H.G. Wells once said, “I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.” The trick is knowing when you are meandering off path, and how to find your way back.
I see the tendency to meander in writing occurring in two different ways:
1. Lack of Focus
2. Word Choice/Syntax
1. Lack of Focus is simply lazy writing. It is allowing yourself the luxury of writing for your own enjoyment, rather than keeping a diligent eye to your purpose. In genre writing (mystery, sci-fi, historical, romance, etc.) there are specific requirements for each, and the reader expects these requirements to be met. Likewise, a prospective agent, editor, publisher will expect the same. You don’t write a mystery without a murder and some red herrings. Know what is expected along the path that Mr. Wells refers to, and keep the focus.
Obviously, maintaining the focus within the story itself is important to as well. Writing a novel is a complicated process. It isn’t easy keeping the various threads of the story line woven together without allowing one thread to go slack and another to pull too tight. Let a subplot go dormant for too long and the reader loses the details and is either forced to reread, or worse yet give up. Get too many threads going and your tapestry turns into an ugly mess.
2. Word Choice/Syntax: Noam Chomsky was a linguistics professor at MIT. He wrote the phrase, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” to prove that a sentence can be grammatically correct but incomprehensible. While I am oversimplifying his argument, his point is basically that linguistic syntax is completely different than the meaning of a group of words. Proper grammar means nothing without careful attention paid to word choice.
Following are two examples from early drafts of The Territory. Below the example is the comment from the editor. See if you can discover the faulty word choice before looking at the editor’s comments.
From The Territory, Draft 1:
“In closing,” Moss said, “I want each and every one of you to rest assured that I will do everything humanly possible to stop this violence from further invading our town. This will stop on my watch.”
Editor’s Comment – Put another way? Violence invading doesn’t seem right.
She’d been in law enforcement long enough to know that criminal trends were incredibly hard to reverse for the long term. How to get the power back into the hands of the people who needed it?
Editor’s Comment – The people didn’t need the power, they needed the safety, right?
As I’m working on my second book I am more aware of word choice in my first draft. Often it’s just moving a phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the end (or vice versa) and the meaning is suddenly more clear.