When Details Become Distraction

Version One.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the Asian Mahogany Pergo laminate floor while his mother stirred the Nestle Semi-Sweet morsels into the cookie dough using the wood-handled Le Creuset spatula with the blue non-stick silicone surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her Paderno copper mixing bowl and her Okite Creama Botticino countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the twenty-by-twenty-four living room and grabbed the RCA remote from the back of the brown leather Lazy-Boy recliner and was aiming it at the 42″ LCD TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob on Nickelodeon while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed Lee jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the copper bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband wearing his favorite black Hugo Boss suit as he was being stuffed into the back of a blue and white police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the Le Creuset spatula, fell to the Asian Mahogany Pergo floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the Fisher & Paykel Dishdrawer.

Version Two.

Benny’s cherry red Converse sneakers squeaked their delight on the mahogany laminate floor while his mother stirred chocolate chips into the cookie dough using the wood-handled spatula with the non-stick surface that never failed her.

“Now?” asked Benny, his brown eyes barely visible beneath the blue, red and white of the too-big Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“Not yet,” she answered, and she stirred some more, thankful for her copper mixing bowl and her Okite countertop and a pair of neon orange Crocs that might elicit snide comments from women who wear Giuseppe Zanottis and pretend not to enjoy shopping at Pottery Barn, but invite nothing but praise from her size-eight feet in the safety of her two-story brownstone.

“But I’m hungry now!” Benny picked at the Spiderman Band-Aid on his left wrist.

“Almost,” she said, a little more sharply than she intended, but Benny didn’t seem to notice. He had wandered into the living room and grabbed the remote from the back of the leather recliner and was aiming it at the TV.

“Can I watch SpongeBob while I eat cookie dough?” He asked, stuffing his free hand in the pocket of his stonewashed jeans.

“Sure.” She looked up from the bowl as the TV lit the room with an image of a familiar face wearing a pained expression partially hidden by Ray-Ban Aviators. “Wait, leave it,” she said. And then she wished she hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s daddy. What’s daddy doing on TV?”

The camera zoomed out to reveal her husband being stuffed into the back of a police car. Benny looked over at his mother with a puzzled expression. This is when she dropped the spatula, fell to the floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the dishwasher.

And now, the explanation.

First of all, you’ll notice that there isn’t a huge difference between the first version of this scene and the second. This illustrates a very important principal of the editing process: it’s not always about sweeping changes – sometimes it’s all about the little tweaks. (BTW, some of my former cubicle-dwelling neighbors hate that word “tweak,” so I’m using it here mostly to annoy them in that friendly, poke-in-the-ribs-with-a-stick sorta way. Hi old editing pals!)

So what’s wrong with the first version? Well, it certainly does a good job of providing specific details. But sometimes, too much specificity can actually detract from a scene by drawing attention away from the heart of the story: the characters themselves. At worst, name-brand references (which, in moderation, add welcome verisimilitude) become little more than product-placement ads and the whole scene starts to look more like a catalog than a story.

So let’s look at the changes I made. Overall, I made the editorial call that there were simply too many brand names here and that some had to go. So which ones? Well, I cut the brand name and specific color of the flooring because “mahogany” and “laminate” give the reader enough information to picture it. And everyone knows what “chocolate chips” are – we don’t need to know they’re from Nestle unless that’s critical to the story somehow. (If the dad works for Hershey? Now that could give it purpose.)

The Cubs cap is perfect. Since most of us know the color of a Cub’s hat, you might wonder if we need the “blue, red and white”? No. But I liked the cadence of that sentence. So it stays.

You could easily argue to keep “Paderno” except that few people know about Paderno so eliminating the brand reference is no great loss. A copper bowl is unique enough to add texture to the setting. I kept the brand name for the countertop because it implies something about the mother’s knowledge of kitchens, and therefore (possibly) about how much she enjoys cooking. I edited out the color reference only because there are already so many details in this sentence. I might find a way to re-insert it somewhere else in the story because Italian words are so fun to read. Notice that I kept the rest of the details. Even if you don’t know who Giuseppe Zanotti is (and I sure don’t), it’s clear from context that the women are all about image over practicality. This contrast to the mom and her neon orange Crocs immediately tells you a ton about her that would have been lost with a generic description of the Pottery Barn ladies.

