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  • Midwest Romance Writers

Make Every Word Count

Contributed by MRW President, Sally Berneathy

I’m sure we’ve all pondered the riddle from Alice in Wonderland: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Here’s one from me to ponder: How is a computer program like a novel?

Actually, the answer to my question is easy.

Every word counts.

A computer program begins at point A and moves through various actions until point Z is reached. Every word, every direction, every symbol, must contribute to the process. The wrong word or direction or spacing, any unnecessary words or letters, will cause the program to fail. To crash.

The same applies to novels.

We begin at point A…the problem or conflict. We work our way through our novel to point Z…the resolution. Along the way, every scene…every sentence…every word…must contribute to the process of moving from point A to point Z.

Ask yourself of every scene in your book…what happens that moves the plot along?

When I first began writing books, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a critique group that included Alfie Thompson. At that time, I had no idea what a critique group was. The first few times I went, I was totally hammered from everyone for everything I wrote! My learning curve moved upward at a steep angle. About the fourth or fifth session when I thought I was making progress, Laura Phillips read a wonderful scene that took place on a farm. It was descriptive, warm and fuzzy, totally charming. I was impressed. But Alfie asked, “How does that scene move your story along?”

Flashbulb moment.

Every scene had to move the story along. Every scene had to be related to the story line.

I learned so many things about writing in that first critique group, but that was one of the most important.

Your so-cute scene between your heroine and her sister in which they go out to the hen house at dawn, gather eggs, and talk about their childhood? Unless your book deals with those two sisters resolving their childhood issues, that scene does not belong in your book.

Your scene detailing your character’s movements including getting out of bed, taking a shower, eating breakfast, admiring the sunrise? Delete it. When I have trouble figuring out what’s going to happen next in a book, I often write those boring details. Eventually my characters do something interesting. Then I go back and delete all that boring minutiae.

At the end of every scene, sit back and think about what you’ve written. How has the situation changed from the beginning of that scene to the end of that scene?

If there has been no change, delete the scene.

Okay, maybe that scene is just too wonderful to delete.

Save it in a special folder. Then you can retrieve it and use it in another book where it has a purpose. I have lots of those “leftovers” folders. One for every book. So far I haven’t used any of them, but it always makes me feel better to save those wonderful, worthless scenes rather than deleting them.

Now we all understand how a book is like a computer. But what about Lewis G. Carroll’s riddle? He never gave the solution, but a reader came up with an answer that most agree Mr. Carroll would have approved. “Because there is a ‘b’ in both.”

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