All’s Well That Ends Well

December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments

Your ending should be one singular sensation

Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”

Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.

That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.

About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.

Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.

This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.

[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]

The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.

How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?

Some things to avoid:

  • Don’t summarize.

The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.

That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.

  • Don’t explain.

I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.

Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.

  • Don’t justify.

As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.

If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.

  • Don’t excuse.

I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”

Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.

Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.

Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:

  • Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.

I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.

[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]

  • Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.

I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.

[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]

  • Admit guilt/fault/complicity.

“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.

Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.

  • Undercut/empathize.

I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.

Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.

 

Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 13 Comments

Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

Sloooooow Motion

November 15, 2016 § 10 Comments

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

This Florida-based tortoise has spent a decade on his surrealist memoir-in-essays

The hare finally woke from his nap. “Time to get going!” And off he went faster than he had ever run before! He dashed as quickly as anyone ever could to the finish line, where he met the tortoise, patiently awaiting his arrival.

An author I work with sent me another draft of a scene from a book she’s writing. I sent it back with more notes, for the third time. She wrote:

I love diving in deeper and hearing where things can get amped up. Am only worried it will take another year to edit the book if I do this for each scene 😉

She’s probably right. It may well take a year. Yes, some writers write much faster. But for most of us, polishing each element of our book–scene by scene, character by character, sentence by sentence–takes time. Time at the page. Time ruminating while walking, or gardening, or staring into space. Time away from the book and working on something else. Time at our day job, where one day someone says something in the break room that snaps a recalcitrant plotline into place. Time absorbing the world.

I wrote her back that yes, it’s time-consuming,

…but bear in mind that right now you’re also learning more about writing, and everything you learn will go much faster on the next round! Plus, material at the beginning of the book goes slower than the end, because things are being set up and you’re building the world. And as a human functioning in the real world, you’re probably already changing how you look at things and record details in your head, and being more aware of what makes a scene/character/world will speed up your process, too.

It’s worth remembering those things for my own work. Every time I write–whether a blog post, an essay, a memoir, a how-to book or a novel, I learn more about writing. The lessons from failed work, bad drafts and trashed sentences inform the next attempt. The end of a book may not be “fast” in terms of creative choices, but it’s definitely faster to finish typing a project than it is to start from an empty page. And certainly, as a human moving through the world, I’m noticing more of what physical situations and gestures trigger my judgment, so that I can “show instead of telling” on the page.

It’s OK if it takes ten years–or twenty!–to finish a book. Great work is often made with care. Right now, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sees more than a million writers around the world tearing through a first draft. Agents dread December: it’s Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Inbox Hell, as enthusiastic writers skip the all-important revisions and multiple drafts in their eagerness to share their work with the world.

That doesn’t mean don’t finish a novel in a month, or “don’t write fast.” But if you are a slower writer, or have finished a first draft, allow yourself the patience to let your work blossom both from your tending and your absence. Trust that building a network of literary support also happens one meaningful interaction at a time. That being open to the world for inspiration also sometimes includes shutting down, putting up our shields, and listening to our inner voices for a while. In our most recent Brevity Podcast, Andre Dubus III says it takes him five years to write a book–during that time, he shows it to no-one.

I am over 40. I see round-up lists of exciting new (always young) authors and it hurts to know I have missed that window. It’s weird to be both proud of a published book and sad that it’s not the book I thought I’d publish first. I’m a tinkerer, and tend to move slowly through a draft, revising as I go, rather than tearing through to the end and then going back. It’s hard to see friends finishing November with 50,000 words and realize that I have some blog posts and most of another how-to book and five more pages of novel but nothing is done. But the difference between a parable and real life is that the tortoise and the hare can both win at their own speed. I’m tempted to say “I hope” after that, but finishing a book is not a hope. It’s something I can control, and the only choice is whether or not to be OK with the time it takes me.

See you at the finish line.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the host of the Brevity Podcast.

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