clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Progress Example

It's been a snowy week. Nothing big but steady. I've been writing that way, too.

I wanted to write today about the editing process and what I think is good and bad and how it fits together and ... I don't have the chops to say "here's how it goes."

I do have a small introduction to a story that I'm going to post in four versions to show my evolution. I'll say a few words about each following the snippet. I believe that by showing how I came to the "second draft" quality version in the end you might see something that strikes you about your work.

I'll also say that when we read another writer's process and see their decisions in action, we mostly see our mistakes through the lens of their works.  Writing is decision making and we'll see our own bad choices in someone else's work. We don't see it in the works of established authors. We don't see it because that's why they're published. [ Thanks to Steve Almond on that point].

So, here's a rough of a 2 AM style of composition: an introduction to a character as the introduction to the story. It's a story that takes place in a fly-in fishing camp in Canada. That's all you need to know about it for these bits to make sense.

Rough Draft :

Walther Mallett was a fellow whose face did not match his personality. Round jowls with large eyes whose fully exposed iris the color of gooseberry pie melted away any hint of pugnacity, Walther beguiled his victims into giving away too much in every deal. He seemed a grandfatherly owl whose molten voice soothed the cold better than any cocoa.

Owls eat live prey rending flesh from bone and gloating to their kind of the deed.

Comment :  Not horrible. There is the over use of "whose" and the logical error that owls rend flesh (rare). Also, The second sentence is a bit much for the opening. It's length detracts from what it is suppose to convey.

First Draft Revision :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was beguiling with a round face whose fully exposed iris seemed the color of gooseberry pie. He was an owl of a grandfather wizened and serene. His voice was molten confidence. You instinctively smiled when you met him in some animal ritual from the past.

Owls feed by capturing live prey and consuming flesh, bone, squeak and plea.

Comment:  Here I think I'm grasping. I don't like "seemed the color of "  very well because it logically implied they might be of a different color altogether. Why would that be important ? They are or are not the color of gooseberry pie. Where do you see gooseberry pie anymore, anyway ? Well, it is a story about guys doing something rustic. I also happen to like the green-on-green specificity of "iris" rather than "eyes."  I also learn that the plural of iris for anatomy is irises. Oops - that got by in this draft. Notice I've changed the owl to tell you what it means to be a raptor and not that they are raptors. I've introduced a more visible sense of harm and danger. You know something about Walter. You know something about is sense of mercy for others.

Modifiers stripped - a bare bones version to allow a language check :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was beguiling with a face whose irises were the color of gooseberry pie. He was an owl.

His voice was confidence. You smiled when you met him.

Owls are raptors. They feed by capturing prey and consuming flesh, bone, squeak, and plea. They gloat of it to their kind.

Comment: Here we have modifiers restricted to only that which is necessary to convey the expository introduction. Only. I still have green eyes present but in a more artful presentation without the indefinite element "seemed."  I added a little of his presence without the modifiers. I told you how to feel about him. I told you that his charm worked on you as a reader. "You smiled when you met him."  You don't know any Walther and you certainly don't know this one. However, you know something definite about his presence because I told you. I'm unencumbered by flourish here. I also added an ugly part. Walther makes you smile. He also gloats about the demise of those he eats. That's an ugly fellow - and I've told you he doesn't look ugly. I've had to play a game with the confidence and the smiling because I wanted a break between calling him an owl and telling you that owls are unsavory characters. There is a risk here of "WTF ? What about owls ? Oh yea, this guy is an owl. Ok - whatever."

Second Draft Version :

Walther Mallett’s personality did not agree with his appearance. He was a beguiling moon-face whose irises were the color of church basement gooseberry pie. His voice was confidence. You smiled when you met him. He was a coiffed owl brushed back and smooth.

Owls feed consuming whole the flesh, bone, squeak, and plea. They gloat of it across the woods to their kind.

Walther had been gloating for the last two hours since they’d picked him up at International Falls airport. He shipped his gear to Brian’s house in Chicago and flew in to meet the group at their last stop before the border crossing. He didn't want to spare the time for the cross-country drive with them or for the effort of packing the Expedition.

Comment: I've included just a bit more of the story here to see how it links. The descriptive words and phases have returned for better or worse. I liked making him a moon-face and getting the church basement gooseberry pie gave a rural community note that I wanted the reader to see. I'm going fishing with these fellows. I don't want the reader in a mind-set of Manhattan Park Avenue. I want them thinking Perry, Iowa at a hot dish. I want to lay the ground work for an innocent location with an innocent looking fellow who is vicious and predatory. It matters later and I'm thinking of that here.

I'm keeping the gloating as an element. It modifies the owl and I avoid saying simply Walther is an owl ...I say he is a coiffed owl.  What is that ? I don't know, really. I suspect he could have a curly-do like Mike Brady from The Brady Bunch or maybe he's buffed like Benny Hinn. The thing is that he has an affected appearance and that part of his nature bleeds through which the reader might not recognize as sinister until the next line "consuming whole the flesh...".

The gloating gives me the transition back to Walther's actions now. It places us in a vehicle on the way to a trip. I might have to call the story "Walter's Fishing Adventure  to give the reader a clue to what we're talking about here.  I might need to add "fishing gear" to the phrase "shipped his gear" in the final draft.

You know what the other fellows on the trip endure when you read on... two hours of gloating. You know what it is to be pinned by someone and hear there conquests. I've met a couple writers like that, too. Of course, I say that owls gloat to their own kind. Are his fishing partners also prone to gloating ? We'll have to read to see. We do know Walther pushed part of his work and inconvenience off on them. We have doubts that they're quite like him.

We stop here. I don't have a very good hook and I'm at risk of losing a reader. We are not in media res. We need the next paragraph to hook us because we're very close to "not quite right for us." The final draft might have to put a new starting paragraph alluding to the final turmoil as a way of establishing a hook. I might need a giant hook right here in para 4. I'm not done with the story and its presentation - but I'm thinking about WHY I am making the choices I've made.

I am ultimately giving my bullshit detector (bullshit detector) a chance to warm up. I'm giving it a chance to tell me when I've made a bad choice. I'm giving my story a chance.

Maybe this helps you give yours a chance as well.

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