Monday, September 17, 2012

Revision: cutting out the boring parts

Elmore Leonard famously said the key to writing well is to "skip the boring parts." This is sound advice. Boring the reader is about the worst thing a writer can do. I also think that writers, with experience, can actually tell when their own writing is boring. In drafting such sections, they feel mildly persecuted, as if their boss has just told them to redo the budget. Similarly, in revising, they find themselves skimming over the same sections their readers will skim. Simply responding to this unease--whether or not you know its source--by cutting out these sections and finding something to replace them with will go a long way toward improving your writing.

But what, in the case of literary fiction specifically, counts as "boring"? I would say it's writing that does not stir emotion. More specifically, readers who read literary fiction seek emotional experiences that are both complex and powerful. This does not mean you need to be punching your unseen interlocutor in the gut at a rate of one hit per second. You want dynamics, as in music, fortes and pianos and everything in between. But it does mean that something emotionally interesting should be going on, virtually at all times.

This idea doesn't line up exactly with "show, don't tell." I believe "telling" (i.e., the well-done summary) can be emotionally satisfying. It also doesn't line up with "action," in the usual sense. Scenes of contemplation, descriptions of settings, and so forth can certainly move your reader. But you might ask yourself these sorts of questions: Is this section doing something, or just reporting something? Is this creating an experience, or is it merely duct tape holding the plot together? Above all: Do I feel anything here?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tolerating--no, welcoming, dammit!--badness in writing

OK, so, not doing so well with the regular blogging thing. I think about it! I do! Just as I think about my current novel, and the beginnings of my new one, and maybe a short story I might get started on.

I won't say I'm blocked; I've mostly just been busy with freelance work that involves creative writing as well as very close editing. I love and welcome this work, except that it drains a lot of my energy for my own writing. My work also demands that I write well *quickly,* which feeds into a longstanding problem I have with first (and second and third) drafts. Basically, I can't allow them to be bad.

After all this time, after all this practice, after all this reading and listening to writers who are more successful and disciplined than I am, I still can hardly stand to write something that feels less than perfect. I spend a lot of time mulling over new scenes for my novel (for example), and rejecting them before I even attempt to commit them to the screen. As if anyone but me--and maybe a highly trusted friend or two--will ever see them! What the hell am I afraid of? I know from experience that writing the scene out--not just thinking about it--is the only way to discover whether it will work.

Even more important, during the writing process, new and better ideas *always* emerge. No matter how many notes I take or how much muttering I do to myself, I will *only* discover the ideas by physically writing out the sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters. And then tearing these sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters apart, and rebuilding them, over and over. Or throwing them out, which is not the same thing as having wasted my time writing them. Because now I've seen what does *not* work, and instead of having an unworkable idea hovering tantalizingly in the background, it can be dispensed with once and for all, clearing a space for what does work. It even happens that what I originally think is bad turns out to be good.

The fear has to be that the bad writing represents my true potential. It's the rawest and therefore clearest indicator of an insurmountable lack of talent. Right? It's as if the revision process is somehow inauthentic, not "real" writing, and even a kind of trickery that covers up (rather than alters) the fundamental failure of what lies beneath. What an odd and yet persistent delusion.

But I've had enough experience to know that these recursive doubts never really go away. I know that most other writers have them, too. Sometimes the doubts lie low; other times they surge and nearly engulf me. I have to work in the presence of these doubts. They can loom behind my chair like a nosy coworker, whom I must acknowledge and then gently tell to go away.