March 30, 2022 § 53 Comments
By Abigail Thomas
I’ve always been curious about why one chooses fiction for one story and nonfiction for another. For me it’s pretty simple—some stories need to be served straight up. That’s nonfiction. Others need more architecture, that’s fiction. It’s a decision best left to the gut.
It has been a long time since I wrote fiction, it felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything; it was thrilling to go chasing some bright scrap of cloth, or a pregnant Dalmatian, or a wild goose, but sooner or later, once I’d had my fun, I’d have to put a roof over its head, give it a place to live and a reason for existing.
Nonfiction comes easily. When something catches my eye, or keeps cropping up, I write. I’ve been at this long enough to know the next interesting thing often shows up in disguise, a bug, say, or a certain shade of blue, or a joke someone told that wasn’t funny. These bits and pieces don’t have to get dressed up for the occasion. I am distilling, not decorating. All I have to do is get it down and get it right. Get in and get out. It’s when I’m not quite hitting the bullseye that I am flummoxed. There are any number of fragments I have brooded over for days, trying to find that elusive missing bit, needing to get rid of the unsatisfied feeling when I read it aloud to myself. I’m better at cutting. My friend Chuck used to call me the samurai editor.
I love the word, “fragment.” It has a jagged quality. I looked it up in my “Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” and found it’s a straight shot back to the beginning, because its ancestor, bhreg, meant “to break.” I’m not sure writing is our way of fixing what’s broken, although that’s often a by-product of writing. Sometimes the word fragment could be more accurately defined as shrapnel, and the trick is to determine where the pain originates, remove the foreign object with surgical precision, and see what it is. Painful, but it’s part of the deal.
I never know if what I’m writing will add up to anything but I’m always curious to see where my mind goes when it’s off-leash. What does it stop to inspect, what does it return to? What the hell am I doing? What are all these memories doing in here? Then there’s a physical rush, like falling in love, when what I’m doing begins to reveal itself. I had my 80th birthday in 2021. What am I up to? I’m an old woman picking up the pieces of her day, wondering where they might lead, loving the journey.
Abigail Thomas is eighty years old. A new book of her essays will be published by The Golden Notebook later this year.
October 11, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Amy Beth Sisson
My sister recently sent me a photograph of a piece of paper that had hung on my parents’ bulletin board for decades. It was a poem I had written at age nine, and my current, much older self could not resist revising the words of my child self. Common advice to writers is to let a manuscript sit in between writing and revision, but my example is extreme—most don’t contemplate a fifty-year timespan. This experience made me question the relationship between writing, revision, and the self.
Maybe the passage of time works to allow us to revise because of the nature of the self. Maybe the gap in time between writing and revision works because the passage of time allows for new facets of the self to come into focus; facets who can stand in more strongly for the reader rather than for the creator.
Many writers, such as Anne Lamott, talk about this from the perspective of the creation of work. The idea that the revising self is different from the writing self is useful when sitting down to write a first draft. They recommend finding a way to turn off your inner critic. Various techniques are useful for getting into the creative and generative mindset such as free-writing, walking, and meditation. But how do you go about turning the critic back on when revising?
The word critic can mean a lot of different things. I don’t think it’s ever useful to summon the stereotypical teacher with a red pen. I prefer to think of my inner critic as a stand-in for my ideal imagined reader, the person I am trying to connect with. When revising, how can you shift your mind from the wildly creative to the place where you have empathy for the reader’s needs. What do the readers need to know, what might resonate with their experience, what will raise useful ideas and questions for them? When revising, I am striving to access deep empathy for the person interacting with my words.
So, if you can, put the manuscript in a virtual drawer for a time. Think about what the optimal length would be for you. Too long and the revising self might be too far from the material. Stephen King recommends taking a six-week break between drafting and revising. If you take this tack, be accepting of the vicissitudes of life that can interfere with connecting to the revision. Are any of us the same self as we were before the upheavals of 2020? And, of course, if you have a deadline all bets are off.
Here are some things that have worked for me to get out of my head and into the reader’s. Most of these can be useful regardless of the genre.
