Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Q & A 110 How can I improve on perfection?


Suppose I get a critique and everyone, including me, agrees that a particular line just doesn't work. I don't just write the first thing that comes to my head; that non-working line is already my best idea. Any thoughts on how to come up with an improvement when you've already run through several options? How do you make your best better?

Next time one of your critiquers tells you a line doesn't work, say, "Oh yeah, wise guy? I'd like to see you come up with something better." If you're lucky, she will.

A thesaurus is a good tool for improving writing, if you know how to use one. (If you don't, it will make you look like an idiot.)

Or, you could send the passage to your editor. One task often assigned to editors is to make someone else's best even better.

Of course, if you don't have an editor, you could send the passage to Evil Editor, who will post it and allow his minions to argue over the soluton to your problem.

13 comments:

Kanani said...

Often you can learn to find them yourself. I've found reading my scene aloud to be helpful. Especially a passage where even I'm feeling confused.

You'll find the mechanics of what isn't working, what isn't clear. You'll sense if you're repeating facts that have been stated in other ways. Or if the pace is dragging.

Mystery writer Marcia Talley told us that she reads her pages aloud. It's a writer's tool. Most poets do it and it does work for prose.

If a line isn't working in someone else's piece, I try to clarify my confusion or why it's unclear.

Maybe it's the setting, maybe the character is doing too much / too little. Perhaps it's a mechanical issue where two run on sentences are pushed together.

In short, I try to help the person see how they can make something stronger.

Stephen Parrish said...

I usually find that when I just can't make a line, paragraph, or scene sound right, it's a signal the material should be cut.

Anonymous said...

If it's really just one line that's the problem, the obvious solution is to cut it. I've been known to slave over a paragraph that won't come out right, only to suddenly realize it's entirely unnecessary. Love that "delete" key.

-mb

ME said...

Two things that work for me are:
1)Refrain from reading the problem sentence for at least one week. Make sure you've forgotten it. Don't even think about it. Then, get your brain in edit-mode, re-read the sentence in context and see what alternate words pop into your head as you stumble over the clumsy phrase.
2)Reduce the sentence to its core nouns and verbs and see if the plainly stated thought is expressing your intent.

writtenwyrdd said...

When in doubt, throw it out.

Or at least temporarily remove the problem prose and see if the piece reads better.

Or, you could set the work aside for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Dave said...

"already my best idea" is a defensive statement.

I've rewritten what I thought were brilliant lines, lines that I spent hours working on. However, when I seriously analyzed the entire passage, the line didn't fit.

Whatever you write has to do justice to the story. A single line won't make a book. A memorable line encapsulates a story but it is a slave to the story. Take fir instance, Daphne De Maurier's great line in the first chapter of Rebecca "We can never go back" ... It's nothing special, just five plain words, but its meaning to the story elevates it and makes it transcend the ordinary.

Recently EE had the Detective Frank Malone exersize. I wrote a striking first line: "It began like any other manuscript, a divertissement of words and phrases, a Dionysian triptych of archaic discourse veering off into idiom destined to assault the modern and celebrate the old."
Now, when I go to use this chunk of writing (rewrite into something else) that line will be toast. As much as I like the line, as much as it sets the mood, it probably won't fit into the rewrite. I'll hold a pity party and junk the line.

Part of the reason for my making that decision are the words divertissement, Dionysian, triptych etc. They set a tone and that may or may not exist in the rest of the story. That's always the question you have to ask. Does this brilliant line fit the story, advance the story, or does it stand out alone and hinder the story. Is it like the Bagpiper who is best heard out standing in his field. (I played the beast in college).

And then you must seriously ask yourself to understand and accept why more than one person says "that doesn't work". Now that's hard, listening to another person, thinking like another person, being critical of your own best writing and then, accepting their judgement.

whitemouse said...

The lines I'm most attached to and enamoured of are often (in hindsight) my most embarrassingly bad ones.

Try cutting the line and seeing if things read better.

If that line really is necessary to the story, try replacing it with one or two very clear but very ordinary sentences instead. Screw artfulness and go for clarity - see if that works.

If clarity works, you can always "pretty" up the sentence later if you feel the urge.

the asker of the question said...

Maybe my question didn't come across properly. (See the problem?) If everything I've come up with is bad, and I'm out of ideas, how do I generate new ones?

Dave said...

Ask yourself the following questions:
Is the entire scene is wrong for the story.
Is the scene true to my character?
Why is this scene in the story?
What does this scene tell the reader about the story?
Does this scene make me feel like a big-time, pulitzer-winning writer? (that's the kiss of death)
Are there any other statements like this in the story?
Is this a style element that benefits or hinders the story.

You see, when you direct these questions at your "already my best idea" writing, you have to force out the negative answers. That means swallow your ego, hold the pity party and rewrite. You might discover that you should return to the first version. But then again, you might discover new and better ways to reveal a character or plot element.

Anonymous said...

asker: I guess I really don't understand the question, then. What KIND of ideas are you trying to come up with? For a single line? Or big ideas for your plot?

-mb

Brenda Bradshaw said...

My initial thought is to toss it out, but that's been said.

~goes back into lurk-mode~

dancinghorse said...

Dear asker: If everything you've come up with is bad, and you've run out of ideas...chances are you need to trash the line/scene/project and move on to something else.

One thing writers never run short of are ideas. If we hit a wall on a particular idea, it's time to table that idea and work on another. We may or may not come back to the idea, and if we do come back, we may change it into something else altogether. The only way to find out is to give the poor thing a rest and find something else to obsess about.

Elissa Abbott said...

Stop writing. Go read your favorite authors, authors who have inspired, intrigued, who paint visions in your head. Not necessarily who write the same type of thing you do, but not too far off either. Don't study or analyze. Let their writing refresh your mind and your own efforts. This is what gets the juices flowing for me.