Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Even the best ideas need flawless execution

    Has this ever happened to you? You have a great idea for a story--an idea that's so strong, so clear, the story should probably write itself. But then you find yourself struggling with the execution phase. No matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you rewrite, the draft doesn't measure up to the power of that first idea. Ever been there?

We all have. It's called writing.


Part of the secret of becoming a professional writer is learning to get out of one's own way. Every writer is different--we all have certain strengths, and we all have tics and weaknesses. During the writing process, we must prune out those tics as ruthlessly as a fastidious English gardener.


Today's writing sample is SISTERS OF THE EARTH. I've added my comments at the end, including some suggestions for pruning and a bit of replanting.


     Angel stood on the top step debating. A gentle wind brushed her curls from he face; it was soothing and grounding. She could do the responsible thing and end the night right here and right now. But she had always played it safe, always kept things nice and in place. But lately things have not been going the way that she had hoped that they would. She now stood to lose everything that she worked for and she didn’t know if she was able to handle it. Once again her life was on its axis debating on which way it was going to spin. She foolishly thought that she would be able to direct that spin.
    Ly-Coris stood on the sidewalk waiting for her decide. He was silent but she could feel his presence just the same. She put the key in the door and slowly let it open. She didn’t turn to him, didn’t say anything. She wanted something that she was not able to verbalize and hoped that he understood.  She knew that he did when he silently closed the door behind them.
    “There is something that I should tell you, and it may be hard to hear,” he said leaning against the doorframe.
    She turned to him with a startled look. She had never done anything like this before but she was certain that there wasn’t a whole lot of talking involved. He didn’t seem to notice or care and that just irritated her even more.
    “I’m not what you think that I am, Angel. I need you to know…”
    Angel stopped him from talking by placing her lips over his, hoping that he would take a hint and move on. There wasn’t any reason to talk; nothing was going to last past this night. He was warm and sweet and just what she needed. His body felt right against hers, but something was suddenly wrong. He was responding, pulling her into him. She could feel his fingers grazing against her skin. But something was off.  She pulled back and swallowed all of her instincts.



Kathryn's comments
I like the rhythm and flow of the narrator's voice here. It has a natural, appealing quality to it. I could easily see myself sticking with this narrator to see what develops, story-wise. 


But the writer gets in her (I'm assuming it's a her) own way more than once. And that's not a good thing, especially on the first page. 


Any editor or agent would be put off by the typo in the second sentence ("he face"). Yes, it's a small mistake, but such a lapse early on lowers the reader's expectations for the skill of the writing. I'd also suggest adding a comma to the first sentence, so that it reads, ("Angel stood on the top step, debating.") I'd also remove the semicolon and replace with a period--semicolons are seldom used in popular fiction these days.


There's a confusion of tenses later in the first paragraph ("But lately things have not been going the way that she had hoped that they would.")"Have" should be "had" there. I'd also suggest dropping the "that"s to improve readability. The rest of that paragraph introduces back story, which drags down the scene. Instead of putting us in the narrator's head right then, I'd suggest staying with action and dialogue. You need to paint a strong picture for the reader so that we see what your narrator sees, before you go off into back story.


I have the same advice for narrator's interior thoughts in the next paragraph ("She wanted something that she was not able to verbalize and hoped that he understood.  She knew that he did when he silently closed the door behind them.) Let the action and dialogue--including the silence--convey what is happening here, rather than explaining it all from inside her head. Remember the old adage, "Show don't tell."


I got confused what was meant by "this" in a later paragraph, ("She had never done anything like this before...") The writer has shown the narrator debating and angsting about something, but at this point, I still wasn't clear what was going on in this scene. By rewriting the scene to convey more action and dialogue, the writer will enable the reader to stay firmly anchored in the moment.


Back to the plus side: the writer does a good job of conveying sexual tension between the two characters in this scene. By reworking it a bit to show us what is happening, rather than telling us, I think the writer will be off to a good start.

Other thoughts about this piece? And, can you share any great ideas you've had in the past, which have faltered in the execution? How did you learn about your weaknesses as a writer, and what are you doing to overcome them?

10 comments:

  1. Kathryn, I think you've covered the problems with the piece pretty well, and I don't have anything to add.
    As for my own situations where I can't get out of my own way, I face those frequently. Sometimes nothing helps like putting my writing aside, going for a walk, and letting what Stephen King calls "the boys in the basement" have a crack at what I want to do. They're generally pretty good at it, although at times they're a lot slower than I'd like.

