I know I’ve complained about it before, but I’ve got a new angle! Wow, right? And most of my followers are relatively newcomers and are just perusing the new stuff, so I can sneak in some redundancy, I think. Not that I’m all that subtle.
So you have a scene, someone says to cut it. It “isn’t needed.” And you say, “Your mother. The whole book isn’t needed! What does that even mean?” (Okay, fine. That’s what I do. You, of course, maintain decorum throughout.)
Okay, they’re probably right—Or at least from their point of view (what they find important, their interpretation of your book, and their assumption on what you’re trying to do) they’re right. The problem is, however, this argument isn’t really an argument, and it’s another form of what I call as “problem marking.”
In criticism, the why is more important than the do. When you tell me to cut characters, why you want me to cut them tells me which ones to cut, as well as gives me other options than to just do what you say. If you’re bored because you don’t know who to root for and thus end up rooting for no one, then I would cut the more boring characters, or even go through and make who’s the protagonist more obvious. If you’re confused, however, I wouldn’t be looking for who had the least personality, but confusing names or people who are easily forgettable. I might cut the smaller characters, merge characters, or maybe even just give them more memorable names and descriptions. There’s lots I can do, once I understand what I’m trying to do.
Problem marking is where you don’t discuss what the problem is, you just point out the general area it exists. This can manifest in circling something, or even crossing something out and making the change to however you think it should be. It can be the dreaded question mark, or it might even be when they blatantly say, “Why are you doing it this way? Just do this!”
Problem marking is anything that points out a problem, doesn’t discuss why it’s a problem (it confuses me, it bores me, it muddles the image, etc.) just assumes that it’s correct and that if you just make the suggested change, everything will be better.
I consider “it isn’t needed” as not being a problem. Personally, I define bad writing as a reaction to a choice. Specifically a reaction the reader doesn’t think he was supposed to have. Good writing could make someone laugh, but bad writing could make someone laugh when they’re supposed to be crying.
When someone says, “This isn’t needed,” it doesn’t tell me what their reaction was. It implies a lack of reaction. The problem is, in writing, there’s no such thing. A lack of reaction could mean that, “It doesn’t make me feel anything,” which would actually mean, “I was bored.” And “I was bored because this didn’t make me feel anything,” is a more useful comment than, “It wasn’t needed.” Especially the solution of just removing something is a solution to a lot of different problems.
Knowing the why is important to me because I’m rarely on the same page as other people. I don’t know what it is, but when someone tells me to do something specific, and I don’t get why, I always end up doing it wrong—not how they meant. I’m not a great abstract thinker when it comes to figuring out “If I do A and B, it will end up with C,” but I’m fantastic at knowing, “If I want to get to C, I need to do A and B.” I can solve problems like the best of them, but I can’t predict problems worth shit.
Blah, blah, blah, my point is be specific when criticizing. Tell me why it’s better without it, not just it’s possible to get rid of it. I’m a, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” kind of girl, for lots of reasons. One, organic personal mistakes are less intrusive than decisive external ones—i.e. when I naturally did something weird, it will be more cohesive with the rest of the story, then when I did something weird due to outsider influence. Two, you might not be right, or I might be misunderstanding you. Solving problems are often far more complex than what an hour long conversation can describe. If I misinterpret what I think you want me to do, or you’re wrong about how to solve the problem, or there’s more involved to fixing it, I can’t self-correct. I can’t easily check my formula if I don’t know the answer.
Knowing what’s “needed” is complicated. As I joked about earlier, it’s a fiction book. None of it is “needed.” What is crucial to your story and what isn’t? Why should I get rid of everything that doesn’t talk about what certain people think it should? Life goes on in tangents, why can’t I?
To complicate things, I have mixed opinions about not putting in what’s not needed. I hate digressions like everyone else, and I don’t trust authors who go off in detail about how, yes, their characters do pee sometimes. But I also believe that it’s the little, inane details that make up a world. And, more importantly, make it less predictable. If you have only necessary information, the audience will recognize everything is important, and they’ll start asking exactly the right questions. “What’s with the phone? He’s probably done something to that phone. What could he have done to it? Probably bugged it. He’s bugged it. They’re hearing everything.” Of course, that’s not always a bad thing, but I personally hate being distracted from the characters and the jokes just to be thinking about why he went the vending machine.
Lots of people come up with ways to determine what’s “necessary,” but generally the metaphors seem to be more about proving that you shouldn’t have extra tangents. The most common reason for this, and the motivation I had for this rant, is the hiking metaphor.
It goes like this: You’re going on a hike. You don’t want to lug around anything more than what you need. Do you bring a hairdryer? No. You don’t. Because there would be no electrical outlet.
Alright, that’s all fine and dandy except, 1) I’m not physically carrying this stuff with me in a story. It’s obvious why I wouldn’t want anything more than I needed on a hike, but that doesn’t translate to the amount of scenes in a book. 2) DUH you wouldn’t bring a hairdryer. Telling me what you obviously wouldn’t use doesn’t help with the nuances of “what is necessary” in a book. It’s far more complex than that, and it’s kind of insulting you would think I’d want to bring a hairdryer in the first place.
Would you bring a compass? Matches? A first-aid kit? Those things might be usable. You might not use any of them. If you’re going to use a metaphor to simplify things, at least make it usable. How do I know if I’m going to bring a first-aid kit or not?
I have an answer to that, if you’re interested. Because of course I do. I don’t know what else would be expected of me.
My reply is, for one thing, unlike actually hiking, you can edit out whatever you don’t want either. When you’re writing, I think it’s a good idea to “bring” everything that occurs to you. It’s not until the end of the trip that you can say, “Okay, I can get rid of this, I didn’t use that…” So, okay, bring the matches, bring the first aid kit, hell, even bring the hairdryer. I say wait until you figured out what “C” is before you decide if you need “A” or “B.” Feel free to go off on tangents. They very well might not end up being that later.
Secondly, in a book, you don’t want to carry a bunch of extra crap because it looks like a lack of forethought. Good writing, in most circumstances, is about gaining the readers’ trust. Show them that you have their back, that you’re not going to make them lug around junk they don’t need, but you are actually good at predicting we’ll use A and B. This makes them less inclined to tune out information, and to trust that you’re really know where you’re going. If the audience does not believe you know where you’re going, there’s a good chance they’ll stop following you. We’ve all been taken into a back alley and shot by an author at one point, scorned by a crappy book. Illustrate that it’s not going to happen here, that you got your back, and you know what you’re doing.
Lastly, think about it in terms of the world being real. If the characters were actual people, and if the events actually happened, and a person (the narrator) is actually telling the story, what is his motivation for talking about this? These people have had lunch millions of times in their life; why is this time important?
You always put something in for a reason, you felt, in some way or another, this was important. The questions then become about why is it important, what does it do for the story, and is this still true? Does the reward of having it (the information delivered, for instance) outweigh the consequence (the pacing slows way down and is dull). Ask yourself why, and you’ll figure out if it’s needed or not.