"Don't let your enthusiasm for your material turn your novel into the literary equivalent of three hours of vacation pictures."

Last Wednesday, I mentioned a newspaper editor I used to have who would whip out his copy hatchet and perform barbaric surgery on all the reporters’ drafts, sometimes reducing my co-workers to tears of frustration—but always producing a better story in the end. We’d grumble and vent about him, question his editing skills, question his sizable mustache, do a fair amount of whining, but always secretly know that he was, well, right.

He had objectivity on our prose, a fresh eye. We didn’t.

And here’s something else he once did: After I’d turned in a fairly lengthy feature—the kind of story that you work on for a long time, fall in love with and get hopelessly lost in—he came to my desk with a printout of the piece. I looked up nervously. He stood there, reading the draft, occasionally eying me over the top of the page, then pulled out his red pen. My fellow reporters looked on. He made a few quick, emotionless swoops. Then, he turned the printout around to reveal two entire pages that he’d just struck from the draft.

Who the hell cares?” he said, tossing the pages in my inbox. “Always remember that.”

And then he shrugged and walked away. We all bemoaned his callousness and made some cracks about his unfortunate mustache, but, again, after I got back to reading the piece, he was right. The pages were loaded with too many details, too many inconsequential facts, too many irrelevant bits and pieces that were like chunks of broken glass in the roadway of the narrative. I’d just gotten too immersed in the subject matter, and couldn’t realize it any more.

So if that great mustachioed editor left me with anything, it’s to try to remember. And then try to balance my work in a way that satisfies all parties—writer, and reader.

As for that balancing act when it comes to fiction (including the flipside of not providing enough detail) here’s the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series (the quote-worthy quips that branded themselves in my mind when we were creating these magazines throughout the year). A regular prompt follows. Happy Wednesday.

No. 17: Keep the Photo Albums at Bay
It’s not easy to step outside of yourself and ‘become’ your reader, but that’s exactly what a novelist has to do. Step back and consider: If you knew nothing about this subject, would there be enough information in your novel for you to understand it clearly? And, conversely: Have you included unnecessary details simply because you think they’re interesting? 

Readers love learning something new, but above all, a novel is a story. Your job is to entertain. Don’t let your enthusiasm for your material turn your novel into the literary equivalent of three hours of vacation pictures.”
Karen Dionne, “Fact Into Fiction,” January 2010 (click here to check the issue out)

Image: …trialsanderrors [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll make sure it gets up.

It’s probably the best graffiti you’ve ever read in a bathroom stall. On a whim, you decide to steal it, and use it in the boardroom.

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3 thoughts on “"Don't let your enthusiasm for your material turn your novel into the literary equivalent of three hours of vacation pictures."

  1. Dare Gaither

    The project was a complete failure.
    I looked at my watch.
    Ten minutes to Doomsday.
    Camping out in the bathroom wouldn’t change reality.
    As I reached to open the stall door, bright red letters
    jumped out from the grey metal background.

    “All you really need is a good story.”

    My heart quickened at the words of wisdom
    offered by the latrinalia prophet. A good story
    trumps hard facts any day. I had ten minutes
    to craft a story that would captivate the imagination
    of my audience and distract them from the bothersome
    truth of numbers.

    As I left the sanctuary of my stall, I noticed Ben Lamm
    exiting the stall to my left. There was a haunted look in
    his eyes that I attributed to some bothersome numbers
    from his own department. We nodded at each other,
    avoiding direct eye contact.

    The meeting began with the usual pandering to
    our esteemed leader. My story was falling into place.
    I would open with strong but vague language and
    proceed based on the audience reaction. I took a deep
    breath and stood up.

    Before I could utter my first word, Ben jumped to his
    feet and stole the show. Red faced and apologetic,
    Ben confessed that his updated data analysis program
    had a critical bug. He was working on a fix, but all
    the results from the updated program were suspect and
    should be rerun. This was even better than my story idea.
    It didn’t solve my problem, but it bought some time.
    There were many angry looks hurled at Ben, but there
    were a fair few expressions of relief and gratitude.

    Ben’s announcement essentially ended the meeting.
    He was called into the director’s office for some “clarification.”
    I whistled as I walked down the hall toward my office.
    As I passed the bathroom door, I remembered Ben’s
    tortured look as he came out of the stall. Ben was a sneaky
    little cuss who could always find a way to delegate blame.
    What had prompted his unexpected revelation?

    I entered the stall he had occupied earlier.
    There on the stall door, the answer
    was displayed in bright red letters.

    “The truth shall set you free.”

  2. Mark James

    Fire crackled outside the wooden stall, but I kept writing on my left hand.

