Here Are The Words You Need
To Kill, She Advised Ruthlessly

“Put down everything that comes into your head, and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” — Colette.

By PJ Parrish

I’m in editing mode this week. After getting the rights back to one of our older series books Thicker Than Water, we’re getting ready to self-publish it on Amazon. It’s been fun going back and reading a work that we wrote nineteen years ago. (yikes…nineteen years?)

It’s also eye opening. Because even though I had always thought this was one of our tightest written books, I’m finding a lot of detritus, lint, and junk wordage. Which led me to start thinking hard about Colette’s advice.

Yeah, put down everything that comes into your head. That’s the hot-flash passion of the first draft. But then, cool down and start the cold-hearted process of killing your darlings. Write with your heart. Edit with your head.

Sue’s post from yesterday offered this tasty morsel from writing instructor Gary Provost:

When writing…remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without.

Gary’s advice extends of course, to every word you cannot do without. This is a concept that many novelists struggle with, even us old dogs with twenty or more books under our belts. I see this regularly with most of our First Page Critique submissions. Often, I ask the writers to put more in — to establish a sense of place and time frame, to begin creating a mood, to begin layering in character with well-placed snippets of backstory. But more often, there are many words — let’s call them junk words — that should be sliced out because they contribute nothing.

So…you’ve got that first draft done. You’ve let it bake in the hard drive for at least a week. You’re ready to edit with the head. What should you look to cut?

Filler Words. First, get the easy stuff out of there, words like “really,” “very,” “that,” “suddenly,” and my favorite foible — “then.”

  • “Suddenly, a shot whizzed by my head” becomes “A shot whizzed by my head.” Gun shots tend to come at you pretty suddenly. No need to gild the Glock.
  • “And then Louis lowered himself into the dark cavern” becomes “Louis lowered himself into the dark cavern.”
  • “His dog Stella was very excited to see him as he came in the door” becomes “Stella was excited to see him come in the door.” Or even better: “Stella’s tail whirled like a helicopter rotor when he came in.”   Show, don’t tell whenever you can.

Redundancies. We all do this — we just stick these junk words in and move on. It’s almost like we don’t even see the insidious little suckers. Things like: The armed gunman ran down the alley. The gunman didn’t realize he was in close proximity to the cop. But he got back to the parked Fiat and make his getaway in the sleek little foreign import. After ditching the Fiat, he snuck into the estate, stopping at the pool to toss in his Glock. He went inside, mingling among the the invited guests. When the cop spotted the Glock at the bottom of the pool, he knew it was a major breakthrough in the case.”

Adverbs. Yeah, we’re going to beat up on poor old adverbs again. But with good reason. Yes, you can use one once in a blue moon but you rarely need to. The presence of an adverb usually means the absence of something else.  Nine times out of ten, if you need an adverb, your verb is puny and you need to work harder.

  • “She wept uncontrollably” becomes “She sobbed.”
  • “He walked jauntily into the bar as if he owned the place.” This becomes “He sauntered into the bar.” BTW, stuff like “as if he owned the place” is cliche. You didn’t invent it so don’t try to steal it.
  • “Stella the dog ran quickly across the lawn to get the ball” becomes “Stella raced to get the ball.”

Watch out for adverbial “said” tags. They are crutches we all use when we’ve written lazy dialogue.

  • “You’re crazy to think you can get away with this,” he said angrily becomes “You’re nuts! You can’t get away with this!” he yelled. (Yes, you can use the occasional exclamation point.)
  • “I like you,” she said flirtatiously becomes “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” (One of Matty’s best lines just before she seduces Ned Racine in Body Heat.) If your dialogue is as sinewy as this, you don’t need said tags.

Be aware that, given our pulp ancestors, we modern crime fiction writers can fall prey to the purple adverbs of yore. “He smiled thinly.”  “She frowned grimly.”  And yes, this is from The Maltese Falcon, which means Hammett can pull this off but the rest of us can’t anymore: “Sorry,” Spade said, and grinned wolfishly, showing his jaw teeth.”

And if I ever see any of you writing things like “She whispered softly” or “He screamed loudly” I will hunt you down and smash your Acer. She said mercilessly.

Okay, time for an object lesson. Here is the ending of a chapter in the book I am editing. Quick set-up: Louis Kincaid is trying to crack an old case — the murder of a teenager named Kitty Jagger. He has sought out the original detective from the case, Bob Ahnert, who’s been demoted and is exiled to an out-station on the edge of the Everglades. Here is the scene, as we wrote and as it was published in 2003:

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “In fact, I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

Ahnert was silent for a long time, looking out over the desolate landscape.

“It’s over for me,” he said finally. “She’s yours now.”

Louis was surprised to hear a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. He wondered what the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago. He suspected that Ahnert had been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life. He suddenly could hear Sheriff Mobley talking to him as he leaned over the bar at O’Sullivan’s.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. A gold necklace. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

But Louis knew that Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought, and he also suspected now that he had been wrong about Ahnert being obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. Ahnert was obsessed with Kitty herself.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to to stop,” Ahnert said.

