As the Talking Heads asked, "How do I work this?"


I edited a manuscript last year in which one of the characters drove a lot: between cities, and around her own town. Nearly without fail, every time the character drove somewhere, this is what I read (I’m not making this up):

Margaret pushed the button on the key fob to open her 2004 Toyota Tercel. She got behind the wheel, put her purse on the passenger seat, and started the car. She put her seatbelt on and put the car into drive.

You likely know what I’m going to say here. I wrote in an earlier post about never needing to hear about putting gas into a car, ever (unless there is a spectacular explosion at the gas station that is integral to the plot). I thought I’d go a bit deeper into that idea this week. In the book I edited, here’s how Margaret comes home after a drive:

She pulled into her driveway, put the Tercel in park, and turned the key. Margaret collected her purse, opened the door and got out of the car. She closed the door behind her and locked it with her fob. She walked up the sidewalk to her front door, unlocked it, and went into the house.

HOLY FREAKING MOTHER OF CUT 5000 WORDS. I’m not joking. That’s the approximate number of words I advised the author to cut, and of those words, most of them had to do with getting in and out of a car, parking it somewhere, locking it, and walking away from it.

Your reader doesn’t need any of that. Margaret can leave one place and arrive (sans car detail) at another without any words about how she got there.

Once it’s established what kind of car it is (which I also suggest isn’t necessary unless the car is stolen and is being driven by a criminal mastermind), we never need to hear the year, make, or model ever again in the entire book. In nearly all cases, it can just be “her car".

I know there are authors out there who love their cars and want to read all about them. I suggest Mopar Muscle magazine for that. [ASIDE: I wrote a book about teenagers and cars back in the 1890s when I was young and foolish and must have read a dozen of them. They’re fun.]

You’ve seen a car, yes? Ridden in one? Driven one, even? If not, you know what a car is, and you know that one can get you from point A to point B in some mysterious, otherworldly connection of spark plugs and tartinklers. Your reader knows that too.

Those 5000 words are much better spent on digging deeper into the plot and characters.

I invite you to open your document, Save As a new file and search “car” (add a space before and after to avoid sorting through “esCARpment” and “inCARcerated”). Read the passages in which that word occurs. Go nuts and delete all detail of driving and getting in and out of cars. (Remember, it’s not gone forever. You’ve saved the file as a new one.)

Read the manuscript. Is it cleaner? Yup. Do you miss that detail? Nope. Will the reader be confused about how cars work? Again, that’s a big fat nope.

If your novel is about a race car driver, ignore me. If it isn’t and cars are just a way to get around, imagine that your reader can fill in the driving detail in her own bean.

Kimmy Beach2 Comments