When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?
Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.
This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?
Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.
The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.
I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.
I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)
For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?
One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.
With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?
Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.
The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.
After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?
You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.
Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.
Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.
I wrote “Origin of Species” at almost exactly the same time as I did “Faces of Gemini” (whose intro is here) and the process was very similar: an anthology invitation from editor Jeanne Cavelos became an outline in point form, which in turn became an outline of detailed sentences. These became a bony first draft in need of fleshing. The two stories feel like siblings of a sort, having come together in this fashion.
I cannot remember how I hit upon the idea of taking Annie Darwin’s ghost and putting her in a Van Helsing story. I knew I didn’t want to set the story in the time of Dracula, didn’t want monster-stalking by gaslight: I figured that the anthology would have plenty of those, written well by people who actually know their Victorian history.
I’ve been giving this link to my students for just about a year, and in time I started referring to the eyeball phenomenon as “Eye Bookisms.” This is, of course, a reference to “said bookisms”, a term I first encountered in the Turkey City Lexicon when I was preparing to go to Clarion West in 1995.
Look words were popping out at me this December as I worked through a number of student manuscripts. As a result, it occurred to me that with the said bookisms, writers are essentially trying to squeeze in variety while adding a tone to their characters’ utterances: “He snarled, she wept, they ejaculated.”
But we use eye bookisms to imperfectly do a number of different things… so when you go to write them out of your drafts, it’s useful to identify your intentions:
There’s the Description Ahead! sign:
She looked down the road. Wrecked cars were crushed into each other on the ice. The continuous stream of mashed metal ran all the way down the hill and onto the frozen lake.
Sometimes, it is undeniably handy to grab the reader’s head and align it with your POV character’s, and that’s what this is, a way of shouting “Look downhill with me!” Handy or not, I see this kind of cushioning being overused a lot, especially by writers who aren’t confident in their point of view (POV) or their ability to keep things clear for the reader. In many cases, you can cut it entirely:
The view downhill revealed… OR: Wrecked cars were crushed into each other…
A second variation of the eye bookism is Mindreading. You’ve done it, I’ve done it. We’ve all done it, at least in draft:
She looked lonely / She had a look of loneliness / Her look was lonely.
Here, we’re filtering our POV character’s impressions of a second person. Unless they’re a telepath, they can’t know she’s lonely… but the point is the writer wants you to know, and so the POV gets that flash of insight. Again, there’s no great crime in this. We have empathy, after all; we can sometimes look at someone and have a mighty clear idea of what they’re feeling. And sometimes that perception of an emotion leads to some interesting reactions, or good imagery, and it all flows beautifully.
Other times, though, the mindreading verges on just telling, rather than showing. This may be a perfectly good phrase to stick in a draft:
She looked like she was going to fall apart.
But there are about a billion types of falling apart, aren’t there? So on the next go-round, give us the details:
Mary jittered as she walked, laughing loudly though nobody had spoken, and nothing about this situation was funny. From time to time she lunged at the edge of the boulevard, as if she meant to throw herself into the busy traffic on First Avenue.
Next, there’s the Empty Utterance:
Look comes up in an entirely other context in this one, and if I hadn’t been reading a big and varied pile of writers’ work this fall, I might not have gotten sensitized to it. But newer writers’ dialog can tend to be festooned by words and phrases we use all the time when we’re talking:
“Look, I don’t care about pro hockey.”
“Well, basically, hockey isn’t important to me.”
“Listen, I want to tell you something. Here it comes. Seriously, like, hockey sucks.”
The reason these utterances sound stale in dialog, even though they can accurately capture a certain aspect of the way we speak, is that in conversation their meaning is largely non-textual. They’re sounds that draw the other party’s attention and signal the speaker’s mood, attitude, and intentions. If I say “Listen,” in a soft, calming voice, it may be that I’m trying to soothe; if I bite the word off, my meaning may be more on the lines of “Snap to it here!”
