Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Quality first

It's raining in downtown L.A., and I'm taking advantage of my ability to work from home as I write another draft of the 10-year institute review I've been entrenched in for the last three weeks. For two of those weeks, my usual boss was out of town. But he came back a few days ago and really slowed my progress. Because? Well, because he didn't let me get away with the bad writing I had been doing while he was away, of course.

I was tasked to help with the review because the office was racing to meet a deadline--a deadline that passed over a month ago. I got caught up in panic mode and was rushing to throw in whatever material I could that might be helpful. I had a ton of questions, and I asked some of them, but no one had any answers for me because we were all in such a big hurry to get it done.

Then my boss comes back and says, "You and I aren't gong to do this unless we do it well."

Me: "But what about the deadline????????"

Boss: "This document is pointless unless we do it well."

We've spent the last few days going sentence by sentence, word by word, through this thing. It's painfully slow. And yet I'm feeling better about it than I ever have. And today, as I sit at home in a tank top and boxers, watching Kiki's Delivery Service, I'm excited to work on this next draft.

What's that thing they say? Haste makes garbage? :)

My new boss has a way of working that I hadn't ever encountered before, but I'm quickly getting addicted to it. He says it's based on his Talmudic studies. Basically, we read a sentence I've written, and we talk and talk about all of the implications that could be made from the words I chose. We talk about whether or not it says everything I intended to say. We go online to check definitions--even if we think we know what they are. It's extremely thorough, and when the product is done it feels really leakproof.

Last night we also had a discussion about the difference between writers and scientists, according to him. (I'm fortunate or unfortunate enough to fall into both camps.) But he said something that was really interesting to me. He said that writers tend to shape ideas in part after the words had been written. In a sense, the words we've used limit the ideas we were originally trying to convey. That was definitely my experience, especially with my novella Bread. When scientists write, on the other hand, they are working to express things they've done. They need to explain experiments and results. So, they can't let the words limit them in the same way. My boss said it's an interesting difference because sometimes it makes the writing clunky, but it's more accurate. There's some truth to that for us creative writers, isn't there? Do we sacrifice our truth, what we originally set out to write, for a close approximation that perhaps flows better? I have for sure.


  1. I haven't been in the mood to write these past few weeks so I've been doing revisions sentence by sentence, and word by word. I was thinking the same thing; precision verses flow. I guess a great writer easily does both. I don't. I choose to relay, as best as I can, what I'm feeling. My imprecise choice of words probably dilutes my meaning somewhat. (Only I could come with that - lol) It's all good, that's where learning and practice comes in - the part I love.
    Imagine the phone book written creatively.

    PS. Deadlines schmedlines.

  2. Charlie, I admire you deeply for being able to revise when you don't want to write. When I don't want to write I end up really not writing. My home is usually quite clean during those episodes.

    Writing has always felt like a compromise for me, but I want to start being more accurate with what I'm trying to say. And I realize I've been getting better at it, which is good.

  3. "Imagine the phone book written creatively." That would be really cool. That's a phonebook I'd own.

    I'm not sure about the truth/art dichotomy. I think it's false. Certainly we're trying to write "our truth," but we're not trying to relay facts, I don't think. Sometimes (often, for me) the "truth" is a pointing to an ambiguity, an area of unknown or ill-defined morality or understanding, and nothing factual can be said about it. Also, beauty of prose is one of the purposes of my art, and sacrificing that in order to clearly state something...well, I just don't know about that. The telling, the medium, the brushstrokes and camera angles and cubist costumes and gritty vocals are all part of the artwork, aren't they? It's funny that I think the kind of writing you're doing for work would be very limiting to art.

  4. Scott, for me it's about precision. For a description of a vase on a table, for instance, I can easily imaging a situation where what I was originally envisioning, my "truth", my not come out on the page as I decide what language I want to use and how much space I want to take. Proust, for example, would probably take more words and end up being more precise than I would. With ambiguity as an example, I think I might not express the ambiguity as well as I'm trying to write in a way that I consider beautiful. It's always a choice. Did Monet and Picasso come up with their styles of painting because they wanted to make beautiful things or because they wanted to capture something that they considered to be "truth"? I think I remember Van Gogh saying that for him it was about the beauty. He wanted to make as many beautiful paintings as he could.

