When Books Bog Down . . . Talk about intimidating titles -- that one sounds almost as ominous as When Animals Attack. Maybe it’s the alliteration, or something. Regardless, the thought of a book bogging down, whether you’re reading it or writing it is not a good thing. Mostly when I think of books doing this I flash back to those massive and tedious text books from college. Need a sleeping aid? Just pick up one of your old poli-sci books, or better yet that one from sociology class. It’s truly an art to be able to write a book that is so boring it’ll put 95% of the readers to sleep. They ought to have an award for that.
The best thing to do in case you’re not trying to use the book as a sleep-aid and it’s bogging down is to stop reading and close it. I’ve mentioned before how I went back to grad school after a long intermission. During this intermission I rediscovered the joy of reading and also developed a habit of dumping a book if it didn’t grab me within the first few pages. Remember that old T-shirt with the logo: So Many Books, So Little Time. Yeah, I’d discard a book if I wasn’t enjoying the read. No harm, no foul. Why waste your time reading something you’re not enjoying? Naturally, in grad school when I would mention that I stopped reading on a certain page because I didn’t care for the book a few of the instructors were less than sympathetic.
"You don’t have to like it," one of them said to me. "You’re here to learn."
And this was true. If you don’t like something you should take the time to figure out why it’s not working so you can avoid those mistakes in your own writing. Thus, if I didn’t like the book I could always articulate why I felt it didn’t work.
I guess that could be counted as a "life reading lesson."
Now if you’re writing a book the idea of the prose bogging down is even more troubling. What writer wants his or her words to become stuck in the mud? How can you tell if this is happening to the book you’re in the process of writing and, more importantly, how can you fix it?
Let’s take that two-part question one section at a time.
First, how can you tell? Well, one way is to get some feedback from an honest individual. That means don’t ask a friend or family member to read it and tell you what they think. An endorsement like, "My mother loved it" will usually spell disaster and won’t alert you to any potential slow spots. Have a reliable first reader go over it and tell you where the problem areas are. I attended a mystery conference once and saw an editor go through a foot-high stack of manuscripts in a matter of minutes. His process was to open each envelope (Sometimes an improperly packaged envelope with an overabundance of tape would tick him off) and begin reading until something stopped him. At this point he’d decide if the manuscript deserved further reading. In most cases he tossed it in the rejection pile. So above all, you want to avoid bogging down on the first page.
Reading your manuscript aloud is also an invaluable technique for shedding light on where the problems begin. You can either read it out loud to yourself, or have someone else read it to you. Both have distinct advantages. Reading it yourself might spare you some embarrassment if it’s totally unpolished. Hearing it read by someone else gives you a good idea about the cadence of the words. Pay particular attention to any sentences or parts where the reader hesitates or stumbles. That’s a clear indication that the sentence needs to be reworked.
Errr . . . Are we starting to get bogged down here yet?
I’ve sort of morphed into the second part of the aforementioned two-part question: how do you fix it?
The answer is simple: you rewrite it.
In the famous words of Rolad Dahl, good writing is rewriting.
Take the time to highlight those problem areas and figure out why they’re not working. Then rewrite them. Use the feedback you’ve gotten from your trusted first reader and figure out how you can write it better. I had occasion to listen to an interview with renowned writer Donald Bain, author of the Murder, She Wrote series among many others, at a mystery conference a few months ago. One of the things he said was "Comments from a good editor are golden." Mr. Bain is a consummate professional and I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes this can be the most enjoyable part of the writing process for me.
Writing can be compared to carving something out of a piece of wood. You start out with a block of wood and gradually shape it into a figurine, using rough cuts to begin with and then gradually slicing only tiny slivers. The rewriting is the final sanding.