Tag Archives: beginning writers

What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦


Writing Dialog, Part I

universeFor a fictional story to feel real, readers must believe that the universe our characters inhabit existed long before first paragraph and will continue to exist long after the last one (unless you are a nihilist and blow up your universe at the end).

That means each fictional universe has a timeline (even those zany time-travel stories I am not clever enough to write). We need not concern ourselves with the post-story timeline or most of what happened before the story started, since those things do not directly affect the characters. When it comes to writing dialog, though, knowing the character-specific events in the pre-story timeline is critical. Because if our characters haven’t “lived” those unwritten moments, lame dialog may result.

Example 1:

A mother is harping on her teenage daughter to clean her messy room, but her emotion level is disproportionately high for the situation. The daughter, prone to outbursts of clunky exposition, says, “Ever since Dad died, you’ve been taking your anger out on me!”

Example 2:

Two inmates are walking the yard at the penitentiary. Hank, worried about Cletus’s terrible memory, summarizes, “I can’t believe that I’ve spent 15 long years in this joint for a crime I didn’t commit. But, by the grace of God, I just have to survive one more day, because they granted me parole and I will be released tomorrow!”

Example 3:

A husband serves his wife with divorce papers. Inclined to speak in expository list form, she says, “First you pushed my mother-in-law down the stairs and tried to make it look like an accident, then you cheated on me with my yoga instructor, and now you have the nerve to divorce me?”

***

These examples all suffer from the same problem: The characters are talking about things they would logically have discussed ages ago… because they already “lived” through them, even if we didn’t write about it. The daughter wouldn’t wait until that moment to mention her mother’s behavior for the first time, since she is clearly aware that Mom’s behavior has changed since her father died. Hank wouldn’t need to give his pal a rundown of what has gone on in his life for 15 years, because Cletus has been seen it happen. And I’m sure the husband and wife have already discussed the yoga-teacher affair at length.

Writing good dialog involves many elements. Relative to today’s discussion, though, a writer can improve her dialog by making sure the answer to the following question is “yes”: Is this dialog exchange in its logical place on the timeline?

With that in mind, here’s how I would rewrite the dialog in the above examples:

#1 – Daughter, as soon as her mom finishes screaming about the messy room: “I didn’t give Dad cancer, Mom.”

Without exposition or histrionics, we know that Dad is probably dead (and that will be clear soon enough anyway), and that Mom has been overreacting to minor issues involving her daughter ever since. Plus, it’s more cutting and hurtful, which reveals the dynamic between them more clearly.

#2 – Hank, to Cletus, whom he has known for years: “You know how many thousands of times I’ve walked this damn yard in the past 15 years? Well, this is the last lap I’ll ever do.”

Hank is still saying something Cletus knows, but now the line has a wistful, hopeful quality, because Hank is about to experience a big life change.

Tragically, Hank is stabbed to death that night by a mysterious figure cloaked in black, thus setting up the new bestselling mystery series Cletus McPhatter – Prison Detective.

#3 – First of all, I’d rather read about the mother-in-law getting pushed down the stairs than about someone handing someone else a legal document, so that’s the story I’d tell. However, I didn’t make up this scenario. Well, maybe I did, but let’s just go with it. I’m jonesin’ for some Taco Bell and want to finish this post.

The wife, after her husband hands her divorce papers: “After all the shit you’ve put me through…”

There’s no need to restate the existence of the divorce papers through dialog. When a bartender asks for your ID, you don’t say, “Here, I’m handing you my driver’s license,” do you? Plus, now we are curious about what horrible things he has done to his wife.

That’s it. I’m off to get a volcano taco. Please share your thoughts below.

_____________________________________________

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA... Earth forms, 4.5 BYA... first Taco Bell opens 51 YA

Universe timeline: Big Bang, 13.2 BYA… Earth forms, 4.5 BYA… first Taco Bell opens 51 YA


Don’t Write Boring – Part II

Overzealous editing?

Overzealous editing?

Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?

So anyway…

Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”

Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining.  Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.

In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.

I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but  I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.

Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.

Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?

Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.

Writing Rule #1: All stories are better with Mole People in them.