  5. Oh, as for the work limiting the art, that may be true. I'm still undecided. It's affecting my fiction writing, that's for sure.

  6. Hmm. I was going to say something about concrete images, but then I cut it. Possibly what I really think is that it's not (or shouldn't be) an either/or situation. We should be able to write amazing, beautiful, flowing prose that says exactly what we want to say.

  7. In work I have to deal with business contracts, which is a very different style of writing. In my novels it's fun to play with some ambiguity, to allow the reader to contemplate some variables or outcomes related to the story; to streamline the words used to compose each sentence.

    For business contracts, it's important to be as precise as possible, to insure there is no ambiguity. This often involves adding words that border on redundancy.

    It's important to understand your goals for your writing, and the expectations of your readers. I agree that publishing is pointless unless it's done well. Quality counts.

  8. Rick, I deal with contracts and agreements and policy documents in my day job as well, and while I appreciate that particular kind of precision, it makes for deadly prose.

    I was going to say something else, but what? Maybe that there are two kinds of imprecision in fiction: where the author doesn't actually know what he wants to say, or where the author doesn't know how to say what he wants. The latter comes pretty easily for me nowadays, but the former keeps kicking my ass. Or not. Actually it's both, really. I am looking for a new way to talk about my characters because I want to examine them in a different way than I have done in the past, so I grope around in the dark for both the what and the how. Charlie has read my boring posts about Chekhov but I'm leaning heavily on Chekhov right now as a sort of guide on this new path. But precision in the prose isn't what I struggle with today. Which is too bad, because that was an easier struggle for me. And look: Bailey is pointlessly rambling again.

  9. I think I'm better understanding what you are saying about ambiguity. Shakespeare's ambiguity allowed for lines to have multiple layers of meaning. Ambiguity can also sometimes cause tension or make readers tap into their own thoughts.

  10. Yeah, sometimes I don't want readers to know exactly where they stand. I really like it when dialogue especially can have multiple interpretations, and you only see later exactly what was meant. And stuff.

  11. Scott, I don't think your Chekhov posts are boring at all, and your ramblings are entertaining. You seem to say that a lot, but whether it's Chekhov, bird watching or eels, you keep me reading. This isn't meant to be a kiss-assy response, but I'm trying to point out how a talented writer can enthrall a reader in any subject. The proof is in that single sentence you wrote a while back. (I'm too lazy to look it up and I won't dare misquote it.) That's the gift. That's it. That's why you have an uber-agent and why you'll have an entire shelf of Bailey novels at B&N someday.

    I suppose what I wanted to say was I strive to relay my emotions accurately, not necessarily the facts. And of course write excellent stories.

  12. Great post, Davin. As brutal as that process sounds, I can see some great habits coming out of it. As for the question, I think as writers we take a rough shape and search for the truth inside it. Each of us are able to reveal that truth to differing depths, and it's very likely we don't reach the crystal truth we're aiming for every time. This is also why we often want to tweak our work long after it's been tossed out to the world.

  13. Eric, I think that's why I suddenly became so aware of the writing process. This approach really has been brutal and draining. At the same time it leaves me feeling more confident of my work afterward because I've thought about it more than I ever have.

  14. Wow, what a great and timely post.

    I am working on edits, due back in two weeks and I am constantly fighting that urge to rush. I feel, at times, like my heart is actually racing as I move through the manuscript, urging me on, telling me to Get This Done.

    Interestingly, some of my edits are to cut where I have "over explained" something. I think that's the lawyer in me. Wanting to be sure. (vs trusting the reader to get it).

    I don't know about sacrificing truth for better prose, but aren't there things in your work that you want to be precise about (think Jhumpa Lahiri-type details) and things that you don't need to be so precise about, where it's okay if people bring themselves to that part of your prose? Where the interesting part comes in the interpreting?

