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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Go Super-Slo-Mo Till It's Time

Today’s Word Count: 269,988 (1545 words gone!)

Page Count: 1009

“If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.”

-- Mark Twain

As I write this post, my cat is striking the pose in my blog banner. He has many poses, all of which I find ridiculously precious, but it’s always auspicious to see his life imitating my (I mean, his) blog. This cat is my serenity icon and a constant reminder that slowing down is good and yet saying too much is not.

I’m getting pretty boastful about my slashing, but it’s happening of its own accord, finally after years of blindness, as if someone hit a switch in my brain and now I see, I see! Purple prose has turned neon, flashing “CUT ME!” whenever I edit.

Here’s some of the noisy, tacky stuff that’s gotta go. In a prior draft, I wrote a line of dialogue where a student clamors for a teacher’s attention. Following that you read, “His urgency made everyone pause and turn.”

Ugh! Doesn’t “turn” imply a “pause”? Then, soon after that:

“With great flourish he whipped out a sheet of notebook paper where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Doesn’t the verb “whipped” say plenty? And since this character doodles through every class up to this point, do I need to mention the “notebook paper”?

Now it reads. “His urgency made everyone turn. He whipped out a sheet where he’d drawn a perfect caricature…”

Once 24 words, now 16. Not brilliant writing, just cleaner.

But before I beat myself up too much for overwriting, I have to honor the writing process: Certain writers need to see every frame in super-slo-mo during the early stages. And like Orson Welles used to say in that Paul Masson wine commercial, “We will sell no wine before its time.” All in good time, this novel.

When I write, I slip into the altered consciousness zone where I live through a scene. Every little gesture plays out in my head. This can make a scene both vivid and ten pages too long. That’s a lot of what I’m cutting.

Some sports like baseball, basketball, and tennis struggle with whether or not to go to instant replay. I’ll swear by super-slo-mo until the World Series, the playoffs, and Wimbledon. If the Big Game is the novel itself, the final draft, readers just want you to play the darn thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (blessings on the life and works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who left us August 3, 2008) or Ian McEwan’s Saturday; the long-day novel is just as compelling as a Michener saga. It’s the choice of the right words and moments, not every single gesture, that readers want.

Speaking of readers: if you believe like most writers do that one cannot read without writing and write without reading, please visit my colleague Bob Mustin’s blog and see what meaty books he’s perusing and what treasures he’s discovered that can help a writer. Bob and I met the summer of 2003 when we both attended NCWN’s Elizabeth Daniels Squire Writers in Residence Program, led by the wonderful Doris Betts.

A final thought: I heard a story about a famous writer who spent ten years writing a novel of 1,000 pages. The author’s partner asked the author to narrow the story down to one word. The author did. Then the partner said, “Now take out everything that isn’t about that.” The author has now published the novel of 200 pages. But what do you do with a teeming, hyperactive mind that sees connections everywhere? I found the abstract word from which my novel springs and somehow I can still link every scene to it. Right now, what gets me cutting is the drag effect of super-slo-mo scenes. Hey, whatever keeps you moving.

I’d be really happy if I could slash this novel in half. Only 507 pages to go.

Today's Writing Goal: I beat my last writing goal by 245 words. I’ll cut 2,000 words by the next tally and strive for greater connectivity among scenes – cause leading to effect leading to cause.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.


Choose one of the following thirty-second-or-less events and describe all the interesting people, places, and things that might appear during that thirty seconds.

-- A girl drops her ice cream cone from the fifty-secondth floor of a building
-- A runner competes in a fifty-yard dash
-- A contestant sings a song to audition for a part
-- A dog chases a cat through several streets of a neighborhood

After you write the scene, talk with a partner and choose the most interesting moment. Now, slow that moment down and write four sentences describing everything that can happen in that very few seconds. What does the person or animal see, feel, smell, hear, taste, and touch during that few seconds?

Secondary and Adult:

Choose one of the following sets of characters (parent and child, two lovers, or a teacher and a student) and one of the following issues (food, space, or time) and write a dialogue. Begin with a line of dialogue and write for ten minutes as fast as you can, letting character names, histories, and motivations emerge as necessary during the fighting. Choose an omniscient point of view for now and record every thought each character has privately; describe every gesture; record every detail of the setting as your characters move through it.

After ten minutes is up, fold up your paper(s) so you can’t read the scene. On a separate piece of paper fill in this blank: This story is about ___________ (insert abstract noun). The noun must be the intangible idea-word such as love, peace, jealousy, salvation – you get the idea. This is word is your “Home Base” to which you will return.

