Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Try, Try Again

Life goes on. Over the weekend, and during a long spell yesterday, I made initial revisions to the KUFC draft. I know I need to give it one more thorough read to make sure I revised it correctly before I start sending it to friends, and I will. Just not...this second.

I realized recently that my job as a copy editor has helped me enormously with my fiction writing. It was a surprise, because the two jobs shouldn't theoretically have much to do with each other. I copy-edit largely meaningless factual articles, all of which have to be written only to a certain point of excellence and not beyond. The New York Times it ain't. Since November of 2011, I've rearranged countless sentences, deleted infinity+1 unnecessary prepositional phrases, and written a great deal of copy even though I didn't want to and wasn't inspired to. All that rearranging and deleting and rewriting has shown me that no sentence has an imperative form, that English is crazy mutable (something I knew vocabularily, but didn't get on a structural level), and that all you need to do in order to write is put one word after another.

The imperative form thing has been the most useful lesson. In the past I tended to think of narrative writing as much more concrete than I now believe it is. Each sentence, I thought, should be structured in one way and one way only, and generally the best way to build the sentence is the way you came up with first, because that's how it feels right.

[your laughter here]

Let's bring in an example. Here's a sentence from the prologue of KUFC (which now has an actual title, Highbinder):
I don't often do jobs across the bay, in part because it's too easy for ferry stewards and M-line attendants to remember seeing me, instead of being able to pass through Ortassi unnoticed like I usually do. 
I know this is sort of a rambling, unsound sentence, but I'm leaving it the way it is. If I wanted to edit it, I would look at it and consider the information I'm communicating in it: 1) Berra (that's "I") doesn't often do jobs across the bay; 2) when a passenger crosses the bay, it's easy for transportation employees to remember seeing him or her; 3) usually Berra goes through Ortassi (that's a city) without being seen. Conclusions we can draw from this sentence are 1) she does most of her "jobs" in the city, and 2) these jobs are of a nature that it's better when she's not being seen.

So, how can I edit the sentence while leaving the information and conclusions intact?
I don't often do jobs across the bay. One reason for this is that ferry stewards and M-line attendants might remember seeing me. I'm pretty hard to spot when I work in the middle of Ortassi. 
This is the simplest edit. It breaks the sentence into thirds and sets its information out to the audience straight, no mixers. With rare exceptions, I just don't write this way. It grates on me and I don't think it communicates nuance the way that something with more style does. Her ego about her abilities shines out in the first edit in an indefinable way that I don't think it does in this edit. You'll notice where I struck through six words that I wrote initially, but didn't need.

Take three:
Most of my jobs take place in the city, so I'm used to passing through Ortassi unnoticed. Going across the bay means encountering ferry stewards, who don't see many people come and go at night. M-line attendants, too, tend to remember seeing you get off at the last stop. 
This is better, stylistically more like me. The similar sounds in "passing/Ortassi" and "attendants/tend" would mean more revision for me, along with the use of the second person in the last part of the last sentence, but other writers would prefer this sort of rhymeish syntax and the genial feeling the reader gets from "you". There's also "see" in two successive sentences. I wouldn't leave it this way, but this is an example.

Take four:
Crossing the bay for my work is unusual. The ferry doesn't see a lot of night passengers, so I might stick in a steward's memory more easily, a problem for someone in my profession. Most frequently I take jobs in the city, and don't encounter too many people who'd remember me for more than a few moments as I flit by in the dark. 
This one is passable, but too wordy and not emotionally nuanced at all. It sets its information forth in an obvious way, which is an advantage for some writers, but not always for me. There are also several simplistic modifiers, like "too" and "more" and "many", which sometimes means I need to break out the thesaurus to say what I really mean, or (as in this case) I'm writing lazily, rather than taking trouble to find the right flow. This version I would strike completely and rewrite rather than trying to cut and paste the pieces together a different way.