Louis shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

Ahnert finally looked back at Louis. “I was hung up on a dead girl,” he said, then looked away. “That’s really sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck and looked up at the sun. But it wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. It was his own growing suspicion that he, too, was hung up on Kitty Jagger. 

“I’m just trying to give her some justice,” Louis said quietly.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. Then he picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Here’s some advice,” he said. “Forget justice. Just give her some peace.”

Now here’s my editing. I took out every filler word, every dumb hiccup-word, every extraneous emotion-word that I could.

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean,” Ahnert replied.

Louis took a moment to answer. “Yes.”

Ahnert was silent for a long time, looking out over the desolate landscape.

“It’s over for me,” he said finally. “She’s yours now.”

Louis was surprised to hear a There was a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. He wondered What the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago? He suspected that Ahnert Had been so been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life? He suddenly could hear Sheriff Mobley talking to him as he leaned over the bar at O’Sullivans.  Mobley’s words came back to him.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. A gold necklace. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

But Louis knew that Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought. and he also suspected now that he had been wrong about And Ahnert wasn’t being obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. Ahnert was obsessed with Kitty herself.It was Kitty Ahnert was  He was obsessed with her.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told  to stop,” Ahnert said.

Louis shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”

Ahnert finally looked back at Louis. “I was hung up on a dead girl,” he said, then looked away. He looked away. “That’s really “It’s sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck and looked up at the sun. But it wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. It was his own growing suspicion that he, too, was hung up on Kitty Jagger. 

“I’m just trying to give her some justice,” Louis said quietly.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. Then He picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Here’s some advice,” he said. “Forget justice. Just give her some peace.”

Here’s how it looks, edited. Notice how much cleaner it looks on the page and how much more active it feels in terms of pacing:

“I think you still want to solve this case,” Louis said. “I think you’re the only one who does.”

“Besides you, you mean.” 

“Yes.”

Ahnert was silent, looking out over the desolate landscape. “It’s over for me,” he said. “She’s yours now.”

There was a hint of relief in Ahnert’s voice. What the hell had happened to this man twenty years ago? Had he been so been so obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer that it had destroyed his career and the rest of his life? Mobley’s words came back to him.

He stole an item that belonged to the victim. Some kind of heart-shaped locket. Guess Ahnert needed the money.

Ahnert had not needed the money a cheap locket would have brought. And he wasn’t obsessed with finding Kitty’s killer. He was obsessed with her.

“Why did you stop investigating?” Louis asked.

“I was told to.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I was hung up on a dead girl,” He looked away. “It’s sick, isn’t it.”

Louis ran a hand over the back of his neck. It wasn’t the sun that was making him sweat. “I’m just trying to give her some justice,” he said.

Ahnert tossed his cigar into the sand and ground it out with his boot. He picked a piece of tobacco off his lip and flicked it away.

“Forget justice,” he said. “Just give her some peace.”

The original version is 347 words. The edited version is 250. Did we lose anything important? Nope. In fact, the edit trusts the reader to “get” what Louis is thinking and feeling. Specifically the fact that Louis himself is becoming obsessed with the dead girl. Which is showing instead of telling. Which is leaving something unsaid and trusting the reader to get it.

That’s it for today. I’m back to editing. Please weigh in and tell us what your worst junk-word habits are. Even old crime dogs need to learn new tricks.

P.S. Below is the original cover for Thicker Than Water and our redesign mock-up.

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

25 thoughts on “Here Are The Words You Need
To Kill, She Advised Ruthlessly

  1. Thank you for an excellent example of editing. It’s also an example of how we can always keep learning and improving our craft. Just for the record, I like this line: “It was his own growing suspicion that he, too, was hung up on Kitty Jagger.” I understand why you cut it, but I like it. Oh and the new cover is great. Best of luck with the re-release.

    • Interesting that you picked up on that thought from Louis about his growing suspicion. It was there for a good reason in the first version. But this scene takes place pretty far into the plot and what happens prior SHOWS the reader via Louis’s actions that he is becoming obsessed with Kitty. So, in context, I thought it was hitting the reader over the head by this point to have him give voice (or thought) to it. I like a reader to come to their own emotional conclusions whenever possible. Thanks for the input on the cover! (I like covers with human images on them!)

  2. Thanks for the great post, Kris. It’s fun to get a peek behind the curtain of what you’re doing.

    I particularly liked your section concerning adverbs, the overuse of which is sometimes referred to as a “Tom Swifty.” “Victor Appleton” had a penchant for overusing adverbs in the Tom Swift books. There were and possibly still are contests to see who could come up with the best tongue-in-cheek application. My favorite was,
    “‘I cut myself with the power saw, he said offhandedly.'”

    Have a great day, Kris!

    • Ha! My sister Kelly wrote an entire guest post on adverbs for TKZ years ago and wrote it entirely in Tom Swift style. Maybe I will re-run it some day here.

