by Robert Lopresti
So, I have been sitting in the 'ol rocking chair with my black notebook full of short stories, trying to do some rewriting. My trusty assistant has been doing her best to help by stepping on the notebook and sticking her tail in my face. Thanks, Chloe. Don't know what I would do without you. (And when can I start?)
I rewrite a lot. I should count the number of times an average story goes through the mill but it would probably be too depressing. Ten? Easy. Probably twenty is more typical.
I am old enough to remember the good old days when rewriting meant typing the whole damn thing from scratch every time. Now the computer remembers it for me and I just have to put in the changes. Bless technology.
But I still have to read the thing all those times. As I have said before, my first draft is basically a full-length outline. Barely literate. Very few sentences will make it from there to the published (oh, please) version without being changed. And that's fine with me, but it does mean there is a long slow process of converting the dross to gold.
What I find most annoying are the notes I leave to myself as I go. FIX. CHECK GEOGRAPHY. CALENDAR? REWRITE! I never know when to address these commands: when I am editing with a pen or later at the computer. So the urgent notes tend to move along from draft to draft.
The music man
It is so much easier it is to rewrite songs. That happens automatically. After I write a song I sing it twenty or thirty times while I am doing other things - bicycling or washing dishes, for instance, - and then when I look back at the written version I find that extra words have dropped out, phrasing has improved, etc. That's one reason folk songs tend to be so memorable; hundreds of editors converting it into something better.
Unfortunately, I find that singing a short story over and over doesn't work very well. However, here is a trick I do find helpful: when you're near the final draft and thinking about sending a story out to the editor, read it out loud. It is remarkable how many times the ear will catch a gaffe that the eye stopped noticing. Like a changed sentence that left a remnant behind: "It wasn't not going to be easy." I thought that I had kicked that "not" out... The ear will also catch style problems, like using the same word three times in a sentence.
And now, if you will excuse me, my assistant says I should get back to work. Or feed her some Friskies.
22 February 2012
07 January 2012
by John Floyd
by John M. Floyd
Over the past few days I've been thinking about something Dixon Hill said in a recent column, about "flat" writing. He defined it as fiction that has no fizz or flavor.
I see that kind of thing a lot in my students' stories, and we as readers see it occasionally in published novels and short stories as well. On the surface there's nothing wrong--the writing is often technically correct and structurally sound--but there's no magic to it, nothing that would lift the words off the page and make them memorable. (By the way, the same thing can happen with nonfiction, and it's just as dangerous.)
Dix also called it perplexing, and hard to correct. He's right. It's even hard to recognize, when it occurs in our own writing, and if it goes undetected we usually wind up disappointed when those stories and books don't sell.
From the Reader's POV . . .
I should mention here a quick word about the opposite of flat writing.
Friends have told me they're sometimes not aware of excellent writing until after they've finished reading a story, because if it's good enough a reader can be drawn so deeply into the plotline he or she doesn't even think of anything else until afterward. Personally, I do find myself aware of extra "fizz and flavor" during the reading--maybe in a clever plot device, or a particularly elegant phrase, or a piece of information that I never before knew or understood. For me, though, noticing that kind of thing in flight isn't something that takes away at all from the enjoyment of reading.
I also like to find twists and reversals in a story. In the book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik (what a great author name, sort of like Francine Prose), he says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another. They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word. They love images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas."
From the Writer's POV . . .
I learned long ago to search for dullness in my own work, and when I'm lucky enough to detect it (I wish it weren't there in the first place, but it usually is), I try to fix it. But that's easier said than done.
How do you correct lackluster writing? I know of only one way. I go back through the story, seeing it through the eyes of the reader, and attempt to make every page, every paragraph, even every sentence as strong as it can possibly be. Sometimes this is just basic rewriting: deleting modifiers, substituting action verbs for weak verbs, fine-tuning punctuation, adding exchanges of dialogue in place of description and exposition, changing passive voice to active. Sometimes it can be done via a metaphor or an analogy or onomatopoeia, or even humor--anything that might add sparkle to an otherwise routine and ordinary passage. I'm not saying this kind of search-and-repair operation is always successful; overcorrecting can make things worse instead of better. But I try. Always in the back of my mind is Elmore Leonard's advice: leave out the parts that people skip.
This whole process always surprises me a bit. Even when I think a manuscript is pretty much finished, I can usually trudge back through it with these things in mind and make it shine a little brighter. And when that happens it's a great feeling. It's the difference between functionality and beauty, between settling for par and making an eagle, between getting there and getting there in style. (Whether others will think my creation is beautiful is of course another matter, but I'm careful not to submit a story until I at least feel that way about it myself.)
I would appreciate hearing your views on this subject. Is flat writing something you worry about? If so, do you address it during the creative process or afterward? What are some of the steps you take to add "punch" to your own fiction?
A Sixth Sense
I'm convinced that the more one reads and writes, the more conscious one becomes, of bland and colorless writing. Quoting from Plotnik again: "I can see dead writing. I can see language that follows all the rules, but lacks the vigor and inventiveness ever to rise off the page."
He goes on to say, "I feel the anguish of dead writing, and sometimes as an editor I've applied a stitch here, a jolt there, so that it might stagger among the undead. But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing, give it corporeal clout, is to invigorate it at the outset." How true. These days it's not enough to hope an editor can do it for us.
To Fix a Flat
Anytime we discuss the quality and readability of fiction, I'm reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. That book could so easily have been no more than a coming-of-age story, or a courtroom drama, or a mystery novel, or a lesson about race relations and justice and loyalty and knowing right from wrong. Instead it is all those things, combined. It has elements of both literary and genre fiction, and was written with a style that, after half a dozen readings, still keeps me hooked every step of the way. If it contains any dead spots, any dull, featureless prose at all, I've never noticed it.
But wait a minute. All this talk of flat writing has made me a little nervous. Did I mention that it can apply to nonfiction too?
Maybe it's time to sign off.