I’ve written before about the great things you can learn by attending a critique/writer’s group, and now that I am in a brief lull between books (though I am doing research for the next one), I thought I’d give a specific example of one of the things I learned from one such group.
When I first started attending the Saturday meetings, I had just put out Dragonlinked and had nothing unpublished to bring for discussion. I had maybe one very rough chapter of the next book started, but wanted to try something different. I decided to write a short story centered on one of the characters from Dragonlinked. This short story eventually became Moonflower, but it wasn’t called that at first, and the section used below comes from a part I removed entirely and turned into its own mini-story. At any rate, this was what I initially brought for discussion once I had it mostly written out.
One of the critiques of the piece, to the best of my memory, started out very flattering.
“This story is so good that many don’t notice the errors. One of the biggest is that you suffer from pronoun-itis.”
I looked at the woman and raised my brows. “Suffer from what?”
I let out a little nervous chuckle and looked around at the others. Some were nodding wisely. I looked back at her and asked, “What do you mean?”
“You use too many pronouns. Many could be left off or the sentence reworked in such a way that they are not needed.”
Hmm. Pronoun-itis, eh? I’d never heard of this problem. After she pointed out a sample paragraph, however, it became obvious what she meant. I will present that paragraph below and will then show how I changed it up to make it better.
“Lie down?” she mumbled, still trying to remember her task. Unable to do so, she slumped to her side on the ground. Her heart began to beat wildly. Though ignored, her fear still made its presence felt. The pounding in her ears confused her for a moment. She was supposed to relax, wasn’t she? Rolling on her back, she stared up between the trees. The ground was cool beneath her, and stars were visible through the canopy above.
Thirteen pronouns. Thirteen. In that little paragraph. When first read, the paragraph doesn’t seem so bad, but once the pronoun-itis is pointed out? Sheesh.
So, what’s the problem? There are two, really. One, the least important, is word repetition. Having the same word repeated too many times gets distracting. One way to fix that is to use a synonym for a few of them, but going too crazy with synonyms can also be distracting. Reworking a few of the sentences to eliminate the word is another, and possibly better, method. The second problem, and the one I feel is more important, has to do with deep point of view. In order to draw your readers into the story (particularly a section or scene that you want to be intense), you want as few signifiers as possible that tell the reader they are reading a story instead of experiencing a story. One of those is continually telling them that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is doing something.
‘No, dear reader, it isn’t you who is being attacked by this horrible creature, it is HER.’
As a writer, you may as well be saying that when you load up that many pronouns into your work. The way I try to handle it is that the closer I am to the character, the more zoomed in I am, the more I just describe what is happening as if I am looking through the eyes of the character, as if I am listening with the character’s ears, touching with their fingers, thinking their thoughts, etc. I try to only use pronouns when not using them will cause confusion, another thing that hampers deep point of view. So, here is the reworked paragraph that I went with. I removed some ‘telling,’ where I should be ‘showing,’ removed a couple of sentences to pick up the pace, and changed up some of the sentences to remove pronouns.
“Lie down?” she mumbled, trying to hold on to thoughts of escape. Like writhing eelfish, they twitched and slipped through her fingers. She slumped sideways, heart beating wildly. Rolling on her back, she stared up between the trees. The ground felt cool, and stars peeked through the canopy above.
Pretty much the same paragraph, but with only five pronouns. It feels more immediate, now, more intimate, because I describe some of the actions so that while reading them, the reader feels as if they are experiencing them. Reading it again, now, I can see how it can be improved even further, but it serves as an example.
So here is my shared tip: Avoid pronoun-itis whenever possible. It is one writer’s affliction that can be dealt with fairly easily and makes for better writing in the process.