  15. I don't necessarily think "fast writing" can be awful. Some of my best stories have come out quickly. But, I must say, that is extremely rare.

    I write so slowly and I work very hard to get precise writing and beautiful writing into the same package. This doesn't often happen because I've noticed I get the beautiful writing down first, and then in revisions I make things more precise. What's even more interesting is that my beautiful writing takes longer than the precise writing. Getting a first draft written is 10x harder for me to get through than revisions and edits and all that precise polishing. I have no idea why.

    Anyway, I love this post, Davin. It make me think about my writing in different ways.

    I think what really struck me was the though about whether I really WANT my writing to be extremely precise. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes the story just takes over and I have no idea what I first envisioned - if I envisioned anything at all.

  16. Michelle, yeah. Somebody said "How do I know what I mean until I've said it?" A lot of my writing works that way at the thematic level. I discover what interests me by writing about it, sometimes.

    Although the idea of revising for precision is of course a good one. As long as you leave the beauty intact.

  17. this post is perfectly timed for me. if haste makes garbage then i guess the book i've been trying to finish for almost a year should be a freaking masterpiece by the time i'm done with it sometime in the 23rd century...

    ah, i've missed it here.

    happy wednesday, jedi master.


  18. j a zobair, They gave you a two week deadline? Well, good luck! You can do it!

    Michelle and j a zobair, As far as your questions and thoughts on precision, in the past I've almost always been a minimalist with the idea that readers would have to bring their own imaginations to the story. Some writers like Proust and Murakami and Adriani and Woolf have gotten me to explore the other extreme. Honestly, I'm a bit torn about it. Sometimes I think finding the middle ground is what gets us to developing our own voice. Other times I think finding the middle ground ends up with a style that's similar to cold broth.

    Michelle and Scott, that line "how do I know what I mean until I've said it?" reflect, I think, what my boss was talking about. He was saying that for someone who is trying to describe an experiment or the results, it has to work the opposite way. I just think that can be applied to fiction writing. Whether or not it's good to apply it to fiction writing is a matter of preference I suppose.

    Bru, Hi! I've been lurking around your spaces and plan to email you soon. I have faith that you will indeed end up with a masterpiece!

  19. Well, it was 17 days originally. But who's counting? Oh, yeah. Me and my pulse.

    (He wants to try to sub before the Thanksgiving to Xmas lull.)

    It's not that heavy of an edit, but it still does require going through, you know, an entire novel, more than once.

    Minimalist. Hmm. I'm going to have to go back the The Wild Grass because that's not my guy reaction...

  20. j a zobair, maybe you wouldn't be so stressed out if you didn't waste your time running over paint. :)

    For me, Boy in the Sky and I'm Waiting for My Dogs To Die feel minimal, along with a few others that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

  21. j a: I didn't realize you'd accepted representation. Congrats! Good luck with submissions (after revisions, and good luck with those, too)!

    Davin: I just spent my lunch hour writing another scene. I realized that I had a central image I wanted to use but nothing more. I know that I try to use concrete images as much as possible, but I didn't really have a firm intention when I went into the writing, just a sort of feeling I wanted to get across. I might turn out to be a more intuitive writer than I thought. Though that might just be this particular novel. Not sure. I can't really remember what it felt like to write any of the previous books. Hmm, I say. Hmm.

  22. Davin, maybe I wouldn't run over paint if I weren't so stressed out. ;)

    But what about Obaachan? And a few others but oddly I don't have one of your three books handy. :)

    Scott, thanks! (The submission scares me more than the revisions.)

  23. Yeah, Obaachan would be an example of a not-so-minimalist one for me. That was one of the later stories I wrote and may or may not capture where I am on the minimalist-maximalist scale now.

  24. Oh, submission stress! That's like being really angry all the time and trying to pretend that you're not. It's pure heaven. I have two books on submission now. Some days I feel like my brain is on fire, and not in a metaphorical way. But, you know, that which doesn't kill us, etc.


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