Writerly Wednesdays–Lessons Learned

The best way to learn how to write is by doing it–a lot. Rookie writers often make the same mistakes, things like over- or under-explaining; repeating themselves; using cliche phrases; bouncing around in register, tone, and point of view . . . . Generally, these are things that a writer will learn to avoid as he or she writes and becomes moreconfident. Some writers have a better ear for language and begin with a head start. Some writers just never quite “get it”. But most writers, given time, are able to smooth these things out. It just takes dedication and persistence.

I’ve been writing basically all my life. I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t able to read and write. As soon as I was able to put words together on a page, I was making stories. So, even though I’m fairly young, I have a lot of experience. Through the years, I’ve smoothed over some of those “rookie mistakes.”

And I have the evidence to prove it.

I recently went through some of my older writing. I was particularly tickled by a story that my computer tells me I began when I was 14 (it’s about the Oregon Trail). All-in-all, it isn’t bad for a 14-year-old. Some of the imagery is nice, and you can very much tell that it’s my voice. There’s the matter-of-fact, wise-to-the-world, half-ironic tone to the dialogue. The descriptions sound decidedly like me, too. But–and it’s a big but–I had a LOT to learn. To wit:

1. Bungled transitions. In this excerpt, the dialogue is fine, though perhaps unnecessary; there’s a long scene where the narrator meets everyone in the wagon train one by one. If you notice, the father (who’s speaking) says everyone is pleased to meet Captain Fowler. However, the narrator then mumbled that “yes, it was”. That makes no sense. She should mumble something like, “it was a pleasure indeed” or whatever. “It was” does not line up with “everyone is”.

Original: “This is my brood, Captain Fowler. This is my second, Catherine, and my only boy, Rob, and my youngest, Millie. They’re all very pleased to meet you.”

I mumbled something to the effect that yes, it was, and then listened to them talk as Rob and Millie wandered away to create some mischief.

Rewritten: “This is my brood, Captain Fowler: my daughter Catherine, my only boy Rob, and the little one is Millie. They’re all very pleased to meet you.”

Too shy to open my mouth and speak up, I mumbled my general agreement with Papa’s sentiment.

2. Idiocy. Yep. Idiocy. Apparently, late that night the sun was a tiny splotch on the horizon. How the sun could be in the sky when it was night, I do not know. Also, there is no reason to start with “it was later . . . .” It would be much better to cut to the chase.

Original: It was later that night when the sun was a tiny splotch on the horizon that everyone gathered around the bonfire.

Rewritten: When the sun was a tiny splotch on the horizon, everyone gathered around the bonfire.

3. Clunkiness and Repetition. In the below, my wording is unsupportably clunky. Both the “I was” and the “-ing” constructions are weak. Also, the “as though” and the  prepositional phrase “she had known me for a few years” make the sentence drag. Last but not least, the narrator tells us what she’s thinking, then says what she’s thinking. The repetition isn’t necessary.

Original: I was a little surprised by Mrs Sawyer. She was talking to me as though I were her closest friend and she had known me for a few years.

“Mrs Sawyer, why are you actin’ like I’m your friend?”

Rewritten: Mrs.Sawyer’s openness surprised me.

“Why are you being so friendly?” I asked.

4. TMI. I had a pretty bad habit of info-dumping. Probably half to two-thirds of the 19 pages I have of this story are made up of useless information. The story is told in first person, from the distance of many years. All the info-dumping isn’t too bad, since you can say it fits with the narrator; she’s recalling how things were and trying to explain them carefully. Still, it’s too much information.

Original: We packed so many things, that it’s hard to even go trough a list of half of them. We packed spare parts, of course, spare wagon tongues, spokes, axles, and wheels. We took a grease bucket, water barrels, heavy rope, a kettle, frying pan, coffee pot, etcetera. In the Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, it was suggested that we take 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds bacon–insulated in boxes with bran–10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. Joel Palmer recommended also taking 30 pounds of pilot bread, 10 pounds of rice, tea, dried fruit, saleratus, and cornmeal.

Rewritten: The wagon overflowed with our supplies. We had to carry every necessity with us: water barrels, rope, pots, underclothes, spare shoes, books, and tons of food–the barrels held everything from bacon to dried fruit. It would have to last us all the way Oregon.

5. Wordiness. If Mozart was told, “Too many notes,” then I needed to be told, “Too many words.” The nonsense below just needs to be trimmed. There’s no need to go bouncing around the way I do.

Original: When the straws were picked, our platoon ended wound up somewhere in the middle of the wagon train. Our wagon was the first one in the platoon, and then behind us was Beth and Peter and Charles, and behind them was Aunt Elisabeth and her family, then the Hixons, the Sawyers, and bringing up the rear was the Wilsons.

The very next morning, the entire camp was awake by five in the morning–later in our journey, it would be even before then, about four.  In three hours everyone had eaten and our things were packed for the first day of our long journey.

Rewritten: When the straws were picked, our platoon ended up in the middle of the wagon train, and our wagon at the front of the platoon. We were all awake by five o’clock the next morning, and the wagon train moved out–on time–at six.

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