- Move to another room. (I’d say go to a coffee shop if it were not for the Delta variant.) Have you ever gone into a room to do something only to find that you don’t know why you are there? Use this phenomenon to get in touch with your revising self.
- Try rewriting from a different point of view. When you drafted you consciously or unconsciously selected a point of view to tell the tale. Thinking about the story from another point of view can break you out of assumptions and bring you closer to the reader’s experience. Even if you don’t keep the revision’s point of view, it can inform the work.
- Try rewriting in a different tense. Changing tenses is a way to achieve a similar effect. If you switch from the present tense to the past tense you may give the reader more scope to understand the context of the events. If you switch from the past to the present tense you may give the reader more of a sense of immediacy. Again, you don’t have to keep this change, but it can be a useful exercise to help you have a new vision.
- Color code the piece in some way that helps you to see the structure of the work. Play with it. Some people will highlight specific parts of speech. In longer works some people highlight themes or characters. This can give you a sense of the balance.
- Work on another genre. One of my critique partners, a short story writer, recently started revising a draft of a children’s book. She found that she was energized when she went back to revising her short story. Working on something for a very different audience helped her break out of her assumptions about her readers.
The next strategies I use help because they allow you to hear as well as see your words. I’m listing them in the order of my preference.
- Read it out loud. This is very helpful but sometimes I read what I think is on the page rather than what is really on the page and don’t even realize it.
- Have the computer read it to you. This is slightly better for me because the computer will never fill in missing words, but the electric voice can be hard for me to focus on.
- Read it to someone. Having an actual person as my audience forces me to attend in a way that I don’t do when I’m alone.
- Have someone read it to you. This, for me, is the most effective strategy. I follow along on the page while my generous friend reads my words. I hear where they trip up. I hear where they feel awkward voicing something I wrote. If I can’t find a willing reader, Sometimes I will read something into a recording device on my phone and play back the recording.
Experiment with the ideas above to see what works for you to shift your perspective.
Amy Beth Sisson is struggling to emerge, toad-like, from the mud in a small town outside of Philly. Her poetry has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and The Night Heron Barks. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021, Enchanted Conversation and Sweet Tree Review. This fall, she left her day job in software development and started an MFA in Poetry at Rutgers Camden. You can follow her work at amybethsisson.com
July 15, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Brian Watson
I lost track of the revision count. There had been many since the first draft of my memoir. The more I worked, the more details flew into my mind. I caught my breath in May, thinking that all was good. The word count? 103,946.
Judas Priest, that’s a lot.
Part of me was proud. One hundred thousand words was a mythical goal. I have things to say — important things, of course — and the words just tumbled out of me.
A friend read a small part of it. She was encouraging, as I had hoped she would be, but her hammer fell.
“Do you really need all of this description?”
My ego fell into a thousand pieces. A crash, a calamity.
And I paused. I stepped away from the impulse to be defensive. My friend was a writer. She knows what she’s talking about. And I can listen to sage advice, gently given. Before my ego had a chance to reassemble, I looked again at the pages. I could see what she meant. She was right.
The memoir began as an exorcism. My old traumas and their many ghosts were siphoned out of me, onto the screen. The words poured out in an urgent rush. A Columbia River of ideas, with no Grand Coulee to dam any of them up.
Words are very important to a trauma survivor like me. I must describe everything. I must be precisely clear. You must know exactly how I felt.
But your reader is never your therapist. Nor your parent. My words, the descriptions, they were getting in the way. I loved my outpourings but yes, they walled the reader away from the crux of it all. My words were supposed to embrace the reader. The reader would then, in turn, embrace them, but with my ego still shattered, helpless, I saw something different. My words kept the reader away. The descriptions made everything opaque.
A concern lingered: What if, after I make more revisions, cut the extra words out, my voice as an author is damaged? I refused my entry into that rabbit hole of despair, took a deep breath, and began.
The first thing to go were summary descriptions. I laughed at first. I was certain. I already excised them all. Surely there were none left.
But I went looking, and I found them.
In a chapter that described my discovery, at age seventeen, of the glory holes in the men’s restroom at the local Sears, a paragraph began like this.
