Revisionism (part 7)

Here I don’t just start a line with a sentence fragment beginning with “and,” I start a whole paragraph with it. Again, not something I would want to do regularly, but here I think I get away with it because of the momentum of the previous paragraph, which is a single sentence delineating the features of the characters’ immediate surroundings.

The next line is the only one here with actual marked corrections. I want to replace “raised border” with a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word, so that the rhythm changes from “A small low wooden platform with a raised border” to “A small low wooden platform with a blah-blah blah. The meter of that sentence just sounds better to me, and I will do some searching to find the two words I want there.

Sometimes I ignore these suggestions to myself, either because the words that are there are exactly the right words regardless of their meter, or because I realize I am sacrificing clarity or precision for the sake of meter. But  sometimes that sacrifice is okay. It’s a judgement call — as is every word and punctuation mark in the entire book. For instance, that second sentence omits a comma between “low” and “wooden,” entirely because in this case I don’t want to sacrifice the meter of the sentence to the pause the comma would interject. Here the comma’s absence doesn’t make the sentence ambiguous or confusing. Its addition would be entirely for the sake of form, and I’m happy to dispense with form if it interferes with my intent. Omitting the comma isn’t a rule, either — I’m happy to use the comma if I like what it does to the sentence.  Again, my loyalty is to the line, the image, the flow, and not to some sense of propriety for its own sake.

Finally (yay!), I’ve embedded a note to myself in the manuscript, bracketed and bolded. When I revise the entire manuscript I do a search for brackets to be sure I haven’t missed any of these. It’s easier to do than you think. A friend of mine told me about a book he read that somehow got one of these printed — it slipped past the author, editor, copy editor, and proofreader — where a character in the Navy was described as serving on the [INSERT BATTLESHIP NAME HERE]. This thought gives me the straight-up willies. Talk about showing up in your underwear.

For me this is about the most naked moment in this whole series on revision, because it doesn’t just show some things about my process and how I go about establishing or reinforcing elements of style. It shows how sometimes the most gut-wrenching, emotion-laden, and even linchpin images and incidents in a book can be mostly unknown to the author during the entire process of creation. The author knows he wants something here. He knows its significance and he knows how he wants to establish it, reinforce it, and pay it off later. He trusts his instincts. But what he doesn’t know is what that thing is. So he makes a placeholder. Imagine Tolkien chewing on the end of his pencil and thinking, Should it be a bracelet? A music box?  A paperweight?  ‘The Lord of the Paperweights.’  Hmm. I better just bracket this and come back to it.

So the note here says Chay objective correlative. “Chay” is a character in the novel. “Objective correlative” is a term coined by T. S. Eliot to describe the emotional associations an object can acquire through its context in a dramatic form. The lazy cliche objective correlative used in movies is a music box: Guy gives girl a music box at some point. Later guy is dead and girl finds music box and weeps as it plays. This objective correlative is so hackneyed in Hollywood that the moment someone in a movie gives someone else a music box, he might as well paint a bullseye on his forehead.

In Avalon Burning I have a moment where Chay’s uncle undergoes a ritual death, and he bequeaths several things to Chay, whom he has mentored since the death of Chay’s parents. Among these is an object that I want to evoke a sense of the relationship between them. I want it to have a sense of history and imply that it might have been hard-won. And I want it to be something that vividly conjures that uncle and that association and all those years of learning and struggle and companionship whenever the object resurfaces.

To do this you have to introduce the object properly — it must be revealed in circumstances that are emotionally charged, and it must clearly imply its history without exposition, and especially without cheap sentiment. It must be subsequently reinforced at least once, to provide a throughline in the narrative, and usually in a context that is not emotionally charged, but often more introspective or casual. And finally it must be reintroduced in a way that laminates our associations with Chay and his feelings toward it with our previous associations of how it was originally received and what it originally meant.