    The door burst open. A hard-faced muscleman, looking mean enough to smash granite in his sleep, glared at me through black smoke. “You crazy?”

    I slipped my fine point Even Flow pen into my back pocket. “I didn’t hear the fire alarm.”

    Even through the smoke between us, I saw his eyes go wide. “If you weren’t on the guest list,” he said, “I’d let you die for being stupid.” He grabbed for me, slung me over his shoulder, and took off running.

    Bouncing against what felt like jointed concrete, I was scared as hell. I kept my left hand splayed open, so that if I didn’t die, and if the not so jolly giant didn’t crush me against a wall, the words on my palm wouldn’t get smeared.

    “Damn.” He slid me off his shoulder, kicked the closest wall. “What the hell were you doing in there?”

    I looked up at him. “You want details?”

    For a second I thought he’d rip off my head and screw it on backward. He banged his fist into the wall, making a noise like a steel hammer hitting thin plaster. “We can’t go out the front. Fire’s already burning the back wall.”

    We were still inside Armageddon, the log cabin I’d rented. “What’s out front?”

    “How fast can you run?”

    It didn’t matter because my palm was sweating, and I’d never remember the words I’d copied off the bathroom stall. “Fast enough,” I said.

    “There’s a grizzly out there.” He narrowed his eyes at me, like I’d sent the bear a text from my Smart Phone, just to make his not so jolly day. “We have to get past him.”

    My palms were sweating. I wiped my right hand on my pants, held my left one a little out from my body. “I never raced a bear before,” I said.

    “Don’t come in second.” He sized up the front door of cabin, took three long steps back, then stopped and looked at me. “You don’t have your keys, do you?”

    They were in the bathroom. “Lost them.”

    “Figures.” He charged the door, head down, arms out. His triple-sized body blurred past me and hit the door like a wrecking ball.

    My left arm down, fingers spread, I ran faster than a speeding plane, put Superman in the dust. No bear roaring outside; fire behind me; I kept running, all the way into the woods.

    A couple of weeks later, trapped at the far end of the long table in the boardroom, the fire at Armageddon was a memory. There were only two of us in the room, me and The Chairman. “I’m waiting,” he said.

    I had one shot at the best ad campaign in the country, or I’d be hitting pavement. I didn’t need the writing on my hand. I’d memorized it. I slid him a cardboard shoe, and said, “These are the times that try men’s soles, don’t let yours get worn into the ground.”

    So far as I could tell, the Chairman didn’t breathe, until the he said, “Perfect. Simply perfect.”

  3. Sean

    “Today I will make a change!” Tom said, yelling the phrase and making several of his employees sitting around the boardroom table jump.
    The company had been losing money for several months and it had kept Tom up at night trying to figure out the best way to turn it all around.

    “Say it with me folks. Today I will make a change!” He repeated. He heard several quiet groans.

    He could make them feel as miserable as he felt while being verbally berated by his higher ups. A small source of vengeful pleasure.

    “Bill, come join me up here.”

    Bill was a slothenly man who had to suck in his stomach and walk on his tip toes to squeeze between the chairs and the wall as he stumbled to the front of the boardroom.

    “Look Bill, for 20 dollars, I want to hear you shout it. I want you to go out there and run around the cubicles shouting it. Come on everyone, let’s go Bill!” Tom said. He smiled broadly and Bill nervously returned his smile as his co-workers cheered him on as they had been told.

    Bill, red faced partly from all the stomach sucking but also because of his debilitating shyness, trotted out of the room and into the main area of the office.

    Tom hid his laughter at the fat man running around the cubicles shouting his phrase between huge gulps of air. He thrived off people like Bill. Bill was the kind of guy who had convinced himself that if people were going to laugh at him that maybe that meant they really liked him so he was easy to convince to do things like this and he knew it made the other uncomfortable.

    Bill was his pet pig who had no idea that he would soon be bacon, ham, and sausage. Total blissful ignorance.

    As sad as it was Bill also thought that going out of his way to do whatever he was told would get him ahead. He probably knew deep down that it was all actually a political chess game but he had convinced himself that if he worked harder and longer than everyone else sooner or later he wouldn’t be passed over.

    Of course he was delusional. Tom had figured out long ago that the key to getting ahead was playing the game while convincing someone else to do your work for you. Keeping your nose on the keyboard was a surefire way to appear passive and subservient. Those types of people never get promoted, never get ahead.

    As Bill returned to the board room Tom gave him a big pat on the shoulder, all Bill would need to feel on cloud nine for the rest of the day. He looked out at his boardroom as the sweaty Bill struggled to get back to his seat and he was proud.

    Proud that he energized his crew with a phrase he had found written on the wall of a bathroom stall.