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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

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.


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