In a way it doesn’t matter what the object is. It could be a knife, a bracelet, the last Godiva chocolate bar in the world. The meaning isn’t in the thing itself but in the way we associate it with its circumstance and history. The important thing is to avoid the obvious and cliche, and to carefully pick something that implies an interesting history and isn’t at odds with the role you want it to play. (I hope it is clear here that I am not talking about a “McGuffin,” which is an object that propels a plot [the Maltese Falcon, the Chevy Malibu in Repo Man], and not an object intended to evoke certain emotions through association with events we have witnessed.)

The power of the objective correlative is in our brain’s ability to abstract. “Abstraction” may be defined as “the ability to consider a thing apart from itself.”  We are able to abstract to the extent that we actually confuse a symbol for the thing it symbolizes, even in direct contravention of the original thing. Think about the paradoxical irony of passing laws against flag burning. A flag is a piece of cloth. Burning it does nothing to your country. Burning an American flag manufactured in China would be comical without the emotional associations with which the flag is imbued. But passing a law to prevent the burning of an American flag (manufactured in China) essentially contravenes a fundamental law of the country the flag symbolizes (freedom of expression).

All of this litigation and emotion and controversy exists entirely because of our ability to abstract. To make virtually anything into a symbol. Artists take advantage of this by working carefully to lend a sense of meaning to chosen objects. This is the bread and butter of a propagandist (and there’s a case to be made that artists are propagandists, in that they are using media to manipulate audiences toward some goal).

In the case I’ve noted on the page I’m very publicly revising, I simply want something that will add a solid emotional line and payoff in the book, a tangible way to concretely represent some emotional situations without resorting to exposition (which would carry no emotional weight at all) or forced sentimentality (which is so cheaply laden with lazy adjectival manipulation that it is off-putting [though, unfortunately it also seems to work for a lot of audiences]). I simply don’t yet know what that object is. But I will. The book itself will tell me.

There is a lot of power in the notion that you can turn a dinner fork into something that can make an audience gasp, or cry, or mourn, when it is produced. If you do it right.

Revisionism (part 6)

The handwritten —-| symbol before “Their” is my way of saying “no break” — that is, join this up with the |—- symbol that ends the previous paragraph. It’s useful when you’re cutting stuff and joining sections.

I added “to her halting drone” after “listened” to provide more concrete detail and accentuate the rhythm. I deleted “stacked” as redundant and am asking myself if I want to add “compiled” after “wood.” This would make the portion go from “and they took in the stacked bonfire wood behind her” to “and they took in the bonfire wood compiled behind her.” I see why I want the change — it just plain sounds better. I also see why I bracketed the insertion at “compiled.” I’m telling myself I want a word here but I’m not crazy about “compiled,” probably because it doesn’t feel as accurate as I’d like, and also because that “c” really sticks out. But definitely a two-syllable word belongs there.

I indicate that I want a three-syllable word — [_ _ _] — to replace “behind.” The reason is clearer if you say it out loud (I’ll replace it with in back of as a placeholder for now):  “upright and firm behind that” vs. “upright and firm in back of that.”

For the same reason I also want to replace “objects” with a one-syllable word — [_]:  “enigmatic offerings and objects accumulated” vs. “enigmatic objects and stuff accumulated” (with “stuff” as a placeholder).

I suppose there are grounds for saying I’m more obsessed with rhythm than is necessary for prose. But all language has some built-in musicality, different no doubt for each. I only speak English, but I always find in it an underlying musicality that I want to make more overt. It happens to me when I speak sometimes but much more often when I write. The rhythm owns the line. I’ve wondered sometimes if this is because I’m not a terribly fast reader. I don’t just see the information on the page the way you need to if you want to haulass through it. I hear the words in my head, sound them out.

