Kill Your Words by Ollie Quain
“Kill them. Be ruthless. They are random words…not your cats.” My lovely agent, Ben, said this to me before the primary edit of my first novel, How To Lose Weight And Alienate People. I had handed in the manuscript a week prior. He was very happy with the general thrust but said it needed a “tidy up” and would suggest the areas which needed the most tidying. I was also happy with this; imagining the literary equivalent of some light dusting with a soft cloth. I thought it was going to be easy to make the changes. After all, they were just words.
A few days later, a print out (old school!) of the manuscript arrived in the post. Clearly, a “tidy up” in agent speak means a hardcore exfoliation with a metal scourer. Every page was covered in lines of red Biro. A Post-it note explained; RED = NO PURPOSE. Suddenly, they were no longer “just words”. Each tiny letter was a visual representation of the mammoth effort I had put in to getting the book finished. The hours of tapping away re-lent-less-ly at the computer, but moreover the hours where I had stared at the monitor achieving little except for a headache and a really low opinion of myself…but still pulled myself together to eventually hit my word count. And now, these words counted for nothing. But of course, my agent was – whisper it – right. I was being emotional. He was being professional; making sure that my book had the best chance of being signed.
So, for what it is worth (agh! – those are five words that you can almost always do without), this is what I realised I had learned when it came to writing my second novel, She Just Can’t Help Herself. My new (and equally lovely) agent, Anna, still had red Biro issues, but it wasn’t a bloodbath.
- Your mantra is “Economy and control, economy and control, economy and control…” Not exactly the sexiest approach, but almost certainly the best approach, especially with your first book. For most writers this initial tome has been in their heads for years. With the words finally going down on the page, it is so easy to over analyse, over develop, over think… generally, over egg. Remember that anything which is not relevant to each character’s involvement in the plot does not belong on the page. What they say, how they say it, why they say it, when they say it, who they say it to… plus their clothes, job, house, pets, friends and family, even with their environmental conditions; there has to be a link to the story. Especially – and this is a personal bug bear of mine when reading – when it comes to describing the weather.
- Any specific word or sentence which is minorly jarring when you read it will feel like major whiplash for your reader. You wrote it. You know it is coming. You are prepared. They are not. I have a rule that if I have to contemplate whether to remove something for more than a few seconds, it should go. Words are not like your best friend’s new slightly obnoxious boy/girlfriend. Your decision of whether you like them or not has to be made immediately. You cannot afford to give them time to grow on you or to prove themselves as a positive influence.
- Self-indulgence is an arrestable crime. Okay, it isn’t… but it should be for writers. And if it was, I would be banged up at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with no hope of parole for some of the verbose waffle I tried to get past Ben in HTLWAAP. You may start off with innocent intentions, of course. For example, if you have an intense knowledge of a certain subject, location or celebrity you will naturally write a lot more freely. But if this veers into showing off, it will suddenly feel as if the narrative voice is drawing attention to itself, and not focusing on the story.
- Be accepting to your agent’s (and after being signed) your editor’s suggestions. They know what the market wants. Flexibility at this stage is also good preparation for what is coming next. After all, as soon as that book goes into production, it is not your baby/kitten (apply as applicable; pending on skin or fur preference) anymore. It is a product. That’s not to say you won’t have input, of course, but be prepared!
- Killing words gives you the opportunity to give birth to even better ones.
A huge thank you to Ollie for this fabulous post and to and Cara to MIRA.
Everybody thinks Ashley Jacobs is #slaying life
With her hot job on a style magazine, cool wardrobe, attitude to match and a cat called Kat Moss – Ashley is fashion. However, beneath the Photoshopped fabulousness she’s on a downward spiral; (not) dealing with rising debts, insurmountable problems in her relationship and growing dread over a rival at work.
…but one woman knows the truth.
As kids, Tanya Dinsdale – nicest of natures, nasty shoes – was Ashley’s best friend. But the darkest of betrayals in their teens made them the worst of enemies. It’s taken Tanya more than a decade to get over what happened. Her future is finally looking good. So, the last person either would want to see is the other. Then their adult worlds collide…