One could as easily say “Oi!” And sometimes, of course, we do.
Try cutting ’em, folks. If the speeches then seem too abrupt–too directly to the point–it may be that you do need a preamble. But before you put the filler back in, look for words that create the breathing space you’re looking for, the sound of someone gearing up to something important, while saying something specific and appropriate to the character.
Finally, we get to Stage Directions:
Here is where we really get into an overlap between Said Bookisms and Eye Bookisms. The process goes like this. First we’re taught, as learning writers, not to remark, bellow, hiss, mutter, and sob all over our dialog. But then we find a “he said” and a “she said” at the end of every line, and of course that’s clunky. It’s easy to move from there to directing traffic with your characters’ eyeballs. If she looks at him, obviously she’s the one speaking. If he rolls his eyes in response, the sarcastic utterance that follows is obviously his.
The answer? Mix it up! Spice lightly using all the available options, including a bit of he said, she said. Here are just a few of the possibilities:
–Give readers two clear “Chris said,” “Pat said” utterances and then follow them with a couple unattributed lines. If it’s clear that Chris is in favor of eating Mexican, while Pat wants to go for sushi, we can follow the thread for a little while without too much trouble.
–Think about the rest of the body, and the world it’s in. If they’re in a car, there are seat belts and glove boxes and maps and GPS gadgets to fiddle with. People rarely talk in an actionless vacuum, and writing in some of that action also helps readers imagine your scene…
–There’s probably some conflict going on here, right? Is it clear? Do we understand it? If so, and using the food example above, sushi advocacy can become a perfectly good stand-in for “Pat said.”
–Got POV? A little interior monologue goes a long way. I’m going to die if I don’t get some salsa, Chris thought. “I have been dreaming about this dinner all day.”
–Fictional characters address each other by name more often than they do in real life: “Chris, there’s an awesome sushi place across from Burrito Heaven. Can’t we split the difference?”
Now of course I am hoping the salsa vs. wasabi battle has some subtext going on in it, but that’s a whole other blog entry, isn’t it? The point of the above list is that it is mechanical, but if you take an overly eyeballed passage and cycle through the above possibilities, you’ll cover a lot of conversational ground without a lot of awkward repetition of either ‘said’ or ‘look’. Once that’s done, you can focus on adding depth and making it sound pretty.
Second, because she’s so darned interesting, I want to show you my friend Linda Carson, talking about art history and Lady Gaga’s references to same. (It’s a quickie: the Waterloo Ignite talks give speakers five minutes and twenty slides–the motto is “Enlighten Us, but Do it Quick.”)
I’m thinking “Bring on the meat dress!” may become a new catchphrase here at Chez Dua, which ties into some musings and observation of mine about language. None of us speaks quite the same language, you see: we all have our own DIY dialect.
Groups of people start building their own language as soon as they come together. Work groups, friendships, sports teams, theater companies, lovers… it’s part of the process of forging connections: in-jokes, the task-specific language, all this in-speak forms the true secret handshake. Once established, it can be used to refer back to specific facts, to memories, to emotions; it can also be used include or exclude. Your personal language is a merger of these separate variations, a fusion of the tongues of the family, the workplace, and your variety of social spheres.
The inspeak also can come with grammar and usage conventions. This spring I learned that in birding, the use of the term LBJ can refer to any one of the numberless brown handful-sized birds out there. LBJ stands for little brown job, and means, therefore, your basic bushtit or sparrowy bird. But I dug further, and discovered that within birding culture, you can’t just just go sticking this label on every LBJ that comes along. Once or twice, and you’re in the club. Once too many times, and you become some schmuck who can’t identify what’s in front of them.
(Also, if you’re me, this leads to an earworm of: LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today? Which sparrows appreciate not at all. Or it takes me to memories of the weird-butt animatronic LBJ cracking jokes at the Presidential Library in Austin. Really. Not joking.)
