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes,” or “she smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.” So, tell me—have you seen a version of this phrase in any of the books you’ve written or read? I’m betting every one of you has!
4.) Use speaker attributions (he said, she said) sparingly and mix in beats instead (actions to show whose speaking rather than a speaker attribution).
TOO MANY SPEAKER ATTRIBUTIONS:
“Patrick, you’re tired, and you’ve been drinking. Come to bed, and we’ll discuss it in the morning,” she whispered.
“Did you kiss him?” he said.
“No, of course not!” she responded.
“Did he kiss you?” he asked again.
She gasped for breath.
“Answer me!” he screamed.
“Yes!” she said.
“Well, Mrs. O’Connor, and how do I compare?” he asked.
LESS IS MORE:
“Patrick, you’re tired, and you’ve been drinking. Come to bed, and we’ll discuss it in the morning.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“No, of course not!”
“Did he kiss you?”
She gasped for breath.
He gripped her arm and shook her. “Answer me!”
His eyes glittered like ice. “Well, Mrs. O’Connor, and how do I compare?”
A Passion Denied
5.) I ALWAYS avoid sentences longer than three lines. This is a little rule of thumb that I use constantly, eyeballing sentences that take up more than three typed lines. When I see this in the editing phase, I immediately pare the sentence down. Following are some before and after examples of my copy as originally written, followed by the pared-down version:
Here’s a sentence in which I eliminated eight words by deleting unnecessary phrasing (which I underlined) for what I think is a cleaner, sharper sentence.
The door slammed behind them, and Katie found herself racing to catch up with Betty as she marched down the glossy wooden hall lined with closed doors, high heels clunking like a small army.
The door slammed behind them, and Katie raced to catch up as Betty marched down the glossy wooden hall, high heels clunking like a small army.
No amount of paring down is too small. Here’s an example of eliminating one unnecessary word because it’s already understood.
“You jump higher than Luke does when I sneak up on him.”
“You jump higher than Luke when I sneak up on him.”
Phrases of three words can often be pared down to one or two words as seen in these two examples where I cut the underlined words for the final copy:
Both words and air pasted to the roof of Sean’s mouth as his eyes flipped open, glazed in shock at the picture of Mr. Kelly looming in the door, slack-jawed at the sight of Sean holding Rose in his lap.
Words pasted to the roof of Sean’s mouth as his eyes flipped open, glazed in shock as Mr. Kelly loomed in the door, slack-jawed over Rose in his lap.
A Heart Revealed
Phrases and words that are understood can always be eliminated, such as these I’ve underlined:
Bobby screeched to a stop, his spindly chest heaving from his sprint to catch up with Sean. Twenty feet behind him, his mother was walking at a brisk pace, obviously hot on his heels.
In the second edit, I eliminated the underlined phrases above because they were already understood from the action in the scene and, of course, the phrase “hustled at a brisk pace” is redundant since it’s understood by the phrase “hot on his heels.”
1ST EDITED VERSION:
Bobby screeched to a stop, spindly chest heaving from his sprint to catch up. Twenty feet behind, his mother hustled at a brisk pace, obviously hot on his heels.
Bobby screeched to a stop, spindly chest heaving. His mother hustled twenty feet beyond, hot on his heels.
A Heart Revealed
Did you know that you can eliminate the word “that” most of the time? Such as in “Did you know you can eliminate the word “that” like you did in this sentence? When I cut A Passion Most Pure down, one of the ways I did it was by going through the entire book and eliminating every “that” that I could … uh, I mean eliminating every “that” I could … J Here’s another example.
Clara shook her head as she watched the newlyweds duck into the taxi that was waiting at the curb.
Clara shook her head, watching the newlyweds duck into the taxi waiting at the curb.
A Heart Revealed
So there you have it—ways I go for “less” to achieve copy that’s hopefully “more.” Now it’s YOUR turn. Post a before and after of one of your sentences that you’ve pared down or give me one or two of your lanky sentences, and let’s see what we can do with it, okay? Everybody who comments is eligible to win their choice of any of my signed books or a top CBA book chosen from the list I am offering.
And remember—in writing especially, less is usually more—a lesson I obviously have yet to learn given the length of today’s blog. Sigh.