I’ve got your modifier dangling right here, pal!

Alternate title: Why we all need an editor – Reason # 53

You know... like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills...

You know… like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, writing skills…

Many of the writing problems discussed here in the past, such as failing to eliminate extraneous words, can be overcome through practice and refinement. As our skills develop, we should be able to look at our prose and quickly identify the clutter.

However, even the best of us still need an editor, because we can’t catch everything.  And one of the toughest mistakes to spot in our own writing is the dangling modifier. I’ve seen this hideous little creature show up in plenty of published works, and I’m sure I’ve birthed my share. It often has the troublesome quality of being invisible to its creator yet hilariously obvious to everyone else.

The dangling modifier occurs when the writer mistakenly links an action or quality to the object of a sentence instead of to the subject of that sentence (or vice versa). Or when the writer is not clear about what is being modified.

Or something.

Sorry to sound so English teachery. I hate didactic writing discussions. In less boring terms, a dangling modifier occurs when, um… err… Look here, you’re just going to have to accept that dangling modifiers are plain old boring to talk about! I didn’t invent the bloody things, so let’s try to get through all this as painlessly as…

You know what? Why don’t we go straight to the examples?

*

Ex. 1: “Harry told John that he was an asshat, since it was common for him to say rude things.”

Did Harry call John an asshat because Harry is often rude, or was Harry simply fed up with John’s frequent rudeness?

*

Ex. 2: “Mary awoke to find blood on her sheets, suggesting she had turned into a werewolf during the night and killed yet again.”

Did Mary come out and suggest she had killed people the previous night, or did the blood on her sheets suggest that?

*

Ex. 3: “A noted filmmaker in the fantasy genre, The Hobbit marks Peter Jackson’s fourth outing at the helm of a movie based on a Tolkien novel.”

This type of construction shows up in a lot of entertainment articles, and I suspect it’s a product of the writer trying to vary the sentence structure. If you’re reading it quickly, you may not notice that the sentence actually tells us The Hobbit is a noted filmmaker.

I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers without an editor. You’ll just have to read and examine the logic of each sentence to make sure it means what you think it means.

You can also go overboard in the other direction. For example, the first sentence in the previous paragraph would be more definitive if it said, “I don’t know of any great way to avoid dangling modifiers if you choose to self-edit rather than to retain the services of a professional editor, who could give your manuscript a fresh read and spot such errors.” I didn’t explain all that because I figured you knew what I meant from the context.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I try to avoid absolutes in regard to writing rules. I ask you: What’s worse, a slight dangle that assumes the reader can understand context, or a perfectly clear, yet clunky and verbose, construction? Sometimes we have to take a cue from Johnny Cash and Walk the Line.


Show me don’t tell me

No, not those mechanics!

No, not those mechanics!

Once a writer grasps the mechanics of composition, it’s time to sit back, fire up the Cuban cigar, and let that novel write itself. It’s all just paragraph breaks and dialog tags anyway. Right?

Wrong! Once you acquire the mechanics, it’s time to animate your prose and turn your story from a bunch of words on a page to a living organism. And how is that done? We’ve all heard writing instructors say those three magic words, and they aren’t lying: Show, don’t tell.

As writers, we must paint a picture with words. We have to put our readers in the room (or spaceship, dragon’s lair, submarine, etc.) with our characters and make the action happen around them. If we expound on backstories, describe past events in depth, and list details, we’re telling. That’s easy but boring. We need to show.

The irony, from my experience, is that experts often tell us to show, but they don’t show us. If you sometimes struggle with how to take your “tell” and make it “show,” perhaps the following example will help. I just made this sequence up, so I hope you appreciate that today’s post has value-added content in the form of a fiction vignette. Who else in the blogosphere gives you free content? That’s what I’d like to know!

Wait… all blogs are free? Oh. I just thought… Uh, let’s just get on with it, shall we?

Here’s my vignette in “tell” form. Try to stay awake:

Stars

By Joe Bland

Clark had been staying late at the bar with his buddies every night for weeks, playing cards and drinking beer. He kept promising Andrea that he would stop; that we would start coming home early, spend more time with her, and try to make things like they were in the beginning of their marriage. He wanted to make it right, because he still loved her, even if their relationship had grown stale.