I can play devil’s advocate and make the case that, since writing is communication, if the rhythm takes precedence to the extent that meaning is lost or obscured, the communication has failed. And that’s absolutely true if you think of the words as printed symbols and not as sounds. But music is communication. And I think I’m imparting information through the use of rhythm in a musical sense. Even more, I think that, unlike the printed word, such communication isn’t received in a terribly rational, forebrain way, but in a deeper, more emotional way. Somewhere beneath articulation. And that’s okay with me, because in the arts, words themselves — stripped of inflection, nuance, facial expression, tone, the support of any other medium — are rational vessels often laboring to convey emotional cargo.

Music mostly works the other way around: it goes straight to the heart without the intervention of the brain (if you’ll pardon the metaphors; it’s all happening in the brain, of course). The exception to this is jazz, notoriously the most cerebral of musical forms. Given how I am reconstructing language conventions for my own purposes you’d think I’d love jazz, but mostly I don’t. I appreciate it but I don’t like it. But I’ll definitely be using some jazz metaphors as I talk about the differences between ignoring rules, adhering to rules, and breaking the rules. Jazz is, if I may be glib here, music for musicians. It’s about messing with the pocket, the timing, not just playing the groove but playing with the groove, with the idea of groove.

Fiction can’t help but live in its head. I want it to listen to its heart too, but without resorting to the tawdry tricks of cheap sentimentality that often demonstrate how cheaply audiences are willing to be bought.

This is all starting to seem a bit of a manifesto, which was never my intent. And for all I know I’m not making a lick of sense anymore. But lately something in me feels compelled to demonstrate there is some kind of madness to my method. Believe me when I tell you I don’t sit back and marvel at my intent. I don’t want to put technique at the forefront of feeling or meaning (and that’s why I don’t like a lot of jazz). What I marvel at is that all of this happens automatically, seemingly without volition. I suppose it’s just the often-accessed and -trained series of muscles and sequences and reactions that an Olympic high-diver develops over countless hours of training and brings to bear in five seconds of beautifully configured descent. She doesn’t think about anything once she leaves the platform. She reacts. Her body does it.

The marvel for me, I guess, is how much can be internalized, rendered to a process I call neural grooving. And how much of that can be so abstract as the kind of things I’ve been talking about.

Revisionism (part 5)

Here the focus changes to Bob, a centaur from Elegy Beach. Clearly the phrasing of the first sentence deliberately departs from a more standard, declarative narration. A flat statement would be “Bob raised a hand and the tribe stopped behind him.” Nothing wrong with that. But once again it’s a line that rises to the level of utility and no further. The interjection of rhythm into the sentence continues the sense of musicality, and I like that it lets the sentence and the action end on the word “stopped.”

There’s a sort of archaic tone to the line as well. I might as well just say that I want the narrative itself, not just the events it depicts, to rise to the level of myth. Whether or not it succeeds is in a way not really up to me. But to some extent I don’t really care about that. The point is to aim high. I’d rather do that and fall short than feel some satisfaction in the security of reiterating what everyone already does.

So after that comes one of my patented sentence fragments: “The sight before them beautiful and sad and wholly unimagined.” It’s funny, I can explain a lot about what I do to achieve certain effects, and why I go about doing it, even though I’m not really conscious of the underlying reasons at the time I do it (what, you think all this analysis goes on as I write this stuff? Good god no. That would be horrible). But I’d be hard pressed to explain why this sort of unpunctuated run-on fragment crops up all the time in my work. Lemme think about this a bit. But not too much.

So I cut “legend” out of the next sentence cuz it goes too far. One word too many, especially given the odd construction. Even with it out, the phrasing of “The girl their former nightmare sat upon the ground” demands a certain attention from the reader. It’s basically a dependent clause integrated into the sentence through the absence of punctuation. But if I’d set it apart the way most proofreaders would mark the thing up — “The girl, their former nightmare, sat upon the ground,” I’d end up with something that feels clumsy, with no rhythm whatsoever, and rendered merely descriptive. What an anvil drop of a sentence that would be. Argue about commas and people think you’re some kind of micromanaging OCD prima donna. But look at at the difference in that sentence without the commas. My loyalty is to the beauty or effectiveness of the sentence, not to its grammatical correctness.