  3. Current pet peeve in a series of books I’m reading .. “His phone started to ring .”
    What’s wrong with ‘His phone rang”?
    And plenty of adverbs with said tags. “…..she said despondently” … and worse, the next sentence as the protag saying “She sounded despondent.”

    • Yes! “Started” is a baaaad filler word. I guess you need it for “it started to rain.” As for despondently, man, if you can’t convey that via dialogue, you’re done. 🙂

      • And yet he’s selling lots and lots of books. The Hubster’s reading them (actually he’s the one who wanted them) and doesn’t notice any of these things.

  4. Kris, fun and educational to read your “before” and “after” examples. Thanks.

    Regarding the line about Louis becoming obsessed with Kitty–I interpreted that a little differently. Rather than “telling” the reader, I saw it as Louis’s surprise realization about himself.

    Looking forward to revisiting Louis! Let us know when the book is re-released.

    • Yes, I can see how it could be read as thus. Now you’re making me rethink the cut. But I am pretty sure the point is make elsewhere via action. Will re-check. Thanks.

  5. Fine fulminating at fatuous flab, Kris. And glad to see Louis coming back in fine form, fit for fighting.

    I’ll offer one teeny, tiny [redundant!] rejoinder on the word then. In First Person it can be consistent with the voice to use it on occasion, to make the transition sound more natural. There’s also a stylistic use for then at the end of a sentence. I’ve seen it and used it, but I can’t offhandedly [adverb!] think of an example at the moment. If I do later, I’ll give it to you then.

    • Oh you’re aboslutely right on “then.” It is useful in certain ways, as you point out. So, as we always say, there are no hard and fast rules. Also, you bring up something I forgot to mention — in dialogue, vernacular usage, and esp first person voice, “then” and other “junk words” should be included if it truly mimics the sound of speech or a character’s speech idiosyncracies.

  6. Great post, Kris. Thanks for showing us how a pro does it.

    Worst junk word habits? For me, the words we use in our local “dialect” as part of our normal speech. “He threw (out) the first pitch.” “I started (up) the motor.”

    By the way, I loved your “old” Louis Kincaid series. I thought your narrative style was smooth, easy to read.

    • First, thanks for the nice compliment, Steve. It speaks to my fave author quote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

      I don’t have an issue with throwing (out) the first pitch because it’s an idiom of sorts, ingrained in our sports culture. (See James’s comment above about exceptions for voice).

      Ditto, “I started up the motor.” It sounds natural, as James point out, in a first person narrative voice. “I started the motor” sounds stilted where as “He started the motor” in simple third person narrative is better. So you have to take into account your character’s natural voice, esp in first person, imho.

  7. Thanks for the peek into your process, Kris. Unnecessary “that” words creep into almost every 1st Page Critiques. I’m so anal about cutting “that” from my manuscripts my editor often sneaks a few back in. 🙂 Love the new cover!

  8. Thanks for your insights, Kris. Your post is a craft book in miniature! Bookmarking it now.

    I find the word “then” is like a comfy, old sweater. I just wrap myself in it when I’m writing. Thank goodness for word processors where I can easily find and whack those weasels when I get to the editing phase.

    I do have one question: Sue presented some great advice from Gary Provost yesterday. He emphasized content over style. But he also mentioned the melody of the piece. Is it possible that cutting to the bone will sometimes interrupt the rhythm?

    Thanks again.

    • Oh yes! I definitely think that over-cutting imperils style and rhythm. You go too far to the other side and began trimming out every word that is, by hard definition, filler. And then, quite by earnest accident, you’ve destroyed what makes your writing unique — voice. I think it’s a happy balance. And again, as James says, you have to be particularly careful you don’t over-cut in first person. Absent any third-person narrative distance, we readers have ONLY the first-person protagonist’s feelings, thoughts and actions to help us bond and to guide us through the story. If you take out all that is idiosyncratic about a character’s voice, you end up with a cipher.

  9. Excellent post, PJ! Am adding to my Self-Editing file. I’m a bit of a That-Nazi myself.

    Because I’m also a designer (and run the Book Cover Reviews group on Goodreads), and because you’re now self-pubbing “Thicker Than Water,” may I make a suggestion on the new cover? While the overall design is very good, the main title could be improved. It doesn’t have enough “weight” and gets lost, especially in the critical thumbnail size. You could either beef up the font weight, increase the font size, or lighten the color. And because I understand the “blood” reference, you might be interested in reading my article about handling this sort of title:
    https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/13245444-a-touch-of-grey
    Good luck with it!

    • I agree re the cover Harold. That’s just a first draft mock up, mainly to get the right image. Still tweaking it. When we began to get our rights back, we had to rethink our whole cover branding style. And this dovetails with previous ones we’ve published. The hardest part was finding a good image (with a young woman) that we could afford. We found this one and actually went back into the book and changed the victim’s hair color from blonde to red to match. Thanks for the input!

  10. Excellent tips, Kris! I always look forward to your gems here on TKZ. Off to share this on Facebook and to my FB group, BC Writers, Authors, & Editors. Thanks for regularly and helping writers write more compelling fiction, and making it a fun read at the same time!

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