He meant to leave early tonight! He really did. But he and his boys were drinking and laughing and having a great time. He didn’t care that he lost money in the poker game.

Andrea would care; she’d be pissed. Just after she got done being pissed about him getting home at three in the morning, which he was about to do yet again. He pulled in the driveway, got out, and tiptoed up the porch stairs, trying not to make noise but failing.

Andrea liked to watch TV and sometimes fell asleep in front of it. Clark hoped that was the case tonight. He peeked through the window to the living room, but it was dark in the house. She must have gone to bed. He’d catch hell tomorrow, but at least he would be able to sneak in.

He located the house key on his key ring, trying not to make jingling noises as he did so, and unlocked the door. He slipped quietly inside and closed it, then listened to hear if Andrea was stirring. He was reaching for the light switch when…

Sorry, I was getting bored with all that telling and became worried you were, too. My mechanics as a writer are sound enough that the tale was easy to follow, but who would want to follow it?

Let’s try “showing” the vignette instead. Notice how we can convey every piece of information in the “tell” version without repeating a single line from above or resorting to exposition:

Stars

By Me

Clark jammed the shifter into ‘park’ and cut the engine as fast as he could. Why are pickup trucks so much damned louder at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon?

He stared at the house, looking for signs of life. Quiet as a graveyard, he thought. Keeping his eyes on the upstairs bedroom window, he spit the wintergreen gum into the wrapper and stuck the wad in the ashtray.

She’s still smell the booze, but he had to try.

Clark turned the handle downward, slowly, and nudged the door with his elbow. The dented sheet metal popped and he grimaced. He shot another glance at the house… still nothing going on.  He crept out, swiveled his head as if about to commit a crime, and then pressed the driver’s door shut with his shoulder.

Do driveways stones always make so many snaps and pops? He hopped over to the grassy side and made for the porch steps, whispering, “jeezuss,” when the stair creaked. He shook his head. How come these sounds never conspired against him when he got home at a normal time?

From the porch, he crouched before the side window to the living room, hoping to see the flickering of a TV left on and Andrea passed out in the couch. He cupped his hands against the cool glass to block the moon’s reflection and peered through. The couch was empty, the afghan folded into a perfect square. Too perfect.

Shit. She was going to kill him tomorrow. Especially when she discovers how much he lost in the poker game.

He rubbed his hand print from the glass with his sleeve – why leave evidence? – and reached into his pocket, clutching the keys tightly to silence them. He squinted to confirm he was using the correct one, swept himself silently into the house, and shut the door, thanking God for inventing the WD-40 he’d sprayed onto the hinges a week earlier.

He stood. Save for the hum of the fridge, the house was black and still and silent. Andrea was upstairs, asleep, dreaming of killing him, probably. Rather than fumble in the dark and knock something over, he decided to take the risk of turning on the florescent light over the sink. He ran his fingers across the wall, feeling for the switch, trying to avoid the coffee can full of pens.

The throwing star pinned his sleeve to the sheet rock before his brain even registered the whooshing sound. He yanked free and turned, ready to run for the truck, but realized his keys were no longer in his hand.

The ceiling-fan light over the kitchen table flickered to life. He froze, gripping the door knob, and looked behind him across the room. Andrea stood in the archway to the living room, dressed in billowing black, her index finger poking through the ring and swinging the keys back and forth.

“Looking for these?”

Clark turned to face her, glancing quickly at his empty hand. “How did you-”

She unleashed a second star, which imbedded in the door frame a quarter inch from his right ear. “You forget you marry ninja?”

Oh shit. She told him she was retired.

Clark fell to his knees. “Baby. I can explain! Sylvester… you know Sly… he started having stomach cramps. Me and the other guys, we took him to the hospital.”

Andrea crossed her arms. “Don’t bullshit me. I got no shortage of ninja stars!”

