I’m Ruined

I spent December and the late part of January in writing intensives that brought home two dozen rules of good writing.  I’ve read half a dozen books, written fifty-odd pages of fiction and critiqued five hundred more since mid-December. And now I’ve been handed the latest work by one of the folks in my critique group, and I find that I’m reading the work of my dear friends differently.

First, my magic red pen has circled all his adverbs and underlined all his uses of “was” or “had.” Then, it has called out the instances where I’m being told something instead of shown it. Then, it’s putting brackets around all the POV shifts, all the verb tense shifts and all the “what the hell just happened” points. The only page that hasn’t received any revision marks is one that, because he formatted his manuscript in Word and I use NeoOffice, came out blank. (I went ahead and put a very sarcastic “This page intentionally left blank.” I know that contains an adverb, but it’s not original to me, so I don’t feel guilty.)

If it were my manuscript, I would receive back the markups and feel a little discouraged. I would look at red ink on every page, in huge amounts, and I might think “I’m terrible at this.” But there are two things that I know about this situation: the first is that this is an early draft, and the author is expecting major rewrites at this point. In fact, he may expect having to do more rewrites once it gets accepted for publication. Because that’s the second thing. The guy who wrote this has his third book coming out in April. He knows how to write commercial fiction.

The takeaway is that I can’t be hard on myself when I’m doing my own edits. I’ve long said that the hardest part of writing is editing, because it’s hard to edit yourself. On the other hand, I’m not sure.  Rick Moody said in a revision class that he believed that the larger questions of plot, characterization and style would solve themselves if you solve the smaller problems of adverbs, bad metaphors and passive voice. I am beginning to see how that’s true. Stripping your prose bare of all the stuff you put in to prop it up not only highlights what you did put in when you shouldn’t. It also shows up what’s not there. Tension. Action. Drama.

I’m going to start the re-writes on the novel that has been workshopped to death. It’s been two years since I wrote it, and it’s going to get the good going-over it deserves. And I hope that when my friend reads the markups I put on his draft, that he’s happy with the amount of revision I’m suggesting. And I hope that Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, H.P. Lovecraft, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and all my other favorites forgive me, because now, even when I read their works that have been labeled as “classics,” I can’t help but think “Adverb…passive voice…adverb, oh my – two in a row!”

Days 8: Girls Just Want to Have Fun

I must admit, most of the reason I haven’t posted for a few days is that I’ve been so busy that I could scarcely think.

On Wednesday, I went to a revision lecture with Rick Moody. I’ve heard him speak on the subject of revision before, and at the time, I was surprised that anyone should go through such a detailed, down-in-the-weeds process of editing. In the four years since I heard him speak, either his process has gotten more detailed or he just gave us a lot more in our 2-hour lecture. In addition to the whole “use each of the 4 sentence types in every paragraph” thing I heard before, he had something like 17 other rules for good writing, each of which he made for himself to address a perceived weakness in his own writing, and each of which he still occasionally breaks when he feels justified. Moody said that what he’s aiming for with each of his works is pushing the envelope of what constitutes “story” and “narrative.” At one point, someone asked him when he addressed larger plot and character issues, and he said something to the effect that if you are down in the weeds enough, paying enough attention to individual word choices, the larger issues will take care of themselves. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that, but there it is.

After another lecture with which I disagreed whole-heartedly (you can’t win them all, I guess), two of my friends and I went to Hard Luck Tattoo Studio in Inglewood. I got a bar in my left ear (here’s a picture of one in someone else’s ear), my friend Susan got three studs in her left ear, and my friend Kat got a lovely tattoo on the inside of her right wrist. I feel that I should mention that my friends are both within spitting distance of my mother’s age, and the three of us had an amazing time. Although my friend Kat, as she was being escorted to her car on the last day by her very handsome husband, said “So long, troublemaker!” But she was smiling.

Normally, I didn’t go to the evening readings because by the end of the day I just felt overloaded and anxious to get back to my room to sort things out, but on Wednesday, I went to the Rick Moody reading. As an added treat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey was giving a reading.  While I thought her poetry was excellent (and there’s so little poetry I really like), her reading had that artificial pace that for me marks bad poetry reading. A SORT…of EMPHASIS…on…line ENDINGS…and…ELLIPSIS. To me, it shows a lack of faith in the listener’s ability to hear the poem’s form and internal rhythms, which goes back to a lack of faith in the work itself. I forgive it in newer poets, but I wouldn’t have expected it of Natasha Trethewey. Rick Moody’s reading of “Boys” bore out so many of the lessons he went over earlier that afternoon.

I went back to my hotel that night after stopping at a taqueria for dinner, and had to sleep on my right side, my left ear being too insulted to allow for sleep.