Friday, July 23, 2010

To Be is Not to Be

I really enjoyed editing this year. I learned a lot from the experience, especially about craft. A few weeks ago I posted about some of the mistakes I found in stories...and with this post I'm going to continue that trend. But first--

Why does it take editing others' stories to come to these realizations?

When we critique, we are focused on making the critique group useful and functional for all members. That usually means we, as writers and critique partners, aren't going around saying: "This isn't necessary to your plot." When critiquing we say: "I don't think it's needed." This is reflective of the different mental state. An editor looks for what is needed to make a story better. The writer is a vessel, but otherwise outside the process. It's all about the story. Critiquing is about, group dynamics, inspiration, respect. Editing requires respect from a different angle: helping the writer produce the best story possible. Emphasis on story. Critiquing deals with the writer, often times.

So looking at a story objectively makes the process of identifying the concerns, different. The focus of the editor is on communication with audience. The focus of the writer is on getting writing SEEN by an editor.

Craft is essential in both pursuits.

What stood out--not to repeat myself too much--over the process was the following:

Author Presence
Passive sentences
Wording issues

Clarity is based in sentence structure and word choice. Considering that I discussed clarity at length before, I'll focus on a few other issues:

My new pet peeves include the verb "to be" as well as "and"/"but."

Look at the sentence:

She ran to the curb, but the ball was already bouncing in the street.

Notice the "to" and "was." Both conjugations of "to be." Do you need both in the sentence? What about the "but" ???

She failed to reach the curb before her ball bounced into the street.

Do we need to see that "she ran?" Think about context...what if the sentence before read:

Tonya stretched her arms high as she could. Rubber glanced off a knuckle, leaving her pinkie stinging.

"Aw man," Robby said, crossing his arms. "I'm not gettin' it."

Tonya sighed, theater-loud, hoping Robby would feel guilty about being so lazy. Then she took off.

She failed to reach the curb before her ball bounced into the street.

No "to" no "was" no "she ran" ... showing, not telling. We've all been there, when were kids. Take us into the event rather than telling us what happens.
This passage also brings consistency into play. Look at the sequence. One event dove-tails into the other, building the scene. "And," "but" are not needed.

This isn't to say we should completely lop off all of these words. Some are essential. However, depending on them can be easy. When developing craft from hobby to art attention to detail, including awareness of crutches, leads us to become better writers.

When we use the same words or phrases repeatedly, we make the author's presence known. Stories can be read or told. If a story is told it is "storytelling." that's an oral tradition. Written stories play out in our reader's mind. Meaning that what we write on the page communicates directly with reader imagination. Story exists, reader exists; nothing else.

Writing is art when reader downs a story like they starved for it. This requires that the author retains a vague presence on the page. So words, sentences, paragraphs and pages must all be honed. Everything must exude consistency, polish, and clarity. Any lag in one bit forces the reader to think just a little to hard and, bam! Outta the story they go! Communication fail.

Repetition and passive sentences fall into this category. Passive sentences make a reader pass right over pertinent information. Sometimes they sound pretty, so writers think they'll work from a stylistic standpoint. But if a writer can't master clarity and plot structure first, style doesn't matter. Style and art are confused. But art requires mastery. Mastery comes with practice. Sometimes defying voice and style assist an author in stretching muscles. These remind us who we are as writers. We, writers, establish firmer understandings of writing as art.

Wording issues, like the to be's, serve to draw attention away from character and story. The "to be's" lead to passive sentences: "It was dark when she fled." Better: "She fled that night." Watch the placement of Subject, Object, Verb. "It" references "dark" or "night" but passively.

Say you opt for a poetic style. Would the 2nd, active sentence work? Let's see:

Neither Kaia nor Lynd spoke at dinner. Silver utensils scraping porcelain echoed instead. The fire smoldering in their dining hall hearth matched Kaia's anger. Not a twitch revealed her; she schooled her face, hand, even the gentle flick of wrist bringing her soup spoon to her lips.
Kaia left the hall with the last blue and white dishes, following a maidservant into the kitchen. Her satin slippers made no noise. Kaia's steps and mouth remained tight. Her heart clamored for an exit. Her hand turned the doorknob, habit guiding her quick twist. She stepped into the hall beyond. A cobweb caught in her hair. Kaia only saw fire. Silence clogged her ears.
She fled that night.

All right, so there might be a passive sentence in there. But only one that I can find. The internal dialogue is subtle, and description (should) convey(s) tension.

However there are also NO adverbs, no vague words like "seemed," "appeared," or "something" "sort of" "it" Vague word choices are cop outs. They declare writer presence because they are admitting that the author isn't giving us exactly what the character sees. So relationship to story? Distanced. Your art? Falls short of potential. Clarity relies on the brevity of sentences, exactness of your words. Vague word choices weaken your structure. Conscious building of story structure establishes a writer's authority. Your authority permits suspension of disbelief in readers. So on and so forth.

Ok, I've ranted enough :D

I hope everyone enjoys revising as much as I do :D First drafts or second drafts get you nowhere. Neither proceeding to publication, nor mastering craft can be done in two strides. Here's to the journey!



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