Thursday, September 26, 2013

Looking at Old Work or In Which There Is Much Facepalming

For some reason, this week seemed like a good time for me to take a look at a novella-length science fiction story that I wrote in 2007. I think I was reminded of it after catching sight of a market on Duotrope that accepted novellas only and finding that interesting. So I had a look.

My writing was so much worse in 2007 that I kind of can't believe it.

One of the biggest favors a rejecting editor ever did me was tell me that I relied too much on weak and helping verbs. I have no recollection when or in what context this occurred, but I wish I could get on my knees and kiss this editor's feet. "Was verbing" used to be my go-to way to write. Like, in 75% of my sentences, a character was standing in a doorway, she was eating an apple, she was stitching up a wound. I thought it indicated immediacy - so-and-so was opening the door while saying the dialogue you just read. I was so thoroughly wrong. I am appalled at how clunky and hideous this (amazingly consistent) method reads to me now. Here's a sample.
I could hear Dad talking steadily in the next room, and as Roger and I walked through the front room, what he was saying started to come clear. ... There was the sound of weeping ... We came into the dining room. Dad was sitting on the floor. He looked years older than he had when we came to see him the previous month. He wasn’t even eighty yet, but he looked so much older. His voice was raspy, and he was still talking, to his Clara and to somebody else.

This wee passage betrays three giant problems with my writing as it was then: helping verbs, overdescribing poorly, and perspective.

Helping verbs: "Was" appears 413 times in the original 22,500-word manuscript, five of them right here, plus "wasn't". Ugh. "Was sitting" should be "sat", "was saying" should be "said". The last sentence should start something like "He talked on in a raspy voice," to cut a couple of words and two wases.

Verbs like "sound" and "look" and "feel" and similar should be used with care, too, as they're weak verbs. (In syntax, I now know, they're called light verbs, and do interesting things to the structure of a sentence.) "Seems" in particular is a verb I can't seem (ahem) to stay away from, but I try to remind myself when drafting that it's a fiction equivalent to a weasel word. Not one thing or another. That's no way to write powerfully.

Another issue is that for years, my characters obsessively looked and looked and looked. They looked at everything around them, and at each other constantly. ("Look": 130 appearances in this MS.) I suspect this bad habit is due to being trained in film rather than writing. Eyelines are absolutely essential in filmmaking, and where everyone's looking is a critical set of choices when creating a scene with dialogue. But it dawned on me when I was revising Highbinder that there's not a lot of evident eye contact in most published fiction.

Overdescribing poorly: I remember my motivation for writing the way I did. Although I couldn't have said it this way then, the watchword was "hark." Hark, the sound of weeping floats from the next room. Hark, our father looks so old. Hark, his voice is raspy. This is the way you notice a scene in real life, one thing at a time with small, ordinary words, but by Christ it's horrible to read in fiction. (As an example of the right way to do it, Toni Morrison is an incredibly evocative writer, and she describes hardly at all, with a poet's touch.) And even though I overdid it, the descriptions are so bad! I wanted to say it straight for the reader, so she could walk right into the room with my characters, but I ended up making it mindlessly dull.

Perspective: This seems to be a common thing for writers who haven't learned their craft yet. They'll describe the scene as the narrator or main character experiences it. "I could hear Dad talking steadily", "He looked so much older". You gotta let the narrator stand back from the scene a little bit, and let the reader come in to observe things on her own: Dad talked steadily. His lined face betrayed his age. Obviously you can't leave the MC's experiences out completely, particularly in first person, but just a teensy sprinkle of "I could hear" and "I could see" and "I could feel" is likely the way to go. YA and genre fiction do this over-the-character's-shoulder technique a lot more than lit fic, and that's fine, but if you do it too much the writing just seems inept.

In general, there's nothing good here. There's no creative spark in this passage. Nothing in it at all that makes it seem competent, much less compelling.

I was such a fucking amateur. I'm ashamed.

(And I realize, too, that I am probably still an amateur now. That I'll look back at my current work in another five years and go ah, Jesus, I can't believe I sent my work to anybody, much less Analog and Prairie Schooner.)

However! This novella, the 2007 one, does not seem like it's unsalvageable. I spent a whole morning last week editing about half of it, vacuuming out as many wases and weres as I could manage, cringing so hard I probably took an inch off my height. After sleeping on it, I'm not sure this effort was the right way to go. The MS is less like a car dragged out of a lake and more like a corrupted piece of software: every sentence and paragraph too feeble, every chapter needing a bones-out rewrite. I think I should just start all over. Sketch out the novella, the characters, etc. and begin with word one.

Although it bears an annoying resemblance to Children of Men, the ideas in it feel like they're worth saving, and the climax is one of the best I've ever come up with. So maybe I'll rewrite it. (Someday.) It struck me as the kind of project that might be good for a self-released ebook, if none of the handful of novella markets out there is interested. I'll keep you posted.

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