The Insecurity Tell

Excerpt from a book I’m reviewing (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent from social media onslaught):

“I need a drink,” Irene thought to herself. She longed for something to dull the events of the night. “But after Sandra.” She had to ensure her prized heir was alright.

Irene needs a drink after the bad things she’s done. At this point in the story, the reader knows that Sandra is Irene’s young daughter, and Irene did these bad things to protect Sandra. So the line “But after Sandra” says all the reader needs to know. Motherlove comes before the drink.

Then comes the dread Insecurity Tell.

The Tell sticks out like a sore thumb to me because I’ve done it so often myself. I think most writers do it when they’re starting out—at least, I’ve seen it a lot in critique groups.

Let’s chew on the psychology.

One reason for the Tell is the writer is insecure, so goes belt-and-suspenders: Just in case I didn’t make it clear, let me just tell reader what I hoped they’d get out of my prose.

The other reason is, I think, the need for control. The writer has not yet integrated the idea that the words on the page are a passageway from the writer’s mind to the reader’s mind. The scent of a spring breeze is different for each person. Unless the writer wants to digress for a paragraph on the subject of organic esters, he has to leave the exact combination of air-wafted odors to the mind of the reader. Obvious, right?

Not so obvious with complex emotions, though. I suspect the implied motherlove in the quote above is different to each reader, too, for the same reason as the spring breeze: experience.

When I was first writing, I often wanted to exercise ironclad control over the passageway between me and the reader. Trouble is, the Insecurity Tell is mildly insulting. says, “I knew that!” It’s not a big issue, but it is a speed bump in the stream of attention the reader gives the prose. The greater problem: it adds unnecessary words.

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Imagine if you will a movie scene: A car hangs on a cliff, its front end over open space, balanced on the edge of a precipice. Several people are pushing it forward, toward the lip. They strain, metal squeals, (closeup of gravel and dirt spilling into the void as the balance point nears). The car teeters. And…

If that tortured metaphor describes my third novel, Fail Deadly, I had quite a crowd pushing, not just that one guy in the picture..

My critique groups helped me excise unnecessary details with week-by-week observations of the draft. But I kept the overall plot outline. Then beta readers said the first fifty pages were slow. I cut the words by twenty percent but kept the story line. Then the MS got on the long list for the Grindstone Literary Prize, so I felt that I’d arrived at a final version. The car was still secure on the on the cliff; in fact, it seemed as if the Grindstone pulled it back to comparative safety. More confident, I called a contact in the New York publishing world for advice. He knows lots of agents. He said, “When the MS is the best you can make it, send it to me.” 

Was it the best I could make it? I retreated to the comforting thought that you can always find changes to make, and over-critical editing might just make it worse. 

The underlying problem was too much information in the beginning. I suspected that I had left some explication in that really didn’t need to be there. One problem most of we authors face (at least, the authors in my critique groups) seems to be that, when we draft the story, we explain the plot and its mechanisms to ourselves … in (sometimes excruciating) detail so we won’t be embarrassed when someone finds a logical flaw. We end up satisfied that our plots are well thought out, but the story often carries too much detail. Which slows it down. Which is a bad thing. 

I finally decided to subject Fail Deadly to the not-so-tender mercies of an editor. 

The crash you hear echoing up from the abyss is that poor car hitting the rocks. 

Call it re-re-rewrite. 

1 thought on “Re-re-rewrite

  1. Oh oh! Don’t like the image — crash and burn? Maybe swing into the repair shop for tuneup and fresh coat of paint? Entire re-write? I hope you’re being overly dramatic.

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