Okay, so: Interestingly, I defragment the next line and render it grammatically correct. I think probably because too many fragments in a row starts to sound like a grocery list, but also because it’s a long sentence, and a long sentence fragment is kind of unfair, as the reader starts looking for subject/verb/predicate. (Well, initially readers look for these in short fragments, too, but I kind of teach them how to read me as I go. I don’t mean that to sound didactic, I simply mean that I try to ensure that the narrative provides clues to its interpretation: the cipher contains the decoder.)

Adding the word “real” doesn’t really add anything to the sentence in terms of meaning or focus — but it makes the rhythm more appealing (really). I changed this sentence still further later on.

I added a phrase to the last line because I didn’t like the clunky way it ended:  “and her intent was clear.” Clunk. I also didn’t like the way the narrative intrusion stood out. But “and they all stood mute amazed and honored” really wakes that sentence up, and doing it without commas causes a kind of image fusion, a connective association, between the words “mute” and “amazed” that wouldn’t exist if it were punctuated.  “They all stood mute, amazed, and honored” is just a list. There’s no music there. No resonance. No sense of mythic aim.

No poetry.

I won’t attempt to define poetry here (or anywhere). But I will say this: I want poetry in my prose. I want the poet’s sensibility present there. Because despite all the technique I’ve talked about, poetry isn’t in the words or their order or the way they are or aren’t punctuated. It isn’t in the sequencing and juxtaposition of images. It isn’t even in the meter or the sound. Poetry doesn’t happen on the page at all. It happens before the words ever get there. Because poetry is a way of looking at the world. It’s a lens that colors (or distorts, or diffracts, or magnifies) the language that goes through it.

What I’m talking about when I talk about writing or revision, when I vivisect those lines and show my tricks — elegant or shabby, obvious or invisible — is poetry.

Revisionism (part 4)

Here I’ve simply transposed the two sentences because the order makes better sense: She hears them coming and it spurs her to action. Now the sentences have momentum, whereas before the correction they were just a series of details.

Note the absence of quotation marks in the dialogue following that. I hope my publisher doesn’t get too mad at me about this.  To be honest I’m torn about whether I should talk about why I avoid so much punctuation, because it just invites argument and distracts from the reasons why I avoid it in the first place. It would also have to be a separate post or two. I have to think about this.

Starting two sentences in a row with “and” isn’t something I’d usually do, and is definitely something best not done often. I did it here because it ends a section and leaves off on a note (literally) almost cinematic in its segue to the next sequence. Which we’ll get to tomorrow.

Revisionism (part 3)

Okeydoke, so above “did” I’ve got “had done” as an alt suggestion mostly because I’m questioning the tense in a recollective indirect discourse (which is when the narrative is simulating an internal monologue but remains outside the character, sort of looking over her shoulder).

That single bracketed underline after “her” — [_] — is my way of telling myself that I want a one-syllable word here. The sentence has a certain meter, and that’s partially why I’m looking at that tense change and that added one-syllable word. (If I read it out loud with the corrections the preferred meter becomes apparent:  “How much of what transpired had done so through her blank coercion?”)

I also welcome the opportunity to have a word that modifies “coercion” by rendering it either more specific or more evocative. It’s another example of how to leave your fingerprints on a page: Something like “dread coercion” or “glad coercion” (though neither of those is gonna go here) helps render a worldview, combines words not normally put in sequence to convey a more unique sensibility.

After “It would be terrible to be her” I’ve inserted a bunch of stuff to elaborate on the point, because the narrative is referring back to an exchange that’s a while back, and while it’s nice to think your readers have photographic memories (and to be honest, sometimes I do rely on an ability to remember an image or a certain sequence of words. The technical term for this is “trust”), when it comes to more abstract or conceptual details it’s sometimes a good idea to reinforce their presence when they show up again. I note that I’ve set a three-syllable marker [_ _ _] above “Whatever,” which tells me that I want another word besides “Whatever” here. The arrow at the end of the insert means I’ve continued the insertion on the back of the page.