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  2. Richard, your walk is good advice. Nothing sharpens my eyes for flaws in my own writing better than setting it aside for a few weeks. When I come back to the writing with fresh eyes, things leap out at me that I overlooked during the heat of writing.

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  3. Kathryn, excellent critique. I agree with everything you mentioned.

    I'd like to add that I am intrigued by this author's voice. I would read more now--but writing etiquette demands that there not be typos or grammatical errors, as you noted. A clean draft is critical in showing respect for the craft--and the reader. So many authors (including myself!) send unready pieces off too quickly, motivated by great enthusiasm. While succumbing to that enthusiasm too soon is a mistake, I so understand how it happens. I applaud the author's desire to have the work viewed. I offer the suggestion to slow down a bit, maybe have someone else read the piece for errors before submitting work.

    That said, what I see here is an author with GREAT potential. She (sounds like a female author) is still exercising those narrative muscles to find her perfect voice--which already sounds like an angel. (Pun intended) :)

    With some good editing, this page would rock--and I'd become a fan.

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  4. I'd also remove the semicolon and replace with a period--semicolons are seldom used in popular fiction these days.

    Bless you, my child.

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  5. Kathleen, I'm with you--I see a strong, wonderful narrator's voice emerging here with this writer. When the writing's technical issues are resolved, I think this piece will sing!

    Jim, thanks for the support on the semi-colons! IMO, they should be saved for dense, ponderous tomes about the art of weaving or the history of sail-fishing.

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  6. Fun and charming with a nice touch of tension.

    The only thing I have to add technically is sentence structure. Of the 28 or so sentences, 15 start with "she" or "he." Another 3 with "But."

    The abundance of pronouns indicates telling. She (verbed) and then She (verbed) until He (verbed), But . . .

    However, that comes out in the
    editing wash cycle. Good job!

    The press I proof for has had a rash of what "attack of the then." He (verbed), then he (verbed) again. Some I fix with "and," but some need a judicious spackling of semi-colon.

    Terri

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  7. I agree with the power of the voice, but the piece needs what I call line editing, even more than what was suggested. To start with I'd make some other changes in that tantalizing first paragraph, which both suggests a girl's normal hesitation at the end of a date yet hints at so much more.

    For example, I'd make the close third-person mode a bit more colloquial, "she'd" instead of "she had," etc. I'd delete"on" after "debating." I'd add the past perfect tense, "had" or its equivalent "[apostrophe]'d" in several additional places. I'd substitute "could" for "be able to."

    The result would read like this:
    Angel stood on the top step debating. A gentle wind brushed her curls from her face. It was soothing and grounding. She could do the responsible thing and end the night right here and right now. But she'd always played it safe, always kept things nice and in place. But lately things hadn't been going the way she'd hoped they would. She now stood to lose everything she'd worked for and she didn’t know if she could handle it. Once again her life was on its axis, debating which way it was going to spin. She'd foolishly thought she could direct that spin.

    I'm curious to know whether others agree or vehemently disagree with my changes.

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  8. Terri, you make a good suggestion about looking for similar sentence structures, including beginnings. One thing I suggest for any writer is to take multiple editing passes at one's draft, looking for different issues with each pass. I have sometimes kept a list of things to check for, just to make sure I don't forget anything. Like, the time I discovered, late in the process, that every single character in the book had blonde hair. Yikes!

    Joan, your line suggestions are good, but I think the intro would be stronger by removing the back story completely fom that paragraph--I'd love the writer to save it for later, when we get to know (and care about) the character.

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  9. Love this post. If only the likes of Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown had read it before deciding to publish! An exciting plot is not a license to write badly. Someone should tell their publishers.

    In terms of the writing sample - this needs a lot of work but you've pointed out most of the problems. However, this didn't flow well, for me, - there were a lot of unnecessary, jarring words and the rhythm of the sentences was repetitious. Also, Angel switches from debating whether or not to have a one-night-stand to knowing she wants that and initiating it without any indication of what made her decide. This would be much stronger if we were shown the thoughts leading up to this, which would also give us more knowledge of her.

    'Great ideas that write themselves' was my experience of writing as a beginner. The more I've learned, the harder it has been to write. It's rare for me to think an idea is good, let alone great, and when I do, the execution can be torture. This is something I'm going through with my current WIP. It's my first novel (not including those I began as a child and teenager) so I expect it to be tough. 'Tough' is an understatement.

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  10. Louise, your comment reminded me of a story I heard recently. The child of a famous author (I forget who it was) was sick, and asked her writer-father for a note excusing her from school. After five drafts, he was still working on it. His wife came along, observed what was happening, and calmly penned a perfect excuse from school, releasing the writer from his agony.

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