Shalanna (shalanna) wrote,
Shalanna
shalanna

CRAFT: Workshop disease, or the "no-style" style

Everyone is told, when starting to submit their writing, that they should "whoa there" and first run the stuff past a critique group, through a writer's workshop, or even under the nose of a book doctor/professional editor. They're told that everything has to be perfect and really stand out, or you might as well stay home and watch the boob tube.

And they're right about everything needing to be letter-perfect, so far as your formatting, proofreading, spelling, grammar, diction, and the like. (A perfectly fine submission may STILL not stand out, but that's another post.) But! But! And again, BUT!! (As Ian Fleming writes in _Chitty Chitty Bang Bang_)

I believe that MOST bouts with critique partners/groups or writers' workshops end somewhat disastrously unless and until you develop a fine-tuned sense of what is part of your voice and what is not--in other words, what is really deadwood and thus expendable and what is part of the proper book for your ideal reader. Most of the stuff I see that has been run through workshops and/or sent to book doctors is flat, all its sparkle and freshness having been buffed out by those who are afraid of anything different. "This word could offend someone!" "No one remembers that pop culture icon!" "That's too deep for an escapist reader!" Those are bad enough, but typically the editor who hides behind the mantra "Omit Needless Words" doesn't really COMPREHEND that maxim of Dr. Strunk's (as promulgated by his student E. B. White.) WHICH words are needless, and which are pleasurable to read and add to the reader's creation of the Vivid, Continuous Dream he or she is mentally building?

[EDIT: If you don't do Facebook--you lucky dog; I got rooked by my cousins, because otherwise I never hear from them and have no idea if they are traveling, employed, or AWOL--the Writer's Digest editor's blog is over at http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/.]

If you're a writer with a Facebook account, you should consider becoming a fan of the Writer's Digest Facebook page. They post notes every day, either writing prompts or discussions of craft/markets. Most of it is pretty cool. It's worth glancing at, for sure. That said, I didn't agree at all with one of their recent blog posts (used as a Facebook note as well).

They had a professional editor (of whom I'd never heard, but that doesn't mean anything*) do a sample line edit on a passage out of a volunteer's first few novel pages. I thought the edit absolutely ridiculous (though all I said was that I felt the result was flat and that I preferred the original.) Of course all the OTHER commenters went smooch, smooch, SMOOCHYPOO to the rear end of Writer's Digest, so you should believe THEM instead of ME . . . authority is ALWAYS right. (Brooklyn Bridge for sale cheap--bids start at $.01--leave offer in comments.) /sarcasm

* [Turns out she's now the head honcho over there. What do I know?]

What would I say, as a crit partner, upon encountering such a scene? Well, because--as one of the commenters on the WD site pointed out--the "guy comes in drunk and has to be hustled away, and then some Big Emotional Event transpires" scene is somewhat of a cliche, and it generally signals that the story will be a New Yorker-style 1980s "Brat Pack" thing like something Bret Easton Ellis or Tama Janowitz might have done, I might suggest that we analyze the synopsis of the entire novel to see whether this scene is integral to the plot. After all, (1) there's no point in line-editing a scene that you will ultimately cut and discard, and (2) it might be that you were just clearing your throat with this and the info could be dramatized in a different fashion. But if the story is about how Ethan becomes a drunk because Jillie was run over by a reindeer walking home from his house Christmas Eve, and Daria becomes his rebound lover who gets hurt when he suddenly wakes up and realizes he's just using her, then maybe there is a point to it. And of course The Beast should play some role--his name was mentioned as a "visible breadcrumb" (see terminology in previous craft post) to let readers know he'd come along later to make trouble.

But anyway. Assuming this scene is part of the story spine and is the best way to show the two characters getting together, let's proceed to discuss the concept of "tightening"* and the edit.

*[Yes, those are deliberate "scare quotes." See The Blog Of Unnecessary Quotation Marks.]

I don't have permission to quote this stuff exactly, so I'll do a pastiche of what was posted.

(SCENE: An employee walks into the bar/restaurant where he normally works, apparently drunk, and looking for trouble or a close relative.)

“Yo, Daria.” Ethan stomped the snow off his boots as he stepped onto The Dew Drop Inn's bristly welcome mat. "Wazzuppp?"

"Ethan! Not much." Daria wiped down the laminated seating chart with a tissue and glanced up from the hostess stand. "You're not on the work chart for tonight."

"Nope, just came in for a drink." He hiccupped as he brushed frozen flakes from his shoulder-length black hair. "Man, does this look like dandruff or what?" A sound eerily like a giggle came out with his next hiccup.