I returned to that restroom time and again for quick anonymous sexual releases. One time, however, a man had asked me to…
That first sentence had to go. Get the reader into the action. Faster. And that triple dose of adjectives there at the end of it? Cut it all.
During one of my suddenly frequent visits, a stall neighbor whispered, follow me.
The clouds parted. This is the way. Summary descriptions now popped off the page at me. I was merciless, slashing them all.
And then I saw my writing tics. Phrasing that is natural to my speaking voice. Over and over, I saw them in sentences. …to a point… …as a result…
Time to wield the editorial machete. Chop, chop, chop.
What else caught my eye? Redundant descriptions. The reader already knows I’m in Japan. I did not need to remind them in forty separate paragraphs of where I was.
Another thing I saw was my need to take the reader by the hand. To carefully, specifically, walk them, step by step, inch by inch, from moment to moment, scene to scene.
The reader might be interested, once, in mapping out the exact route I took to commute to work, for example, but once was enough. The reader might care, once, how I navigated my apartment, how the rooms were connected, which doors I closed as I crossed into the kitchen and sat at the table. But the reader will likely be happier just to know that I sat down.
I also began to think about adverbs. I love them. But they don’t bring that much to the party if all they do is confirm action for the reader. If instead, I save them for moments when my protagonist surprises the reader, when actions surprise — he was stubbornly elated — adverbs are more powerful. Chop, chop, chop.
At the end of June, the threshing, as I came to call these new revisions, the machete-way-clearing, was done. Chaff removed. Wheat remained. Thoughts made accessible. Word count? 77,518.
Did I mourn the absent words? Maybe, for the briefest of moments. But the revisions empowered me. I know that I can tell my story in stronger ways. In ways that will connect me more profoundly to readers. I took my thresher and my machete and opened the memoir up, and it felt good. And my concerns over voice were unfounded. If anything, my voice rings louder, truer.
Let go of ego. (It’s not as hard as you think.)
You’ve got this!
Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he now lives in the Seattle after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro, and a cantankerous old cat, Butters. His website is http://iambrianwatson.com/
April 5, 2021 § 27 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.
I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.
After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.
Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling. My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.
I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.
While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.
A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.
But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.
Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.
I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.
By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.
That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.
In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.
Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.
Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.
If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.
“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)_________________________
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.
December 15, 2020 § 16 Comments
Staring at your not-final manuscript? Perhaps you rushed out a first draft in one glorious NaNoWriMo month. Perhaps you’ve slowly pecked away for 10 years. Either way, it’s a rush to finally type “the end” at the conclusion of a draft—you did it! You got there!
But what happens next? Your initial inspiration shines on the page, but you know it’s not “done-done.” How, exactly, does it become the next draft? Start with spellcheck? Get someone else to read it? And how will you know you’ve done all the work you can?
First drafts often spring from the impulsive heart, the burning need to tell what happened. Second—or any subsequent drafts—thrive with work plans.
Depending on how you enjoy writing, and how your best work gets done, your work plan might be a list of tasks or a method of proceeding.
Methodical revisers often start on page one, fixing sentences and scenes from beginning to end. Or they might work chapter by chapter, addressing dramatic arc, voice, theme and structure in each. Addressing multiple issues at once can save time, but it can be hard to see the story forest for the line-editing trees.
I swear by a list. The work plan I use (and recommend to many authors) lets me focus on the whole book, keeping the story in my head while tinkering with scenes and sentences.
1) Outline the story using my dramatic structure of choice. For fiction or action-based memoir, often a traditional 5-act structure. For an essay collection, character-driven literary fiction, or reflective memoir, perhaps a spiral from theme to theme and topic to topic. Business, self-help or a craft/how-to (like my forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book), benefit from a ladder structure showing how each subsequent chapter or concept builds on the previous, and each exercise or reflection asks the reader to branch out at that level.
2) Assess the outline. Are scenes in the right order? Do momentum and knowledge build? Does tension stay tight and reader understanding increase? Is the narrative pace too slow, or the number of things to learn too fast? Revise, moving chunks of text as needed and writing in placeholders for “missing” scenes or material.