A long time ago I adhered fairly strictly to proofreader’s marks and proper manuscript format regarding corrections. Now I realize that these notes are to me and no one else, and it made sense to evolve a kind of shorthand that would help me on revision. I use syllable markers and placeholders (if I bracket words in the MS it means I’m not sure about the words here and I should look for a better or more precise way of saying what the bracketed words say. Sometimes I redline), marginal notations like “awk” for “awkwardly phrased” or “cons” for “consistency” (meaning I need to search the MS to be sure the indicated details are consistent throughout). And so forth.

Revisionism (part 2)

So right off the bat I see “lineaments” and “nascent” in the first line. I think to myself, Okay, Steve, are you sure you want to fire them there big guns? And both in one sentence? Cuz the noise they make might drown out the other words there. And do you really want to send a percentage of your readers running for a dictionary? But “lineaments” is exactly the word that fits here. “Features” is too general, too imprecise, which is a shame because a two-syllable word there would maintain a better rhythm. (Listen to the beats:  “She nodded at the blah-blah of this nascent shrine.”) Same with “details.” “Characteristics” would pretty much own the entire sentence and turn any semblance of rhythm into something that sounds like sneakers in a dryer.

I like “nascent” because it’s a two-syllable word that fits the meter and says just what I want it to say. “New” would be ugly — a one-syllable word here would sound like when you’re going down a flight of stairs and you expect one more step but there isn’t one. “She nodded at the lineaments of this blah shrine.”  Whump! And it would create a possible implication that there’s another, older shrine, which there ain’t. What I’m going for here is “She blah-blah at the blah-blah of this blah-blah shrine.”

By now it ought to be apparent that the sound and meter of the words together are as important to me as what they mean or how concise they are. In Steve’s world, good writing sounds good. And I may as well just say it: In Steve’s world, sometimes how it sounds is more important than what it means.

Okay, so let’s look at the actual markings on that sentence. The stet version (that is, the version prior to marked correction) basically tells you “she nodded at this and turned her back.”  But that’s an implication of simultaneity, like “He walked and chewed gum.”  Whereas what I’m really trying to say is that she nodded, then subsequently turned her back. I have arguments with myself about ways to go about this. I could write what I just told you:  “She nodded, then subsequently turned her back.” If your view of fiction writing is that it’s basically a list of events, then that line is perfectly serviceable. In my view, if that’s your view of fiction, then you should write Ikea assembly instructions. Because however precise and concise it may be, it’s also ugly as hell. A turd in a punch bowl. I don’t want anything to do with it.

But once your criteria go beyond the utilitarian, the merely descriptive, you start having to make decisions. My choices here are basically “she nodded and then turned,” “she nodded, then turned,” and “she nodded, and then turned.” In my corrections I picked none of the above, opting for dropping both comma and “and”:  “she nodded then turned.” I know why I did it: The elimination of a comma and the word “and” gives the sentence a much nicer rhythm and flow. I also know that I’ve changed the correction on a subsequent revision because of the likelihood of the reader tripping on the word “then” without a helpful comma or “and then.” But what I won’t do here is put in a comma followed by “and” even if it’s grammatically correct to do so. Because it fucks up the way the sentence flows.

I’ll talk in a later post about why I drop a lot of punctuation. This post is already much longer than I’d intended.

Okay, so:  “The copper javelin before her.” I like the meter and I like the fragment. I use a lot of sentence fragments. Once again not grammatically correct. Once again I don’t give a shit. My loyalty is to the line itself.

Next sentence is also a fragment:  “Painted dots and painted eyes.”  I like the rhythm and I don’t mind the repetition of the word “painted.” Sure, taking the second occurrence out is more concise. It also takes all the air out of the sentence, and makes it unclear whether the eyes are in fact painted as well.

