A few years ago I wrote a story called "Fidelio." Here is the first part of it:
One night: the phone rang. It was Josephine.
“I’m going to kill myself.” She sounded serious.
“You sound serious.”
“I am serious. I just want to die.”
“Okay, but I get all your stuff. Or at least I’d like that red chair with the matching ottoman you have in your living room.”
“Why are you being such an ass?”
“What’s it going to be this time? Razor blades? Pills? Jumping out the window?”
“Don’t be mean to me tonight.”
“I’m just trying to take an interest in your life. Or death, in this case.”
“Stop mocking me.”
She hung up.
I was working on a painting. I am not a good painter, and it’s a constant struggle to control what appears on the canvas. I was losing the battle but I persevered. The colors were all wrong: dark shades of mud and blood, with bile. This was not a beautiful painting; it had all the tones of Hell’s rainbows. I should paint in the daytime, with natural light and birds singing out my window, but I can’t face my paintings in the day. They’re nocturnal, blind things, best left underground. The light of the sun would kill them.
Another night: the phone rang. It was Josephine. She sounded depressed and tired.
“I’m depressed,” she told me.
“You sound tired.” And drunk, I didn’t add.
“I’m exhausted. What time is it?”
“Well after midnight. You should go to bed.”
“I’m in bed. What’re you doing?”
I looked at the painting, a disaster of primary colors suffocated beneath mounds of dirt.
The story continues along like that, alternating between the dialogue (always between the narrator and the drunken, depressed Josephine) and the narrator's description of his attempts to make a painting. I worked on this story for some time, and there were a few sentences that bugged me, that I could never get "right." One of them is the last one shown here: I looked at the painting, a disaster of primary colors suffocated beneath mounds of dirt. I can't tell you how many times I switched back and forth between "suffocated," "suffocating" and "buried" and between "beneath" and "under" and between "mounds" and "hills" or "layers." I also recast the sentence to begin with "The painting" instead of "I looked at." I did a bunch of stuff to that one sentence. Whole evenings were devoted to it, but I was never satisfied with that sentence. Bits of the dialogue also nagged at me and I fussed endlessly, getting nowhere.
I have similar stories to tell about sentences or paragraphs or whole scenes in my novels, where I have sweated over them for far too long, never to get them quite right. I have decided something about these bits that nag at me and don't let go and never come to please me: it's not the prose, the grammar, the word choice that's wrong about them. It's that the ideas themselves are fundamentally wrong for the story and I should cut the whole passage and either come up with something different or, as was the case with the story "Fidelio," just abandon it as an idea that doesn't work. "Fidelio" doesn't add up to anything; it switches back and forth between these two story streams and ends nowhere, when it finally ends.
I have a growing sense that when I spend too long working on a single aspect of a story or a novel, likely the thing that I continue to fuss with is merely a symptom instead of the real problem and it's time to step back and look at the story/novel from a greater height, as it were. And I think I see a lot of this happening in a lot of other people's work, especially in the revisions/editing phase. People knock themselves out polishing sentences that shouldn't even be in the story, sentences in the middle of paragraphs or pages or scenes or chapters or even whole acts that should be cut out and rewritten or abandoned. Nobody likes to hear this, and nobody likes to do it, but sometimes that sentence you're working on is not the problem with your story. Sometimes the story has other, deeper problems. That bothersome sentence is a cry for help.
So my advice, for what it's worth, is that whenever you have something in your story that you simply cannot get right, can't get to work no matter how much time and effort you put into it, it might be time to step back and look around at the story as a whole and see what other forces are at play that have created the big crack you can't manage to patch, or that annoying bump you can't sand flat, or that other metaphor you can't analogy.
Questions! So I'm thinking about posting less often than twice a week, like maybe only on Fridays and maybe not every week. I would like the quality of my posts to improve; I'd like to be more helpful and informative and have more time to work on each post and be able to include actual examples of live prose and link to entire stories, maybe, and other things that I can't knock out in fifteen minutes before I turn to my actual professional office job I'm supposed to be doing. So my questions to you are:
1. Was this post helpful? Why/why not?
2. Are these technical posts about craft of value/interest? Why/why not?
3. Is there something you wish I'd post about that I do only rarely or not at all?
4. Sometimes I just have an opinion or a bit of advice and I can't come up with the obligatory questions to the blog readers. Is that a problem?
5. Have I mentioned that Mighty Reader and I bought a new Weber Q120 grill and we're having a barbeque this weekend?