3) Fill in any placeholders. Are some moments underwritten because the author got tired that day, or a scene evoked tough emotions? Is research needed to fill in a memory or plot gap?
4) Look at conflict. Does each scene or chapter include conflict between what someone wants and what they can get? Is the conflict between characters, between memoirist-as-narrator and memoirist-as-past-self, between narrator and self, narrator and society, or between the reader and their current beliefs/habits? If every scene includes conflict, where does the reader rest or absorb information? Revise scene by scene, increasing, decreasing or refocusing conflict as needed.
5) Revise scenes to get in late and get out early. Rather than parking the car and walking down the hall and entering the office and sitting down and greeting the boss, open with “You’re fired,” or better yet, standing by the car with a box of desk stuff. Edit scenes to close at or immediately after the moment of impact, with only the reflection needed to convey emotion. Even in “slower” or voice-driven books, make sure the reader’s time is spent loving a character, learning new information, enjoying a beautiful/fascinating/terrifying scene or drawing a powerful conclusion. Edit out filler.
6) Revise most scenes to start and end with a strong action, image or emotional moment. Strong scene/chapter openings and closings create pace. In more leisurely books, that’s where the reader has a moment to add their own thoughts to what you’re about to show them, or slows down to absorb the impact of what they’ve read. In faster books, these moments pull the reader forward with your narrative.
7) Refine the narrative and character voices. For each character, read only their dialogue and narrative. Does it sound like them and not anyone else? If all the dialogue tags vanished, would it still be pretty clear who’s talking? For nonfiction, is author voice clearly and specifically in the narrative? For fiction, does the narrative have a clear point of view?
8) Print the whole manuscript and make additional edits and notes on paper. Use scissors and tape to move anything that still needs to be moved.
Next, my favorite editing technique of all:
9) Instead of editing the existing file, retype the entire manuscript, plus any new edits, into a new file.
When I suggest retyping, writers look at me like I’m asking them to dance naked through the mall with flowers and tambourines. But this technique is powerful. Rewriting gives flow. Your authorial voice can more fully develop, like that great party anecdote you tell. The more you retell the whole thing, the better your timing and delivery get. You may also feel physical resistance at lovingly crafted passages…that don’t belong in this book after all. Plus, we are always the person most interested in our work. If it’s too boring to retype it, it’s too boring for anybody else to read.
This may not be your best work plan, and that’s OK! It’s time-consuming, and if you’re in a hurry, you might prefer something like this One-Pass Revision from Holly Lisle, which covers basically the same steps but with terrifying/awesome speed. The above plan also doesn’t address theme, opening hook, character objective, and other elements you’ll want to revise. But it will get you started, and having a specific, written plan can sustain you through writing days that feel like “work.”
If you try it, let me know how it goes (or if you need a cheer!). Nudity and tambourines optional.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Need more direction on your next draft? Join Allison’s Wednesday webinar all about Second Drafts, including theme, voice, hook and much, much more. More info/sign up here! (recording available if you register but can’t make it live).
February 1, 2018 § 27 Comments
1. Check for “was verb-ing” constructions. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:
- Open Advanced Find and Replace
- Check the box for Wildcards On
- Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>
- Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>
- Each time a “being verb-ing” construction pops up, ask “Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?” If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.
2. Remove most of “that.” Many writers use “that” as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. “That” adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the “thats” you need for sense.
I never considered that he would run away
I never considered he would run away.
3. Start and finish sentences with strong words. When possible, restructure sentences to begin and end with nouns or verbs rather than prepositions or filler words.
Besides all that, he was mean, kind of.
Pat was also kind of mean.
When you’re comfortable putting strong words in the anchor positions, start paying attention to the sounds. Sharp consonant sounds (d, g, k, p, etc.) make good emphatic sentences:
Pat was also kind of a dick. On Wednesdays, he threw rocks at his dog.
For more flow, choose sounds that slide into the next sentence, like m, n and s:
Pat was mean. Everyone knew about the poor dog, and what happened on Wednesdays.