"E, you look fine. Um, wait, you don't. In fact, I don't think you should have any more to drink."

“Nobody ever does." The door opened behind him, but the entering couple headed straight to the seat-yourself area of the bar, dodging him with a nasty look. He pulled his leather jacket closed against the blast of cold wind. "Speaking of which, you look pretty fine yourself. So, is the Beast still hangin' this late? He been pretty decent today?"

"Comme ci, comme ca," she said cryptically. "But I don't think you need to talk to him right now. Is there any special reason you decided to come by here to imbibe, by the way, like maybe you were tossed out of the last bar you were in?" She wrinkled her nose as Ethan's breath puffed out in a cloud of ethanol-laced steam.

"I wouldn't say tossed out. Maybe say it was a difference of opinion. I told them it was my birthday, and when they read my driver's license, they disagreed." He hiccupped again.

“It's not really your birthday, I happen to know.”

“Right again, Dar. But it is an anniversary, in a way. Not that I'm celebratory. Rather, it’s a day to unremember. Like the song says, 'I Drink To Forget That I Drink To Forget.'" He barked out a laugh. "Lot of folks agree with me--look how packed the joint is."

"And you are pretty well-wrapped yourself," she said in a tone of caution. "Laying aside the advice in Proverbs 31:7, 'Let him drink and forget his poverty,' let's take a little walk. Joanie can handle my post for a minute." She reached for her flair-studded peacoat.

Wow, kinda got carried away there. Sure, you could tighten this up if you wanted to spend some time on it, but it would be easy to take too much and ruin the voice/style. Yes, I am aware that I have WAY TOO MUCH VOICE and I tend to be self-indulgent and LOTS of people (if not most) would take out MOST of my words and put them in a portable hole attached to the hem of a +5 cloak of invisibility, never to be mentioned again. ANYhow, let's look now at the type of edit that most editors would do on this (based on what the editor did in the WD post, which was a perfectly "reasonable"* edit by most "pro"* standards as far as I can tell from people's reactions).

* [_ibid_.]


“Yo, Daria.” Ethan stomped snow off his boots. "Wazzuppp?"

"Ethan! Not much." Daria wiped down the Dew Drop Inn's seating chart as she stepped behind the hostess stand. "You're not on the work chart for tonight."

"Nope, just came in for a drink." He hiccupped as he brushed snowflakes from his hair. "Man, does this look like dandruff or what?"

"E, you look fine. Um, no, you don't. In fact, I don't think you should have any more to drink."

“Nobody ever does. So, is the Beast still hangin' this late? He been pretty decent today?"

"I guess. But I don't think you need to talk to him right now. Is there any special reason you decided to come by here?"

"Like the song says, 'I Drink To Forget That I Drink To Forget.'" He barked out a laugh. "Lot of folks agree with me--look how packed the joint is."

"And you are pretty well-wrapped yourself," she said. "Let's take a little walk." She reached for her coat.

You probably all like this version better. I don't. I don't think that every condensation is an improvement. I don't like losing voice and characterization along with asides, and I believe readers like the telling detail here and there to make them chuckle. Besides, where else are you going to lay your breadcrumbs if not in these little asides and hints (such as, Daria is a Bible-quoter--whether for real or for sardonic effect can't be guessed yet--and might be surmised to be a reader or scholar, and Ethan has something in his recent past that hurts and which he'd like to forget, plus he knows the titles of corny country songs) if you cut all this out? I don't agree with the US voting populace that CHANGE is ALWAYS better.

Most of the time, editing will result in this kind of bland-ification. Many published books are like this, too--they're in the No-Style Style of John Grisham. That bores me. Prose doesn't interest me if it's merely workmanlike, even if the bangcrash and zoombang is flaming all the way down the hillside from the first moment to "hook the reader."

We all know I'm not the "normal" reader, though. So decide for yourself how far your Bland-O-Meter's needle should go to the right. Mine is generally pretty far to the left. (song: "They called me a leftist, but I'm always right, so ain't I a rightist?")

I just want you to be aware that "snow" isn't the same as "fresh snow," and "wavy black hair" is not the same as "hair," and "scarlet" is not the same as "bright red." People always vilify "description" and tell you to leave it out. Well, now I'm telling you to leave it in. At least the good parts.

Also, "spoke quietly" is not the same as "whispered" or "murmured." "Walked slowly" is not exactly the same as "sauntered" or "crept." There's a reason that these adverbs came to be in the language. They are not sins for which you should be fined $10 every time you use them.

But what do I know? Don't listen to me. Only listen to what YOU feel makes sense.

And no salt on those "fries"!
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