Above “Painted dots” I’ve drawn a line, and above the line is written “Dots and lines and”. This is my way of indicating an alternative. I’m leaving a note to myself that I might want the sentence to read “Dots and lines and painted eyes.” I can’t decide right now, but when I go to enter these changes into the computer, the decision is almost always clear to me. Sometimes you need some distance.

Okay, last sentence [insert thunderous applause]:  “A mile away the tribe had seen her now and had slowed.” Good god what a clumsy clunky sentence.  That “now” just sits there like a fart in church, don’t it? So I cut it.  I also cut the “had” but then changed my mind, both for the rhythm and the parallel construction. (I write “ok” instead of “stet” cuz it doesn’t take as long.)

So we started with this:

She nodded at the lineaments of this nascent shrine and turned her back to them and sat. The copper javelin before her. Painted dots and painted eyes. A mile away the tribe had seen her now and had slowed.

And ended with this:

She nodded at the lineaments of this nascent shrine then turned her back to them and sat. The copper javelin before her. Dots and lines and painted eyes. A mile away the tribe had seen her and had slowed.

Maybe the changes don’t seem like big improvements, or worth all this verbiage. But I think (or at least I hope) that if you read them out loud, you can hear the difference. (I’ll cheat and tell you that I reinstated a comma after “shrine” on the next pass.)

I’m sure I’ll get comments saying, I liked the first way better, or Why don’t you say it this way? I would like to pre-empt these by saying that my point is not to crowdsource my work but to try to present a kind of cross-section of the decisions I make in the revision process that contribute to an individual sense of style.

Revisionism (part 1)

When opportunity presents itself in a writing class or workshop, I like to teach a section on revision. I’ve never really seen a class devoted to revision, other than the ones I teach, and it surprises me, as I think revision is where the real writing takes place. And even if you think that first draft is the real creative nugget, it’s still important to know what to look for when you re-read the thing with an understanding that you intend to inflict it upon an unsuspecting world.

For classes, I like to print out a page of first draft onto a transparency sheet and revise with a Sharpie using an overhead projector. But as overhead projectors are becoming fossils in a digital world, I guess I will have to come up with some other way. It’s kind of a weird dynamic when I do this. I mean, I’m supposed to be an authority, teaching starry-eyed writers about Art and The Business, and all like that, and here I am basically standing in front of them in my underwear. Cuz that’s what first draft can look like. I’ve had students actually laugh out loud when they realize that I make some of the same dumb mistakes on first go-round that they do.

But I also think that’s one of the implicit values in the lesson — that professionals aren’t standing on some Olympian height creating perfectly polished prose on the hurling of a single thunderbolt of inspiration (though, okay, yeah, it happens like that sometimes). The idea is to impart the notion that one of the duties of a professional is knowing how to recognize and remove those mistakes, and how to re-read his own stuff with a view toward improving every word that’s there — cutting or expanding, rearranging lines, reordering words, substituting words for the sake of meter, drawing threads of theme and sound and image through the narrative, ensuring naturalistic dialogue, ensuring that the point of the scene is not lost, and much more.

So I thought it would be fun and maybe instructive to talk for a few days about how I revise. I’ll use a marked-up page from Avalon Burning, and I’ll try to explain why I made some corrections the way I did. In my view, all of these decisions are as contributory to the perception of style as the decisions that first put the words on the page. Maybe there’s an element in here that’s too much like a magician revealing how he does his tricks. I don’t know and I don’t care. This shit isn’t magic, it’s work. It’s not just a matter of just tell what happens, it’s a way of looking at language.

Here’s the marked-up page. I’ve revised it even further since, but we don’t have to worry about that now (though it might be fun to show how far I take it, maybe focusing on this one stretch of prose throughout the entire writing process. Hmm. Lemme think about that.). I’ll go over it a piece at a time in subsequent posts. If you think this is about as exciting as watching glaciers drag race, I won’t be insulted if you take a pass.