4. Count prepositional phrases. Long sentences can be great. But when a sentence feels clunky, sometimes that’s due to too many prepositional phrases.
We walked down the hall on that afternoon, the birds diving into the water beneath the windows, where we’d sat last week pledging our love for one another.
Prepositional phrases navigate time and space. Each new phrase relocates the reader: down the hall, on that afternoon, into the water, beneath the window, where we’d sat, last week, for one another. It’s not just that the sentence is long–it’s that the reader mentally visits seven different locations.
5. Use a word cloud. Using an online tool like Wordle, copy-paste your whole document to create a picture of all the words you use. The words are sized according to their frequency. For over-used words (often that, just, got, around, felt, looked, like) do a search, and each time the word pops up, ask if it’s needed and if it’s the right word in that location. Edit ruthlessly. The big exception is “said” in dialogue–usually, “said” becomes a neutral word like “the,” and it’s better to use “said” than get fancy with dialogue tags.
Bonus thinking time: If there’s a “bad guy” in your story, or someone opposed to your objective, imagine the story from their POV. How are they acting heroically within their own worldview? What do they believe in? How are you thwarting them? Next time you revise, keep in mind there’s another version of the story in which your opponent is the hero. Give the reader little hints of that story, too.
Happy writing–with or without inspiration.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.
June 19, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Kathleen Siddell
You try but it’s not quite right.
You try again.
And again. You feel like it’s almost right but not quite.
It doesn’t feel difficult. At first, it’s fun. You delete a word here, add a different phrase there. You cut and paste and cut and paste whole paragraphs. You like puzzling a story together. You like how suddenly the image will emerge.
Unless it doesn’t.
Then you work slowly and deliberately. You force sentences together because they seem like they should go together. When you step back, you know something is wrong. The picture is unclear, fuzzy, or distorted. You move sentences around some more but they all seem like the same shade of blue. Dull and obvious. Writing is no longer fun.
So you stop.
You try a different angle. You scroll down. Hit return over and over and over. In the endless white space, you start again, this time with the reds, splashing new ideas onto the page to see what splatters.
You clean it up. Backspace.
Back in the white space. This time it feels empty and hopeless. Still, you try.
You find inspiration in black and white with someone else’s name on the cover, someone smarter, more talented. Someone who is not you. You read and read and get lost. You forget who is who and remember only the words. The words are more important than the names. The picture more important than the pieces.
You believe this so, you try again. You try while you drive to work, chewing words like gum to see what will stick and what must be spit out. You write a phrase on the scrap of paper you found in your purse at the red light. There is a stain on the paper but the words don’t care.
When the words start to drain from your fingertips, you vow not to stop. You will not stop to look at the picture you are forming.
Until you do.
It’s not so bad. You take a step back. You think more critically. Maybe it is so bad. The page is filled. Maybe this is all that matters. But you know it’s not. A page can be so full, it blurs grey.
But this page is clear. Black and white letters you hope will read in color.
You’re not sure, so you try again. You try and believe, try and believe, and somewhere in the cycle, you believe you have formed a picture that tells a story. You believe you have created depth without sacrificing clarity.
You stop and submit because you forgot it doesn’t matter if anyone sees what you’ve done.
But you don’t really believe that. Why else would you spend your time agonizing over all these letters? You forget that you write because you can’t not.
“Unfortunately, we are overwhelmed by the quality of submissions.”
An opposite of submission is resistance. There is a resistance between the story you want to tell and the story you have told. But was it almost good enough? How much resistance is there? You’ll never know.
But maybe you do know.
Because you keep trying and believing.
You believe the picture is one people might like. You remember it doesn’t matter if people like it. You ask yourself if you like it.
But you’d like it more if other people also liked it. Because part of what drives your fingers to the keyboard is other people.
Why is that?
Why does it matter? You know you keep saying it doesn’t when really it does. You feel resistance between what you say and how you feel.
You try to release this tension onto the page; the page that is black and white and full of color.
You don’t know if they’ll see what you see. Maybe it was never really your story in the first place. Maybe it wasn’t your story but A story. Their story. The story. But here it is.
For the taking.