One very rich and heavily mined source of inspeak, of course, is pop culture. Here in North America, we eat, sleep, and breathe movies, TV, and books. We transform catchy quotes, imbue them with our own meanings, and sometimes make them impermeable to others in the process.
In my house, Monty Python has provided the line “S/he is a standard British Bird.” To us, this means any UK actor we recognize from multiple costume dramas, but don’t know by name. Not Dame Judy, not Rupert Graves… but the actress who was in Sense and Sensibility, say, who then played the King’s widow in Young Victoria. (I know, I could look her up, but that’s not the point.) Anyway, she’s an SBB.
Or the two blink and you miss ’em little boys on BlueBloods (What, you’re thinking, there are kids on Bluebloods?) have become Dr. Quinn and Medicine Woman thanks to Will Ferrell and Talladega Nights. Kelly and I crack up pretty much every time we say this.
Finally, no Child of the Eighties private language would be complete without a scattering of quotes, some mangled, from Ghostbusters. We were dragging ourselves out the door the other day and what came out of my mouth wasn’t “Rah rah, let’s go, we can do it, go team!” It was: “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” It made sense. I’m not sure it should have.
This is a basic human behavior, but it can be a tricky thing to set up in fiction. If you’re writing something contemporary and you use actual pop culture, you may be stale-dating your stories. If you’re not, there’s a process. You make up the source, put it in context, use it appropriately… and bang! When you bring off that effect, of letting the reader in the club, of having them understand perfectly, on an emotional level, something that doesn’t make actual sense when scanned… it’s a powerful thing. It’s hard to do but it’s also something I find hugely compelling, when I encounter it as a reader.
Where do your linguistic quirks originate? If you’re a writer–have you ever pulled this off in a way you’re exceptionally proud of?
I saw a skunk on Wednesday on my way to the cafe. It was six in the morning, raining hard and very dark–so, no chance of a photo. That, combined with the fact that it was a skunk, meant I didn’t even try to give chase. I was nevertheless delighted to see him waddling down Woodland in high gear, wavering between the west side of the street–and the fenced-in safety of a Terasen work site that is popular with a lot of the urban wildlife–and the garbage dumps of Greyhound Cate’s alley on the east. I don’t see skunks that often, and it has been at least a year. I took it for a good sign.
Yes, out and about at six. My timetable has shifted slightly, and now every day starts with an early fiction-writing session at the cafe. It used to start at half-past eight on Monday to Friday, and then early on Saturday-Sunday. Now it’s all crack of dawn, all the time. As an Xtreme Morning Person, this suits me… but every change has effects, and some have been hard to quantify.
Still, there’s been some “Mmm, must eat this meal at this point in the day now,” and a bit of “Gotta figure out when I’m getting to the pet store,” and “Hey, the frozen food run is sooo much more convenient!” I didn’t count on having to slot in a replacement for the semi-conscious woolgathering I used to do at five in the morning, five days a week. ( I’m not waking up any earlier, in general; I’ve just shifted around the daily must-do list in a way that’s been mostly pleasing.)
A thousand tiny consequences, some to be sorted; some, savored. The weekends are glorious, because K and I are on exactly the same clock, and we’ve already spent a couple long, delicious days together, reading and hanging out. Saturday when we went to the opera, we had a leisurely two hour window to get there… for ten! There was also a fit of self-indulgence wherein we destroyed the living room’s fitness for visitors by arranging the couch and our armchairs back-to-back, to maximize TV viewing comfort on the former and fireside-reading in the latter.
We are still muddling through the process of figuring out when and how to hang out with people when one runs out of brain at seven and goes to bed at nine.
Early bedtime has also proved to be the final nail for choir rehearsals. After the January 22 concert, I am planning to become a non-singing volunteer: meaning I’ll finish out my term on the Board and continue to run the website, but for the first time since 2003 I won’t be rehearsing or performing.