Friday, March 5, 2010

Learning to Underwrite

In January I posted about my struggles with overwriting. My tutor had told me all my character's emotion and reflection were slowing down the pace of my story's action. I spent a horrendous week with little sleep and much stress while cutting EVERYTHING. But I never told you the final outcome: my tutor loved my revision. She thought the cuts made a world of difference to my writing.

Emotion? Reflection? Gone! Well... mostly, except when absolutely necessary.

Now that I've had some time for my own reflection (and sleep), I have to say this new perspective really has improved my writing. It's also made me much more conscious of overwriting or underwriting in other authors. So when I saw this incredible example in my reading today, I had to share.

This is from CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson (author of SPEAK, without a doubt one of the ten best books I have ever read). SPOILER ALERT: The main character, Isabel, has just had her sister, Ruth, stolen from her and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. When Isabel tried to fight back against her master, she was horrifically abused and branded. Isabel has now recovered, at least physically.

"I swept the hearth and fetched the fan. I dusted the library without looking at the books on the shelves or the horse on the wall. I preferred the chores that took me out of the kitchen, for it was there the bees tricked me into seeing Ruth's ghost playing on the floor, churning butter, or counting out kernels of corn. When her voice whispered to me, I caught fire again from my toes to my face, and I burned slow, like damp wood.

"Becky watched me careful when I turned inside myself like that. She once tried to apologize for what happened. The instant she stopped talking, I forgot what she said...

"Curzon came around day after day and talked to me through the boards of the fence. I did not answer him." (157-8)

Isn't that interesting? Even though Isabel is speaking in first person, she doesn't tell the reader anything about her emotions, only her physical sensations and actions. Yet, through those, Isabel's feelings are absolutely clear. Halse Anderson has no need to add "I was heartbroken and blamed myself and everyone around me." We already know.


  1. I find a very useful exercise is to go through my manuscript and search of the words 'I feel' In general that's a sentence that can be deleted. It's useful to write the feelings for myself in my first draft, but generally they can be deleted in later drafts.

  2. My tutor suggested that exact exercise to our class the other day, Keren!

    I think you're right, writing the feelings is about telling myself the story first, figuring out exactly what is happening. Once I know, the direct telling can be taken out.


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