While writing and revising Always Gardenia, I learned some tricks of the prose trade:
1. Watch out for filter words.
“She saw the gray clouds looming above the mountain.”
“He heard the church bells pealing.”
“He felt the raw wind blowing against his face.”
“He noticed the boy’s grin.”
“She watched the crows attacking the soaring eagle.”
“Gray clouds loomed above the mountain.”
“The church bells pealed.”
“Raw wind blew against his face.”
“The boy grinned.”
“Crows attacked the soaring eagle.”
2. Thank you, FIND!
In one of the final revisions of Always Gardenia, I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had littered the manuscript with “in fact,” “of course,” and “anyway.” Thanks to that wonder of the modern age, the “Find” command, I tracked these down and deleted them. I suspect that most writers overuse pet words and phrases that add nothing to their dulcet prose, so “Find” is our friend.
3. The life is in the [appropriate, not-overdone] details.
I wrote Always Gardenia with careful attention to details of settings, clothing, weather, food, and plants; I visualized where each scene was taking place and described the characters in action in apartments, offices, theaters, restaurants and parks. One chapter begins in Frieda Hamm’s apartment, where the members of the English department gather for a party, and ends with Arnold Wiggens and Laurel DuBarr having a “date” in a pub.
I fussed with the details of transporting Arnold and Laurel from Frieda’s apartment to the pub. They had to exit the apartment, descend some steps to the sidewalk, amble a few blocks to Arnold’s car, drive to the pub, and find a parking place. To keep this from being tedious to read (it was tedious), I tried to create some clever banter for Arnold and Laurel, but I didn’t want to use up too many of my ideas for their conversation as they had to have something left to say to each other in the pub.
I wrote and rewrote until, frustrated, I cut the apartment-to-pub action. Could I have them exit the apartment and, by adding some space in the text to show transition, start a new scene with them sitting at the pub table? Yes, I could! The details of their transit from the apartment to the pub were not necessary to the chapter’s through-line.
Another example of an unnecessary detail appeared in the scene at Hamilton Dodge’s home. I described Arnold Wiggens setting his mug of green tea on a coaster with an image of an Australian cockatoo. My editor asked why I had included this. Well, I own such a coaster and while merrily drafting away, it had slipped into my consciousness, so I slipped it into the story. But the coaster added nothing to the narrative and could have distracted the reader — “Wait, am I supposed to find a metaphor in the image of the Australian cockatoo?”
Nope. I deleted the coaster and didn’t worry about Arnold’s mug leaving a ring on the tabletop.