“It’s true! Sly is in the ER, getting his appendix out. The other guys stayed, but I said I couldn’t stand to be away from my baby another minute, so I-”

She kicked the door to the basement and it fell open. In the stairway, a large net dangled, imprisoning three men, a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, and several playing cards.

“These guys, you mean?”

Sylvester, his face smashed against the netting, managed a feeble wave.

Clark’s eyes welled. He bowed his head. Ninja punishment was legendary. And swiftly chosen.

Andrea stood over him. “You take me to outlet mall every weekend for six month!”

He nodded.

“You get Brazilian wax. I like you smooth down there.”

Clark whimpered.

“And…. My mother stay with us for one year!”

The neighborhood dogs howled at the unearthly cry issuing from the little blue Cape Cod on Sullivan Street. It’s the place all the kids call, “The House of Flying Stars.”

All right. Maybe I got carried away there, and I haven’t taken time to refine it. But I hope that by showing the vignette instead of telling it, I brought it to life just a little bit. Yes, it was way harder to write than the “tell” version, but nobody said this writing thing was a cake walk.

 ****************************

 For more about showing not telling, here’s this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush singing the lead track from their Presto album from 1989:


Irony is not the same thing as coincidence!

No, I said ironEEE.

When did this writing mistake become so ubiquitous? Not a week goes by that I don’t witness a sports reporter, movie reviewer, or political commentator describing something coincidental or incidental as ironic.

“Rimsky-Korsakov missed most of last season with a torn ligament in his left knee but returned at the start of the playoffs. Ironically, he only played three games before injuring his other knee.”

An athlete getting two injuries is not irony; it is a matter of probability. Rimsky-Korsakov plays basketball, a sport that requires frequent jumping and turning. He was out of shape from not playing. He was favoring his left knee and working the other one too hard. His odds of injuring his right knee were, in fact, higher than ever before in this scenario. Maybe he should take up rowing instead, and get to work on destroying those rotator cuffs.

*

“Midway through the film, Bond ends up in bed with Ginny Tonic, only to discover she is a Uvulan spy seeking information about England’s top-secret invisible tuxedo prototype. Ironically, the same plot device was used in last year’s CIA thriller See-Through Assassin.”

There’s really nothing ironic about stealing an idea from another movie. What would be ironic is getting accused of stealing another story’s ideas when you wrote the first tale since Epic of Gilgamesh that actually didn’t steal something from a previous one.

*

“Senator McFlop told supporters he is opposed to half-priced Whopper day, yet, ironically, he stopped at Burger King on the way to the rally and ordered one for himself.”

Hypocrisy and irony share a few of the same letters, but little of the same meaning.

 

You can easily cut 5 calories by ditching the onions

Irony comes in several forms, but, with most modern language, we use two: Snarky irony and Cool Twist irony (hey, Oxford makes these rules, not me).

Snarky irony is when someone says the opposite of what she means. For example, I might say, “So, how was the gallbladder removal?” The ironist may reply, “Fun, I can’t wait to do it again.”

The irony being that it’s not fun to have a gallbladder removed (unless I went to the wrong hospital and missed out), and one can’t have a gallbladder removed more than once. I hope.

Snarky irony is kind of witless, and it’s so similar to facetiousness that I can’t tell them apart. In short, snarky irony is for losers and NBC sitcoms.

Cool Twist irony is what happens in Twilight Zone episodes. That does not mean all twists are ironic. “It was all a dream” is not irony (it’s a cop-out). “They were ghosts the whole time” is not irony (it’s a cliché). “The butler did it” is simply a surprise. And a good one, since it’s never the butler.

Here’s irony:

A guy sells his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Then he finds out his wife cheated on him and, in a rage, murders her and her lover. He is caught in the act and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Doh!

Then there’s the great Twilight Zone episode in which Burgess Meredith plays Henry Bemis, a henpecked banker who only wants one thing in life: to read books. But he never has time between his wife nagging him to do chores and errands and his employer dumping work on him. One day he falls asleep in the bank vault and is spared when a nuclear war wipes out civilization. When he emerges into the sunlight and finds the local library is intact, he is filled with joy. Time at last to read! He gleefully lines up piles and piles of books, takes the first one from the stack, sits down… and drops his glasses, shattering them on the ground.

