I had a terrific time in poetry school. I heard lectures about odes and elegies and the use of time through verb tenses in a poem and much more. The five poems I submitted ahead of time got careful criticism, and I learned a lot. Thanks to everyone for keeping the blog humming in the meanwhile.
On July 24, 2010, Lauren wrote, I was rereading part of one of the stories I’m writing, and I just realized how forced the writing sounds. How can I change it? Should I completely re-write it, or just change bits and pieces? How can you edit your work without getting totally discouraged and wanting to give up?
I asked for clarification, and Lauren gave it the next day: I mean when the writing sounds fake. Kind of like what you wrote in that one chapter in WRITING MAGIC, where you gave two kinds of dialogue involving a couple of girls and weird smells one of them thought was coming from the science lab, but was actually smoke? One was very formal and didn’t sound like two tween/teenaged girls, and the other one did.
Sometimes I want to give up too. Usually this happens to me in the first-draft stage. I love to revise. By the time I get to revision the major plot kinks have been ironed out and all I have to do is to make my prose shine. Truth is, it’s fine and possibly even universal to want to give up but not fine to actually do so. If you stick with your revision, your story is likely to improve. If it doesn’t, you can start a new story, but I hope you won’t stop writing entirely.
I’m glad you’ve read Writing Magic!
Your dialogue problem may have come about because you’re putting information into speech that belongs in narration. Dialogue is likely to feel forced when it passes along facts that both speakers know – simply in order to bring the reader up to speed. If, in the example from Writing Magic, both characters are already aware of the smoke that issued from the science lab, they’ll be unlikely to talk about it.
Dialogue seems to be a lively way to introduce back story, but it’s not, in my opinion. Usually such conversations come off as stiff. Much better to tell the reader directly in narration. If you’re writing in third person, you can merely say that a science experiment has gone bad. If in first, your main character can notice the lingering smell of burnt rubber or whatever.
I can imagine circumstances when it might be appropriate to rehash known events. Suppose your main character Penny suspects something fishy went on in the science lab but she doesn’t have all the facts and she wants to find out. Maybe she’s an amateur sleuth. Then she would have a reason to bring up the accident, and, if she’s not experienced at sleuthing, she might do so awkwardly. As the conversation gets going she might reflect on how stilted she sounds. The reader will be content, because he’ll worry about whether she can pull off her subterfuge and because there may be real danger.
Or maybe Penny wants to establish a relationship with someone, so she brings up the science lab because it’s all she can think of. The reader will be okay with this too and will probably suffer along with Penny as her overtures proceed. Will she be accepted or rejected?
It comes down to why people talk.
Obviously not all talk in real life is fascinating. Much of it isn’t, but the motivation for speech often is, and sometimes the motive is more meaningful than the words. When a character, Warren, say, makes chitchat because he’s nervous, what comes out may be drivel, may even be forced-sounding drivel, but if the reader understands what’s going on, she won’t mind. She’ll be squirming along with him; the worse it is, the more she’ll squirm.
Or let’s say Warren is trying to find his sister who’s gone missing. He’s made contact with a woman who may be able to lead him to her. They meet for the first time outside a particular bank branch. She’s said he’ll recognize her, and indeed he thinks he does. There’s a woman at the revolving doors wearing a wide-brimmed red hat, a red wool coat tied at the waist, and high black boots. Her face is beautiful, her expression bored. He goes to her, and, scared, spouts the same nonsense as in the example above. The reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.
Not that Warren has to do it this way. He can master his fear and ask the woman straight out if she’s the right person and if she knows where his sister is. That’s fine. It depends on Warren’s character and the tone of the story. The direct dialogue will still engage the reader if she cares about Warren and his sister. One way is no better than another.
There are myriad reasons for characters to speak – anger, fear, warning, affection, love, for fun, to convey news, and more I’m sure – and myriad ways for them to express themselves, as many ways, I guess, as there are characters.
Some people and some characters are more comfortable talking than others; some are more comfortable being quiet. Here’s a prompt: Tomorrow, notice whenever you talk and when you’re silent in company. Pay attention to what prompts your speech and what shuts you up. At night write about what you discovered. Write whatever you remember of actual conversations. On Friday, observe the speech of others. Write about those discoveries too. If you’re feeling inspired, use what you found out in a new story.
Lauren also asked whether she should rewrite only the parts that are problematic or start from scratch. There’s a middle ground. Don’t scrap your entire effort, but do go through all of it. The seeds of the forced writing may start before the trouble begins, and if you fix the earlier part, the rest may fall into place. Revision is a big job. Bette Davis once said that old age isn’t for sissies, and neither is revision (or writing). It’s hard, and we have to push through all our writing frailties. Above all, we need to be thorough. If any place feels off, try other ways to express what you’re getting at, either in notes or in your story itself, but don’t delete your earlier versions.
Occasionally, tragedy strikes and you lose your entire story. If this happens and you start over, sometimes a little miracle occurs. You remember the plot, and it comes out more smoothly. Your subconscious or some good angel has taken over and fixed things, maybe to comfort you for your loss.
Let’s use that angel in a prompt. Think of a part of something you’re working on that you’re not satisfied with. Don’t look at it. Rewrite from memory. Don’t strain to make it better, just write.
Here’s another dialogue prompt: Your main character, Yona, is at her cousin Ivan’s birthday party where she doesn’t want to be. Her mother has threatened dire punishment if she isn’t nice. Ivan is annoying but not evil. This is not Yona’s finest or kindest moment. In dialogue Yona gets revenge on Ivan for existing and having a birthday, but she does it so subtly that he only knows that he feels worse and worse. Yona believes she’s said nothing that will get her in trouble. Write the dialogue.
And another: Your hero, Kyle, needs information that a particular dragon can provide. Unfortunately, the dragon speaks only in riddles. Write Kyle’s attempts to discover what he needs to know.
Have fun and save what you write!