Now open up your paper again and home in on the parts that best communicate this idea. Strike out any details that don’t get at this idea. If you are having trouble homing in, share the word with a partner and ask him/her to do some cutting for you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Behind the Scenes: Outtakes

“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

--- Michael Crichton

Today’s Word Count: 271, 533 (1374 words gone!)
Page Count: 1013

It used to be you couldn’t see the film clips that hit the cutting room floor. That was until the DVD business got excited about “Special Features,” which included tons of outtakes. When you view certain footage you think, Good thing they left that out! Other clips make you wince at the tough call a director or editor had to make.

Today I post one of my castoffs, and you’ll fast see the reason it got cut. It’s back story, the below-the-surface iceberg stuff Hemingway talked about. It informed my character development while I was drafting but it doesn’t help narrative flow. In fact, it’s very much a big fat ice-beast lurking in the path of my reader. It stops the momentum and resounds with a big ol TWANG when you hit it. (A must-read is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction). A story “thrums” along, he says, till you the writer leave junk -- trash, nails, anything – right in the middle of the road that readers run over. Boom, there’s a flat. The moment is gone and the reader realizes, “Oh, yeah, I’m reading.”

This deleted passage has been stuffed in the “excess_file.” If I’m waffling, it could go into the “save_and_move_file” because I trick myself into cutting by thinking I’ll hunt for it later.

Not likely. And the reader won’t miss it one bit.

I’m talking all rough and tough about cutting but what you have to realize is how important the big derriere of that iceberg is to writing. All that back story isn’t an obstacle while you’re honing that peak that everyone gets to see and marvel at. My characters wouldn’t be rich if they didn’t have a history. Here is some of my protagonist’s upbringing, knowledge that helps me inform her daily choices, but trivia the reader can do without:

I grew up in a tiny ranch house in Burlingame. Dad patched it repeatedly with his workman’s savvy, a postage-stamp front yard boasting a riot of my mother’s flowers. She did her own gardening in those days before hiring out the “illegals” she now despises. In that neighborhood I escaped to the Reillys’ (fellow Irish) or the Washingtons’ (African-American) for the foosball tables, basketball hoops, and firecrackers. There we had backyard barbecues with people Mom barely tolerated while Dad reveled in them. He bowled and drank beer with “the blues” just to harass her: postal carriers, construction workers, waitresses. On that street people worked hard and played hard; morning sunlight glinted off broken glass outside the Reilly’s and off the Pontiac where Mr. Washington spent the night. Mom hated the drama; she kept our doors bolted with chairs up against them. She played Mozart at volume 11 to drown out neighbors on the night prowl.

The sacrifice of this 155 words gave me permission to write a whole new scene. Chances are that one will get cut, too, but right now it feels good to have it in, since I’m busy fleshing out another character and his role in the story and figuring out what’s essential.

Note also the tone of this flashback sounds very much like a godly narrator, even with first-person narration, a character stopped in her tracks to spin you a yarn and act as authority. Meanwhile you as reader are looking around, saying, “Hey, what happened to the story?”

My story runs on dialogue and scene, not summary. Some authors like Jane Austen are brilliant summarizers. Not I. Modern readers also have a low tolerance for it, unless it comes from a brilliant writer like Ian McEwan. Read On Chesil Beach and see how he sums up the zeitgeist of the early sixties, its sexual mores and gender relations, in perfectly-honed paragraphs of interpretation, opinion, and meditation.

My dad’s revising his novel and just by listening to Stephen King’s advice in On Writing about adverbs, he’s cut over 50 pages – and he’s not even through. (Like father, like daughter, we’ll say – he started with over 1,000 pages, too!)

Today's Writing Goal: Edit 10 more hard-copy pages of the novel with another 1300 words -- or more -- hitting the floor!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Secret Story

Imagine you are someone else. Change your age – what age do you want to be? Change your height – how tall or short do you want to be? Change where you live — where do you want to live? Do you want to be a boy or a girl? Do you want to have a special talent?

Now pretend you are this new person. Write the secret story that this person would never tell. This is a story of something important that has happened to this person and there is a good reason he or she does not want to tell it. Did you do something bad or good and don’t want anybody to know? Do you live somewhere special or awful and want to keep it secret? Do you know something that nobody else know?

Secondary and Adult: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

Think of people, things, or experiences in your past that have marked you, but you don’t often talk about it with many people or even anyone at all. It could be

-- A fight you had with someone
-- A frightening experience you had
-- A loss you suffered
-- A secret you keep

Now write that story for your eyes only. Tell whatever details you are able to tell.

Put the story away for a few days.

Return to it and answer this question: how does this private story of your life affect your feelings, thoughts, attitude, and actions today?

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.