That’s bloody irony. Save it for special occasions, my friends and colleagues.

“Leave the irony to Rod Serling, Mr. Sportswriter. Just tell me the score.”


Self-Editing Your Prose

Hola, amigos. This is a writing blog, so I suppose I gotta throw a writing-themed post in here and there. Today’s is about self-editing your prose to make it pop (in case the title wasn’t clear). Read on…

____________________

Practical writing advice is often targeted at beginners: Don’t start your story with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  All stories need conflict, so make sure yours has one. Don’t end it with, “And then I woke up.” Those are pretty straightforward and easy suggestions to follow.

As we develop, expert suggestions become less tangible: Try not to rely on exposition. Find a consistent voice. Get rid of unnecessary words.

Holy crap. How do I know which words are unnecessary? I needed them to tell my story in the first draft, so why don’t I need them now?

A good, typical answer is, “Get rid of words that don’t add meaning.” However, if you truly eliminate words based on functionality, you might lose a little poetry and end up with something that reads choppy. We’re talking about fiction, so let’s pull back from absolutism and say, instead, “Assume your reader is smart enough to make connections on her own.” Then get rid of all the handholding words.

By handholding words I mean text that spells out the obvious for the reader. Like, “I squeezed the trigger on my gun and felt a sense of exhilaration when the bullet exploded from the barrel.” A bullet and a trigger signify a gun. Exhilaration is a sense. Your reader can make those connections herself.

The difference between intermediate writing and professional-quality prose is often the presence of handholding clutter in the former. Here is a before, during, and after-editing micro story I’ve put together as an example.

Before

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming hunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

During

I was sitting on my chair at the table drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea when the massive explosion went off outside, rattling the windows. I leapt up from my seat and, like a fool who has no regard for his own safety, quickly ran outside to investigate. I headed down the front porch steps and, just as I reached the bottom stair step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris fell from the sky and landed five feet in front of me.

The intense heat of the thing sent me flying backward, and I fell onto the stone steps. I looked up, and In a panic, my eyes darted rapidly across the sky to see if any more flaming chunks of debris were headed my way. Lo and behold, And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said to me from on high. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Even though it turned out that 172 homes were destroyed and property damage from the explosion was in the neighborhood of over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes is a guy who has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

Most of the excised passages are handholding text. My reader probably assumes the character is sitting at a table drinking his tea, and she probably knows that Earl Grey is tea. Even if she thinks it’s coffee, it doesn’t hurt the story. She also knows why it’s foolish to run outside when an explosion just occurred. I also got rid of clichés like “lo and behold,” because clichés are simply bad writing. I removed “I looked up” as well, because it becomes clear in the next clause that the character is peering at the sky, which can only be up.

I could have kept “rattling the windows,” because it adds a cementing detail. However, one assumes that explosions rattle windows, and it borders on rote to say it. On the other hand, I kept, “who do you think I saw floating up there,” despite its wordiness, because the rhythm of it accentuates the (allegedly) humorous reveal. Also, I retained “the Greek god,” though my reader almost certainly knows that. Again, with a humor line, timing and rhythm are important too.

Note that I added or moved a couple of words (in bold) for flow.

Here’s the revised version:

I was drinking a cup of Earl Grey when the explosion went off. I leapt from my seat and, like a fool, ran outside to investigate. Just as I reached the bottom step of the front porch, a huge, flaming hunk of debris landed in front of me.

The intense heat sent me flying onto the stone steps. In a panic, my eyes darted across the sky to see if more flaming chunks were headed my way. And who do you think I saw floating up there but Zeus, the Greek god.

“Er, apologies old chap,” he said. “I seem to have dropped a lightning bolt. Dreadfully sorry. Won’t happen again.”

Though 172 homes were destroyed and property damage was over a billion dollars, I think a guy who fesses up to his mistakes has already paid his debt to society.

No hard feelings, boss daddy.

What I did here was tighten up a so-so little vignette. If I really wanted this story to grab people, I’d have started it this way:

The explosion knocked my tea cup from the table…