Drowning in a Sea of “It”s

I’ve started going through my poor old work-in-pause. (The manuscript has been neglected so long, I can’t in all honesty say the work is in progress.) At first, I only intended to read what I’d written to plant myself in the story so I could figure out what my hero does next, but I’m appalled by the bad writing. Actually, the writing is okay, but the work is in dire need of editing. And no wonder — I wrote these chapters five years ago, long before I learned how to edit.

The worst problem I find is a copious use of pronouns, especially “it.” “It” serves only to tell a reader that the writer couldn’t be bothered to figure out a better way of saying “it,” so the writer used the placeholder word in the hopes that readers would be prescient enough to understand what “it” meant. To many “it”s make writing seem vague, because . . . well, because “it” is vague. For example:

“She’s my mother. I can’t just throw her out.” He hefted the bag of dry cat food, then paused, arrested by the image of himself pushing Isabel out the door of his apartment. As tempting as it might be, he couldn’t do it. When he was a child, she’d worked two jobs to support him, and he owed her.

I’m not sure how to replace the “it”s without causing echoes by repeating words such as “mother” and phrases such as “throw her out,” but the “it”s slapped me in the face when I was reading that passage, and that is never a good sign.

From the very next page: A chime intruded into Chet’s thoughts. It took a second for him to recognize it as the bell over the door. He seldom heard it so clearly; usually the clamor of the birds and animals drowned it out.

And this from a few pages later: He heaved his computer off the dresser top where he’d been storing it, lugged it to his office, and set it on the desk. He turned it on, ordered the lemon drops, then pulled up his plans for the refuge.

Yikes. I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of “it”s. Maybe by the time I edit these chapters and find concrete words to replace all the “it”s, I’ll be so deeply involved in the story, I’ll have no trouble segueing into writer mode. Despite being infected by a bad case of ititis, the story deserves more than to be packed away as a work-in-pause for five more years.

It Makes It Seem as if It has too Many Its

“It” is an invisible word. We use it so frequently and are so used to seeing it, that we barely notice its use when we read it or write it. It takes a good editor to look beyond the expected to what is and find the “it”s that make our writing so hazy. See all my “it”s? Makes me seem like a lazy writer, and normally that would be true, but it was very difficult using so many “it”s in such a short time, but I needed all these “it”s to make a point. “It” has its place, but most often, a more specific word would make the writing come alive.

I wrote a short story for Change is in the Wind, the Second Wind Publishing anthology that will be released this spring. I write so little fiction now that I expected red marks to litter the pages when I got the draft back from my editor, but surprisingly, the story worked. Or the piece would have worked except for those annoying “it”s.

For example, I wrote, Unshed tears filled her chest and lungs. For a few seconds she thought she’d die, right there in her kitchen, leaning against the granite counter. She finally managed to draw first one breath, then another, but it hurt so horribly it didn’t seem worth the effort. And Scott wasn’t there to comfort her.

These sentences show a grieving woman, and there is nothing wrong with them, but the description of her pain is so much better when detailed words replace the “it”s. Unshed tears filled her chest and lungs. For a few seconds she thought she’d die, right there in her kitchen, leaning against the granite counter. She finally managed to draw first one breath, then another, but her chest hurt so horribly, the inhalations didn’t seem worth the effort. And Scott wasn’t there to comfort her.

There’s not a lot of difference between the two examples, but in a short story, where every word counts, precise words are better than place-holding pronouns such as “it.”

On another page I wrote: A touch of green against the dry brown of the tree trunk caught her attention. She went still. Could that really be what it looked like? She leaned closer to the tree and studied the willow shoot sprouting out of the base of the trunk.

And this is the final version: A touch of green against the dry brown of the tree trunk caught her attention. She went still. Could she really be seeing a renewal? She leaned closer to the tree and studied the willow shoot sprouting out of the base of the trunk.

A single word-change made this climactic scene pop. And that’s the point of paying attention to vague words like “it” and replacing them with more exacting words. Details make good writing burst into life.

On Writing: Embracing Playfulness

My goal as a writer is to learn all I can and to be so accomplished and confident that I can write whatever and however I wish and be able to stand by it. Too many new writers think they don’t need to follow the rules, that they can set their own style, which is true up to a point, and that point is readability. What I want is confidence coupled with readability. Following the style others have set is not my way, but so far I haven’t found a distinct voice.

One way I am trying to find that voice is by embracing playfulness. When I’m trying to figure out where to go with a story or a scene, I brainstorm, stringing incongruities and absurdities together, the more ridiculous the better. Not only does it get my mental juices flowing, sometimes those ridiculous ideas are the perfect answer to the problem of what comes next.

Silliness has added some interesting twists to my books. My novel, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, is about a disease that wipes out most of the population of Colorado. About half way through the writing, I hit a wall. I tried brainstorming with a friend, and he had no interest whatsoever in my plight, so being silly, he said I should forget the book and write about zombies. I laughed at the suggestion, but the idea took hold. Since the disease was a rapidly mutating one, I had the disease go through a short spurt where the victims turned into zombies. Gave the book an interesting twist, mostly because even though the idea started out being silly, it ended up being spooky. Odd, that.

One thing I have not been able to silly my way out of is my habit of using too many pronouns. He did this. He did that. He went here. He went there. It’s the mark of an amateur, but more than that, I don’t like it. I should be able to come up with a better way of telling the story. And maybe someday I will.

Until then, all I can do is write, perfect the craft, and embrace playfulness.