Cutting and pasting and rearranging is what I do in my copy-edit job all day long, and the constant question of "How do I put this a different way?" has helped me to read every single sentence in my fiction with the same question in mind. In the past I might have left a not-quite-right sentence as it was just because I didn't think it could be written in a better way. (That sounds egotistical, but what I mean is that I thought there was no better syntactical arrangement of words in English that would say what I wanted to say, not that no one could ever possibly write a better sentence than me.) My assumption was that if I could write it a better way, I would have written it a better way the first time I wrote it. This is bunk and hogwash, but I can only see it as such after having rearranged so many sentences in the past year that I can't even begin to calculate them.

This is what the sentence originally looked like:

I know the formatting's all fucked up if you're reading this in the blog.
Blogger doesn't have a manual picture sizer, because of reasons, I guess. 

So it hasn't changed much. I forgot while I was drafting that I meant this scene to be in the present tense, and later I changed "someone" to "me" to bring the focus back to the main character. Some might argue that I should revise the sentence so that "do" doesn't appear twice, to remove "being able", and so it's clearer sooner that passing through Ortassi refers to I, not to stewards and attendants. But after considering it, along with the other thousands of sentences in Highbinder, I like it the way it is.

The point of this whole exercise is to explain how copy-editing the work of others has helped me with my own, and the biggest change is that I'm able to discern the point of each sentence upon reading it. If I were a more literary writer, the point would be art; if I were a more straightforward writer, the point would be information. For me the point is to communicate information in a specific way, with a specific mood and feel. Doing so often requires breaking the sentence down to its component information and discovering how to retool its syntax to say exactly what I want, exactly how I want. Interestingly, the flexibility of English grammar means that you can often say the exact same thing, with all the same nuance, in half a dozen different configurations. So sometimes revision entails a lot of this, writing and erasing and trying again in a sense that's little more than carpentry.

So, if anyone asks you whether or not writing is an awful lot of work, having read this post, you'll say...?


Matt said...

I wish there was a way to communicate through observable action the difference between writing and typing. It's easy to disregard the work done via brain when the outsider only actually sees typing. You writers make writing look so EASY we think of it like typing. Which is, come to think of it, also something I don't do very well.

Katharine Coldiron said...

That's a good point. Maybe that's part of why I switched to longhand for drafting, so you'll be more impressed when you see me doing it.

twinklysparkles said...

You wrote "vocabularily." It's a little early in the day to think it will carry me through all 15 hours ahead of me, but it's a good start! It must be in the top 10 of all words of all time, but I will undoubtedly forget it before long. I'm enjoying it for now.

This post is INTENSE, but very interesting. Thanks, Ms. Coldiron.


twinklysparkles said...

I also meant to say this is a great post and every writer could benefit from the information.

Now I can barely leave a comment, I'm so self-conscious all of a sudden. But I need it....more editing for me.

Ciao again!

Katharine Coldiron said...

Ciao bella! Thanks for both comments, and for your compliments. Making words into adjectives and adverbs is one of my favorite ways to screw up English.

I do wish more writers seemed to be invested in the nuts and bolts of syntax. I understand, though, how easy it is not to be.

twinklysparkles said...

I do not understand syntax and should bookmark this post for future reference.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I don't understand it in an especially textbook way, but that's definitely changing through my copy-edit job. When I have to explain to writers why you can't build a sentence in X way, I have to look it up and understand it myself.

Really all writers should be copy editors for a spell, is basically what I'm saying.

Denise said...

I think about this kind of thing a lot, partly because I'm a word nerd and think grammar is for the fun...and partly because I teach grammar and sentence structure for a living to people who didn't learn English as a first language. It makes me think about not only what is grammatically "correct", but also what sounds and feels and looks good, and why. Style is so hard to convey, especially to non-native speakers. I always tell my students that I read everything, even emails to friends, like four times before I send them. This is true, but not just for the reason of copy-editing, which is the virtue I'm trying to instill in them by telling them this. It's also because I want it to sound the way I want, and (this is embarrassing) because I just like reading my own words over again. Damnit, I need to write something!

Katharine Coldiron said...

Style is indeed really hard to convey. I couldn't even do it properly in this post. And you're not the only one - I do the exact same thing. E-mails, blog posts, comments on other blogs, I read everything I write repeatedly.