The author blog of C. J. Ivory

Tinkerer with words. Dresser-Upper. Adorer of Steampunk and VictoriaNoir fiction. Occasional Lawgineer.

May 1, 2011

You Can’t Spell Procrastination Without “Pro”

Everybody has times when they just can’t write another %#^% word. But your down-time doesn’t have to be unconstructive. Here are five ideas to make the most of the can’t-face-anymore-writing times, which will still improve your novel.

1. Seek and Destroy your adverbs

Adverbs, she said sadly.  
These words describe how the character is performing an action – he laughed merrily, she yawned loudly, they watched carefully. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well, not in moderation.  But they have fallen out of favour lately – let’s be honest, they’ve become the pariah dogs of the literary world. 

Why? If we cut through the ranting, it seems that most professionals hate adverbs because they are a crutch for lazy writing. They break the “Show, don’t tell” rule. If your narrative already shows anger (He punched the dry wall), then you don’t need to add an adverb (he punched angrily at the dry wall), because it doesn’t add anything. 

So how many should you have? Advice I’ve read ranges from the reasonable (maximum of one or two per page) to the ridiculous (none at all, ever, in any manuscript. Ever).

You’ll need to decide what your style is. But if you’ve never addressed the adverb issue before, one thing is for certain: you’ve probably got too many of them. So your first procrastination task is to read through your WIP and find every adverb (you’ll be able to spot them because they end in –ly). Be ruthless – do you really need that adverb? Can you express the same sentiment through action or dialogue?

2. Research those little details

So you had your character catch the 6:10pm train to Montreal. Does that train even exist? And what about your sleazy police officer, receiving bribes – isn’t he too young to hold the rank you gave him?

When we write a first draft, we shouldn’t stop and research every little detail – if we’re on a roll, we should embrace it. But when you’re procrastinating, it’s the perfect time to research. At the risk of being flamed, I’m going to recommend Wikipedia. Yes, it’s open source, so the information might be bad. But Wiki’s little secret is the list of references down the bottom of the page. Most of them are web resources, so you can click through from Wiki to closed-source information.

3. The Gunning Fog Index test

Are you a pontificating obfuscator, or are you snappy? Precise? To-the-point?
This test requires a bit of math, but it gives you an idea of how easy or difficult your writing is to read.  The Index gives the number of years of education that your reader hypothetically needs to understand the manuscript. Short sentences, written in plain English, achieve a better (lower) score than long sentences written in complicated language.

The Gunning Fog Index uses the following formula: 

Ugh, right? But don’t panic. Here’s the step-by-step breakdown. I’ve added an example, which comes from my current WIP.

Select a passage (such as one or more full paragraphs) of between 100-200 words.
Example: I chose the first three paragraphs of my current WIP.
Count the number of words (if you highlight the passage, Word will tell you exactly how many words it contains).
Easy: Word tells me it’s 136.
Count the number of sentences.
Example: I have fourteen sentences
Now divide the number of words by the number of sentences. That gives you your average sentence length (jot this down).
My average sentence length is 9.7 words
For the entire passage, count the words with three or more syllables. Don’t include proper nouns (names or places). Common suffixes (such as -es, -ed, or -ing) are not counted as syllables.
Hmm… I had all of TWO words of three or more syllables
Work out the percentage of words which have three or more syllables.
Right, that gets me 1.47
Add the average sentence length (you wrote that down earlier) and the percentage of complex words.
9.7 plus 1.47 equals 11.17
Multiply the result by 0.4.
11.17 multiplied by 0.4 equals 4.5

So I guess that means a reader of about 10 years old could read and understand my prose. Not sure if that’s good or bad!

For reference, the New York Times has an average Fog Index of 11-12, Time magazine about 11. Typically, technical documentation has a Fog Index between 10 and 15, and professional prose almost never exceeds 18. Remember, the number represents years of education, not age, so if you’re scoring 18, you better hope all your readers have at least a Masters degree!

4. Find and Change your “crop-up” words

Everyone has these words. They’re your “go to” words, which you throw in almost unconsciously when tapping out your WIP. Because I write in the Victorian era, I used “rather” WAY too much. I also found I had a lot of “little” things in my WIP. And “frown” and “sigh” were all my characters ever did, it seemed. It’s pretty easy to do a search for these, using the Find function. Many of these words you can just snip (In my case: what are the odds that a snuff box was anything but "little"? Really don't need to say it). Others you can replace with more specific and descriptive words.

If you don’t know what your "crop-up" words are, read aloud a chapter of your WIP. That’s right, aloud. You will recognise so many more repeated words if you can hear them. Then go and nuke the buggers!

5. Get to know your characters

This is for when you’re in the mood to write something, but just can’t bring yourself to work on your WIP. Go ahead and write some flash fic, using the characters from your WIP. For example, you might like to:

  • Write a scene that doesn’t make it into your WIP, like your characters having dinner together. What kind of food do they like? Do they eat at a fancy restaurant, or have family-style food around the dinner table? What do they talk about, when they’re not talking about your plot?
  • Rewrite a scene that you’ve watched on TV lately – the stranger the show, the better. Write it with your characters in place of the show’s characters. How would your characters react to the same happenings? How do they interact with one another? What aspects of their personalities does the unusual scene bring out in them?  
  • Have one of your characters write a gossipy letter/email to a trusted friend (not one in the story), telling them their true feelings about the other characters. What would he/she write?


Paperback Writer said...

This is good advice, I'm going to save this for reference. Thanks.

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

You're welcome! Thanks for reading :)

H. Scott Dalton said...

Great suggestions, Charlotte. I'll remember these next time I'm procrastinating on my WIP.

But not now. I'll do this stuff later....


Deb said...

I've seen adverbs attacked (repeatedly! ;), but your "punched angrily" is the best example I've seen yet.

My current WIP is much less adverb-heavy than my first book, even in the first draft. Thank goodness for the human capacity to learn from doing it wrong the first time--not to mention the second, third, and fourth!

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Yes, we do learn - thank goodness! I still can't believe how much I gained as a writer via the process of writing my first novel. Of course, I'm still discovering areas for improvement... and probably will until the day I write my last words :)

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

@ H. Scott Dalton - Hah! A procrastinater after my own heart :)

MISH said...

Hey CJ ~~ thanks for this informative post . You've provided some great ideas for getting constructive work done , during WIP down-time .