Reading the Vomit Bag: Writing Tips from Steve Martin

 In Blog

I love it when writing tips pop up in unexpected places, like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Without question, my favorite Thanksgiving movie. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a real treasure. And if you can sit through the end without sniffling like you’ve got a bowl of cut onions in your lap, you’ve got a grinch’s heart.

Take a look.

Have a point. That’s tough for a lot of writers (myself included) to learn. Why? Simple. We love our words. The more, the better, right? We agonize over our choices and sculpt our sentences until they’re just so, then do it all over again the next day.

The problem is that spewing an overabundance of descriptive words on the page does two things:

  • Delays the action
  • Bores the reader

Want proof? The following section is the first page of an early draft of one of my novels. I wrote it a few years back before I actually took the time to study fiction writing. Brace yourselves.

First Draft

Levi twisted the heel of his boot, grinding the scorpion into oblivion. Oh, sorry about that. Did it hurt? Maybe your friends will see you and get the message. Stay off my porch.

In the three years since he’d been home, the combination of wind, dust and sun had sandblasted all traces of paint from the house. The rusted metal chair that should be on the porch was in the yard, wedged against a mesquite tree. The windows were filthy, but unbroken. The screen door hung by the bottom hinge, but with one hard tug, it was free. He leaned it against the wall, reconsidered, and tossed it into the weeds along the porch.

A faded yellow sign hung crookedly on the front door. Well what have we here? CONDEMNED BY THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE OF PECOS COUNTY, TEXAS. Condemned huh? There’s worse looking houses in Pleasant View. But they probably paid their taxes.

Doesn’t look like anyone’s been inside. With the nearest neighbors over two miles away, it was unlikely. Growing up in such an isolated location had been difficult, but not without its advantages. It was the perfect spot to learn about the important things.

Locked. Seriously? Lift. Push. Voila. The rusty hinges rubbed against each other, squeaking. He pulled a can of WD-40 out of the black duffel bag he carried. A couple of quick squirts later, he wiggled the door. Nice and quiet.

The living room remained untouched. The old sofa with the garish green and blue paisley pattern against the inside wall. Paisley never goes out of style, huh Mom? I’m gonna have to say you were wrong on that one. It was never in style. The old rocking chair across from the couch, the varnish on its seat and arms long gone. The tired brown rug in front of the bookshelf. That rug wasn’t so brown the last time I was here. The thirteen-inch TV still sitting on the floor in the corner. One of the aluminum foil tips off the rabbit ears on the ground next to it, partially hidden under a dust bunny.

Still with me? Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Lots of description, right? But about the only action is killing a scorpion and opening a door. Can you stand the excitement? Know what’s scary? There are nearly two more pages of this style before the story really gets started. Now here’s the final (so far) version:

[tweetthis]Reading the vomit bag: writing tips from Steve Martin.[/tweetthis]

Final Draft

She was under there.

Waiting for him.

He knew because he’d put her there, and bones hadn’t moved on their own since Ezekiel prophesied in Old Testament days. Levi licked his lips and forced himself to wait. Let his adrenaline gorge on the anticipation.

The musty scent of the old house coated his mouth and he worked up a good spit, then swallowed. Get it out, but not here. Not this room.

His thumbs rubbed circles on the other fingertips and he closed his eyes, remembering.


Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.

He hunched his shoulders forward and craned his neck, oozing the tension back to its hiding place. The west Texas wind swept under the house and up between the gaps in the floorboards. Dust fanned in every direction and spread the odor of worn-out dirt in the room. Lasers of light beamed through tiny holes in the tin foil-covered window, scarcely illuminating the area. The bare bulb overhead had long ago given up hope of ever shining again. No matter. He knew his way around his bedroom.

The heavy oak dresser scratched the rotting floor as he dragged it away from the wall. He tugged his t-shirt’s sleeve across his forehead, cleared his throat, and fixated on the floor where the bureau’d been. He rummaged through his duffel bag, shoving rags and knives and duct tape and other essentials aside before finding the hammer. The claw wedged between the floorboards and he yanked on the handle, splintering the edges of the decaying wood.

Years had passed since he had last seen her, and there was no point in hurrying now. Lord knows she wasn’t going anywhere. Not this time.

Hopefully, you can see the difference. Descriptions are toned down and action is increased. Something’s happening, even if the reader can’t be sure exactly what it is. Questions are raised. Anticipation is ramped up. There’s movement in the words.

Take a look at your own writing. Be objective. How far into the first chapter before the story really gets going? Does Steve Martin need to have a conversation with you too?

Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the reader!

Do you check for action on every page of your writing?

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  • Karla Akins

    I think I have the opposite problem. Except when it comes to describing historic fashion. 😉 That is, I have not enough description sometimes and too much action. Great post. Love the video.

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