A few months ago I was commissioned to write a short story for a new anthology. The premise excited me and a plot popped into my head fully-formed.
The story almost wrote itself and, for once, emerged on the page exactly as I had envisioned. There were only two problems. First, it’s a couple of thousand words over the allotted wordcount, and second — how do I put this? — it’s got no zing.
Fixing prose isn’t magic. It requires the writer to take an honest look at what is and isn’t working, being able to analyse why something is flat, and a willingness to put in the effort to fix it. Having a great beta reader who’ll take the time to cast a fresh eye over your story and give you an honest analysis is God’s way of saying He loves writers. I have the fabulous Jane and I probably couldn’t write a grocery list without her.
Try to find a Jane of your own, someone with a sharp eye and an even sharper pencil. She (or he) needs to be honest, a grammar-pedant, and brave enough to stand up to you when you try to insist Fowler’s Modern English Usage is passe. Ha!
Recognising the problems in your prose is just the beginning, of course. Next, you need to know how to fix them. You could fill entire libraries on that subject so I’m just going to cover a few highlights here. The important points are these:
Accept that the first draft of anything is shit. Don’t take it from me, take it from Hemingway. The first draft is where the work begins. Yes, work. You didn’t think this writing lark was going to be easy, did you? Funny girl!
The easiest way to approach revisions is with the macro-micro approach. That is to say, the big stuff before the little stuff. Think of it this way: if you bought a house, you’d make sure the electricity and plumbing worked and the roof was intact before you hung pictures and put cushions on the sofa, right?
Big stuff includes things like PLOT. If you have a crappy plot you have a crappy story. I mean, duh. CHARACTERS. If you don’t care about the characters, why would you care about the story? STRUCTURE. That includes things like scenes, what happens when, how the story unfolds, beginnings, middles, and endings. Fix all this stuff first. Then move on to the…
Small, in this case, does not mean minor. It means the detail. Let’s start with:
The Precise Word
Recently, I saw an interview with Irish novelist Roddy Doyle in which he said he goes through his manuscripts with a ruler under every sentence so he can examine every single word to make sure it counts. That’s what I mean when I talk about the precise word. If you don’t know the difference between small and tiny you need to find out before you make your choice. Would an American general describe battle casualties as ‘wee’? Would an Irish grandmother describe the amount of tea left in the pot as microscopic?
I hope you’re not thinking, What does it matter?
You’re not, are you? You’re too smart
for that to be your reaction. If you are a writer then words are your instruments. If you paint do you think all yellows are the same? Do you treat yellow ochre the same as lemon? Or Naples yellow the same as cadmium yellow? Of course not. They all have different shades, different compositions, and even different manufacturers, different mediums of the colour will vary. Likewise, words have different texture, different tones and values.
EVERY. WORD. MATTERS.
The sentence is a powerful thing. Use it wisely. Here are a few of my favourites:
“Terror made me cruel.” Wuthering Heights (1847)– Emily Bronte
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 (1949) George Orwell
“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” Ulysses (1922) James Joyce
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) Oscar Wilde
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Valis (1981) Philip K Dick
These look easy, don’t they? There is an air of inevitability to these sentences, as if they had always existed and were simply waiting for the author to discover them. And yet how easy it is to get them wrong. Look at the Orwell quote above and imagine inverting it: The clocks were striking thirteen on that bright cold day in April.
Why doesn’t it work? Because the surprise lies in the word thirteen. The surprise, as any child will tell you, must come at the end.
Or take the Ulysses quote. What if it read, History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken, said Stephen? It’s lost its punch, hasn’t it?
Many writers know instinctively what works and what doesn’t. A good sentence rings harmoniously on the ear like music. If you lack confidence in your ability to recognise it, there are many books on language that will break the grammar into its components to help you analyse it for yourself. No, it’s not easy. Where’s the fun in that?
Music has a rhythm that changes, so, too, does good writing.
How can you tell if your writing has cadence?
It should flow when you read it aloud, like music.
The sentences should be of different lengths, some long and complex; others short and pithy.
The sentences should reflect a variety of structures.
The writing should reflect a variety of creative phrases, poetic elements such as alliteration, and symbolism.
I know I’ve only given you some teasers on a very complex topic but I hope it has inspired you to read more on the subject. I have to admit, I love rewriting, both doing it, and learning more about it. If you have any tips of your own to share, I’d love to hear them.
I’m off now to read Jane’s notes and to start taking a scissors to my story. Sure, there will be some tears, but it’s OK. This is where the real writing starts. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.