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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Pick One

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One of the things I always do in a line by line rewrite is try to find those sentences where I added on more than one action or metaphor to create a certain effect. Usually, I find that the addition actually weakens the sentence. Using a number of metaphors in a single sentence might be a bit of tick on my part, like throwing things against the wall and hoping one sticks, but I need to get rid of all the ones that fall on the floor.

Here's a sentence from CRAPSTOWN, where our hero, on the run, is trying to reach a place where he'd be safe before he was spotted in the coming dawn: Scrbacek stepped closer to the brick walls of the buildings he passed, hunched himself deeper within the turned-up collar of his raincoat, scurried forward,as if in a race with the sun.

Not a terrible sentence, but there are two images here -- the stepping closer to the brick walls and the hunching in the raincoat -- where only one is required. Neither are wrong, but they sort of work against each other. Why do you hunch in your raincoat if you're using the wall to hide your presence? I needed to pick one. It didn't matter as much which, because whichever I picked would be all the richer for being alone. I chose the hunched in the collar clause, because I liked the image of a man hiding in his clothing, so it now reads: Scrbacek hunched himself deeper within the turned-up collar of his raincoat and scurried forward, as if in a race with the sun.

The sentence is a little stronger now, I think. It's a small thing, but small things add up. Sometimes you don't even realize you need to choose, and that's when the weaker clauses slip by.

Hunt repetitive images like a shark hunts for swimmers on an Australian beach, and then kill the weakest.

A Decent Line

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I'm still working on CRAPSTOWN, another level of revision, going now line by line to clean the thing up. To do this I always print the thing out and, using an envelope to keep my place, go down the page, line by line, as slowly as I can. I want to ask questions about every sentence, every clause, and every word. If I see something I can cut I get all excite, but that's just me.

But every once in awhile I get to a paragraph that needs a little more. I was working on a paragraph about a basement prison in the courthouse. It's just a setting-the-scene thing and usually I like to keep that type of thing as short as possible. The paragraph I wrote was pretty good, it dealt with the daily cycle of the cells, bringing the prisoners in, the prisoners going wild, and then bringing them out again before the place gets scrubbed clean with the ammonia. But the pacing wasn't quite right. It reached the peak of activity and then just started closing down. It needed something in the middle, something togive the peak some emphasis and to indicate its duration. Nothing specific, just a rhythm thing. So I worked on a line. I thought I would write something like, "To call it a zoo is to give zoos a bad name." Not bad, but it didn't quite get there. So I tried to give a quick name to the activity, was it chaos, disorder, some brutal dance, bedlam, what?

And the word bedlam stuck, because of where it came from. Bedlam, of course, was the nickname of the insane asylum in London, which is a better analogy, I think, than a zoo. So I worked it a bit and I came up with:

"To call it bedlam was an insult to Bedlam."

It's a throwaway line, put in simply to improve the pacing of a rather inconsequential paragraph that no one will remember, but I think it adds something and was worth the effort. It isn't always. I've spent plenty of time on paragraphs that at the end just sucked and had to be cut. But the effect a book has on a reader is often a sum of all these things. Just read Wilde. Everyone remembers the story of Dorian Gray, they even made a rather anemic movie of it, but it is the aphorisms, thrown out one after the other like petals from a rose, that make the book.

Sometimes the throwaway lines take the most work and have the most lasting effect.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I'm working on a scene in a diner. It's a good scene, tense and funny, but there are a few parts that seem to go on a bit long. Every line seems to fit, but still, the overall impression of these parts is that they could be swifter.

Cutting is the easiest part of revising, you just have to be willing. Faulkner famously once said, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." It's amazing that you press a button and the thing gets magically better. Even if the thing you cut is pretty good, sometimes the increase in pace improves everything.

The best advice I ever got on writing was from James Salter, one the best writers in America: "A writer's first job is to be interesting."

And the corollary to the best advice I ever got on writing: "One way to be interesting is to cut out everything that's not interesting."

It's a brutal job, so be brutal.

A Peach of a Writing Spot

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is this writing spot better than yours?


Just a good lesson not to complain about the room of one's own. He wrote pretty well from here.

It's not the spot, it's the spotting.

Revising Crapstown

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Right now I'm in the middle of revising a manuscript that was originally called CRAPSTOWN but will probably end up being called AS LOVE ORDAINS or something so cloying just to read it will cause a diabetic to faint away. It's appropriate, I think, that I start on revising because rewriting is a crucial, maybe the crucial step in the writing process. If you don't know how the revising will go then you're more apt to get stuck in the first draft.

Revising is a heroic, almost alchemical act, where you take something that's lousy and turn it into something less lousy. It's also the most fun part, where everything you touch turns better. The key, I've always found, is to be ruthless. It's not enough just to go sentence by sentence and tighten things up. You also have to look at the big picture. Sometimes I print a chapter outline, tack it to the door, and try to figure where I went wrong.

I took a seminar with Marilyn Robinson. A story would come in, a complete piece of crap, and we would all be ready to rip it to shreds. And then Marilyn, with that calm lovely voice of hers, would start talking about what she saw in the piece. And the thing she described was just fabulous. Of course, it was buried in the piece of crap story, maybe just a phrase that Marilyn spun into gold. And the question always was: would the author have the guts to tear the story to shreds and write what Marilyn suggested, or would the author instead just move some sentences around because that was easier?

Usually it was the latter.

What I try to do, when I revise, is to see the thing as it would have come out if I knew, when I started, everything that I know about it now. That can create some big problems and require major revision, but the thing will end up working in a way it didn't before.

Sometimes the first draft is just a way to figure out what we should have written in the first place.

Faulkner on Words

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"I had learned a little about writing from Soldier's Pay - how to approach language, words: not with seriousness so much as an essayist does, but with a kind of alert respect, as you approach dynamite; even with joy, as you approach women: perhaps with the same secretly unscrupulous intentions."

And if you know anything about Faulkner and women, you understand why no words were safe around him.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Writers love nothing better than talking about writing. We can sit at the bar for hours and talk talk talk. We can talk about plots, about style, about first-person versus third-person, about revising and dealing with editors and going on tour. We'll talk about anything, actually, to keep ourselves from sitting down and actually doing the deed.

And yet, somewhere in all that talk there are nuggets to be gleaned that can actually help. And the benefit goes as much to the talker as to the listener. To sit at a bar and talk about a problem -- and that's what writers talk about, the endless problems -- can sometimes crystallize your thoughts enough to see a potential solution.

That's what I intend for this space, to pretend I'm at the bar, getting sloppy drunk and talking about the problems I'm dealing with day by day and crystallizing a possible solutions into a rule. Yes, I'll endeavor to end each entry with a writing rule. If I get too pedantic, slap me hard, but it's always nice to end with something solid, like the heroic couplet at the end of a sonnet.

But the problem with rules is that people want to follow them and that gets them in all kinds of trouble. These rules will be more like possibilities, to be followed sparingly and ignored liberally, but something to get you thinking. A way out of some problems that can be considered but once considered are best tossed. Which brings us to our first rule.

In writing, the only rule is that there are no rules, but you ignore them at your peril.