Spiderman stays. I mean, c’mon. It’s Spiderman.

Okay, the next paragraph was an easy fix. We don’t need to know how big the room is. We don’t need to know the brand of the remote (who would know the difference, anyway, except someone who has seen multiple remotes including the mentioned brand). And we don’t even need to know what kind or size of TV is in the room. The reader will draw his own picture there and that’s perfectly fine.

Two more easy cuts in the next paragraph. However… if part of what makes the Benny character unique is an unusual speech pattern whereby he always adds unnecessary details, then I’d keep his mention of Nickelodeon. I can cut “Lees” with ease, however.

I kept the Ray-Bans because it’s a familiar visual. Most people would see this exactly as the writer intended.

In the next paragraph I took the husband out of his suit. Did I have to? No. It might be important to the character. But the emotional impact of the scene is all about the mother’s reaction to seeing her husband being arrested. Unless the suit has a role to play in the story, we don’t need it here.

And finally, the last cuts are obvious. It simply takes too long for her to fall if we have to note every little detail of her Garden State moment. (Hey, it’s a movie reference. Didja get it? If not, ask someone who’s seen it. Or rent it yourself.)

And there you go.

As always, this is just one editor’s opinion. But if nothing else, I hope you understand the main point. What was the point? Um… you could have figured it out just from the title of the post. But thanks for reading this far anyway. I like you better than the people who didn’t.

Hey, tomorrow I’m introducing the next Noveldoctor writing contest. Sharpen your virtual pens. It’s going to be a good one.

Until then, happy self-editing.

15 thoughts on “When Details Become Distraction

  1. “This is when she dropped the Le Creuset spatula, fell to the Asian Mahogany Pergo floor, and hit her head on the half-open door of the Fisher & Paykel Dishdrawer.”

    P.S. Above is said line.

    1. You may be right. Depending on the voice in the novel, it could be perfect as originally written. I do like the way it reads, now that I see it in the morning light.

      This is exactly the sort of thing that prompts a lively discussion between writer and editor. And since I’m both in this case, it means talking to myself.

      Again.

      I’ll let you know who wins the argument.

    1. I would have cut more, too, but the author knows certain secrets about me and so I bowed to his wishes not to be as brutal as I usually am.

      Well, I suppose I will like you anyway. But for future reference, one “Do you?” is probably enough. (See earlier post on word count.)

  2. Since I have no idea what most of those brand names are, I was distracted from the important things by wondering. Brand name is almost always unnecessary. The only time I would use it is if the brand is well known & distinctive enough that it can replace a more detailed description. Or if it helps to define a character, like the Pottery Barn ladies.

    I tend to be overly descriptive in my own writing. Often, though, the reader will not be interested in the same details as I am. I don’t see why not; they’re all so fascinating. :) I try to keep myself in check so that it doesn’t break up the flow of the story.

    Unfortunately, I tend to do a lot of that kind of editing as I write, so it takes me practically forever to finish anything. That does not bode well for my novel. I’m trying to loosen up a bit, but it’s hard to escape my perfectionist nature.

    1. If you can write descriptive detail so brilliantly that every reader will see exactly what you’re painting, then go for it. But writers who can do this are rare. I prefer to aim for a balance: give the reader enough detail to see (and smell and taste and touch and hear) the setting and the characters and the action – but not so much that they can’t fill in some of the spaces with their imaginations.

  3. “But I liked the cadence of that sentence. So it stays.”

    This is why I want to hire you to edit anything I ever write.

    Also, you make me laugh. How long did it take to look up all those brand names? Or are you really that froo froo?

  4. I’d like to plagiarize an answer, please. Too tired to write my own, but I really want to play.

    Today I’ll plagiarize Jeanne. Everything she said.

    And I’m going to turn in tomorrow’s homework early.

    Tomorrow I’ll plagiarize Nicole.

    That should either get me an “A” in this course, or get me arrested. Either way is fine. I think. (Should my answer have been shorter?)

    1. You can have an “A” for honesty. Also, an arrest warrant will be served shortly. Not for the plagiarism, though, but for turning your homework in early. That’s just not right.

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