Kathleen Siddell is a sometimes writer and high school teacher. She, her husband, and their two boys have spent the past 4 years living in Asia. You can find her essays on The Washington Post, Mamalode, The Write Life and elsewhere.
October 14, 2016 § 27 Comments
By Rebecca Gummere
To clarify, I am not making an existential argument here. I am talking about the very survival of your darlings – those stories you pour yourself out for, at the keyboard or the typewriter. The ones you spill onto blue-lined notebook paper. You know, your heart on the page.
If your writing goes anything like mine, sometimes you create something that, no matter what you do, insists on lying there pale and wan, devoid of life. You dash water on its face, exhale powerfully into what you hope is its mouth, apply pressure to its heart, and still the danged thing refuses to thrive.
Case in point: I worked and worked for several months on an essay that read as sooooo boringggggg and flat, and it absolutely shouldn’t have, because it was about the amazing pilgrimage I made to Geneva to tour CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, where the God Particle (or Higgs boson) was discovered; where one hundred meters below ground particles hurtle toward each other at 99.999% of the speed of light, colliding and disintegrating into “generations” of other particles that thousands of scientists around the world track and study and then spin into ever more exotic theories about the universe and everything in it.
Really big stuff was happening! Why, then, was my writing so tepid?
I looked at the essay every way I knew, but I could not figure out what I was missing. I cut the pages into sections and taped the whole thing back together in several different forms. I wrote key sections on index cards, then shuffled and dealt them out onto the floor like a round of poker, trying to see if re-visioning the structure could give me a winning hand. I taped the entire essay up on my wall and used highlighters to color code scenes, characters, themes, taking careful notes as if I were a detective at the scene of a crime.
In desperation, I even broke up with it – “That’s it, you ass, we’re done” – only to come crawling back, lovesick and penitent.
But still the essay remained dull and lifeless and did not want to go anywhere. Apparently it just wanted to sit at home in its ratty underwear and never make anything of itself at all.
I finally had to admit, the essay was a bust. All writers know, hard as it is, sometimes you just have to let a thing go.
Then one day, after a long spell of “It’s not me, it’s you” distance, I picked up the piece again, began reading, and noticed something new, namely the embarrassing glut of “to be” verb forms on just the first page. The following pages revealed more of the same. How had I missed that?
Red-faced, I decided to sit down and make a list of every verb in the essay.
A total of 558, to be exact, out of ten pages of nearly 4,300 words. And of those 558 verbs, 112 were some form of “to be.” That means that for around 20% of the action I opted for a static verb that doesn’t really say anything more than something “is.”
I also noticed a number of verbs in the passive voice, a sure action killer, as well as several distancing phrases like “seem to” and “try to” and “began to,” words that elongate the action and invite one’s attention to wander elsewhere (like maybe I should make tacos for dinner, and also I can’t wait to get back to watching the last few episodes of Stranger Things).
Curious to see if the verbs would show the bare bones of the narrative, I read the list of them straight through, out loud, as if I were reading a completed story. I hoped to get a feel for the action, its rise and fall, the intensity and the ebb, where energy surged and where it pulled back. The pulse, if you will.
And guess what? To my surprise, in this big story I was trying to tell, of a trip I had wanted to make for years, that I had felt profound butterflies-in-the-stomach anticipation about, nothing actually happened. Instead I had indulged in a lot of interior pondering, which is really not much help to a reader hungering to be told about the next interesting thing and the important thing after that and the really earthshaking thing that follows, and how the story ends, and how the way it ends makes the reader’s life just a tad more bearable or puts the reader back in touch with necessary feelings long buried, or causes the reader’s heart to leap with a thing very much like delight.
That is when I had to acknowledge the story I had been holding at arm’s length that is about so much more than a trip to a world-class particle physics laboratory where world-changing experiments take place. The story about the big questions I had brought with me, the ones I take everywhere – about meaning and despair, about loss and deep grief, about the pain that lives in my marrow. I had to confess my overuse of the “to be” verb forms as my way of freezing the action, of not going deeper, of avoiding my own struggles with Death – that of my sister, my son, my father, my mother – and Life – my profound loneliness as a sixty-something single woman and my complex emotions with regard to my aging body – and Spirit – the hard, embarrassing truth that I’m a formerly ordained pastor who’s utterly lost her faith but still hungers for evidence of Something or Someone.
