Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Novelist and Cheap Dental Floss

You know the kind. Bought on impulse at a price too good to be true, it knots and breaks, leaving behind tiny, disgusting, barely removable fragments. Of course you should discard it. But small though the investment is, you’ve made one and feel obliged to see it through. Is that how you treat whatever you’ve already written? If so, is that in your best interest? 

Tip: If it really doesn’t work, let it go.

“An editor,” says Susan Bell, “doesn’t just read, he reads well, and reading well is a creative, powerful act.

What does it mean to “read well?” Mostly likely, that no matter how much you put into this point of view, setting, even scenario, sometimes you must admit that it simply isn’t salvageable. Consider these questions.

~ Is this problematic whatever so ill-conceived that no amount of editing will fully repair it?

This is a tough one. You thought long and hard about this scene. You can visualize it; part of you loves it. But the objective part of you—the portion that cares more about the story than its author—knows that the dialogue is limp, the tension low, the new character an irritant, the stakes low, and the collection of simple or compound sentences lethargic. Listen to the writer rather than the ego. Don’t keep words (or lousy floss) just because it’s an investment.

~ Does this detail or sentence or character add?

Here’s Thomas Wolfe’s confession:

What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.

~ Is this moment, however lovely, simply backstory?

Beware lengthy forays into the past, especially flashbacks. Fiction readers follow the suspense of what’s ahead, rather than the yesterday’s news about what led characters to this point.

~ Is this example a rather self-indulgent journey into what you long to teach or describe?

Colette makes this distinction: “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

~ Is whatever passage you’re questioning redundant?

How many images or metaphors capturing the same thing are too many? More than one, even if each differs slightly. Craft what you want the reader to experience, and you needn’t repeat. Here’s Truman Capote: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

According to C.J. Cherryh, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.” But if you can’t bear to relinquish your investment in time and words? Consider not writing them in the first place. Plenty more—and better—words where those came from.

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