I took the easy way, the path of least resistance, and sidestepped the real story that took place so many layers down, where the wounds of loss are still raw and seeping, and where too many doubts rattle their chains in the dark.
I’ve since gone back – not to CERN but to the memory of my journey there – and am now letting the full saga unfold, telling the truth about what collided and what collapsed, and about what hope looks like now. In revision I’ve taken those verbs and pushed the throttle to maximum power. Moving from static to fully accelerated, a brand new thing now churns, boils, sparks, and leaps off the page.
Rebecca Gummere’s work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, The Gettysburg Review, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Rumpus, and the New South Journal. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is currently at work on a book-length essay collection.
July 3, 2014 § 6 Comments
Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, responded to yesterday’s post where Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore revealed that revision brings him absolute joy, with this very useful excerpt from her craft book, and an equally useful checklist for revision:
Susan M. Tiberghien’s Lesson on Rewriting
“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” This wonderful quote is from Mark Twain. In this workshop we will go after the lightning.
When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov in a self-interview wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, said that each poem of his sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished. “I like rewriting and don’t trust anything that comes spontaneously. It’s just my way.”
Checklist for Rewriting
1) Leads and Endings
—Does first paragraph (first line) capture reader’s attention?
—Is the piece well framed? Does it begin too early, too late? End too early, too late?
—Are the lead and the ending compatible? Is there foreshadowing?
—Is there a feeling of resolution (does protagonist change / is there new meaning)?
—Closed or open-ended: Wrapped up but still alive?
2) Description (characterization and setting) and Dialogue
—Does each setting contribute to story?
—Show! Is description vivid, intimate? Does it touch the senses?
—Are characters alive?
—Is there dialogue? Does the dialogue advance characterization and story?
—Is each character’s voice unique?
3) Action, Tension/Conflict
—Build tension through opposites in settings, characters, dialogue.
—Develop narrative tug, ‘profluence’ (Gardner).
—Is conflict important? Is the struggle worth the story?
4) Images, Similes, Metaphors, Symbols
—Which are the central (controlling) images?
—Expand language through comparisons (similes/metaphors).
—Go farther through associations (symbols).
5) Genre, Whose Story, Point of View, Style, Rhythm, Voice
—Does the shape fit the story? Is it the right genre (for both story and author)?
—Whose story is it?
—In what point-of-view?
—Is the style appropriate to the subject (poetic, didactic, humorous…)?
—Read it aloud for rhythm (scanning, word sounds, repetition)
—Is author’s voice full-bodied and consistent?
6) Theme and Meaning
—What is the subject (theme)?
—Is there clutter? Are the writer’s ideas clear?
—Is there a moment of new awareness (“epiphany”, Joyce)?
—Why is story important?
7) Editing (when the writing is revised)
—title (does it fit, does it grab attention?)
—length (too short? too long? strengthen, prune)
—sentences and paragraphs (varied, monotonous)
—verbs (active? passive? avoid verbs of being)
—unnecessary words (adverbs, adjectives, clichés, pet words, dialogue tags)
—visual effect (placement of paragraphs, space, dialogue)
—proofread for consistency, punctuation, spelling
July 2, 2014 § 1 Comment
The Fourth River Literary Journal features an interview with Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore, on curiosity, truth, and the joys of revision. Here is an excerpt with a link to the entire interview at the bottom.
Revision is so necessary, so crucial and for me [perhaps I am odd this way], the most fun in writing. It’s where you get to be articulate, where the artistry comes in. The blank page terrifies me, but sifting and trying to improve through pages and pages of half-formed thoughts is pure joy.
Here is what to eliminate: anything that doesn’t make your essay better, or anything that you’ve said elsewhere in the essay in a better way. You know you are done when you can read the entire essay aloud to yourself and not stumble over a single sentence or idea; when you read it all the way through and honestly feel a completeness.