Friday, May 7, 2010

That Sentence Isn't Your Problem

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.

(end excerpt)

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?


  1. Yay for barbecues! :)

    I interrpret what you're saying as a forest/trees issue. And it's good advice to step back and see what's really nagging you. Often, as you said, it's not the word you've changed twelve times.

    1. This post was helpful to me, because I'm in the middle of dreadful revisions. I really should probably step back and look at the forest instead of all these darn trees.
    4. I think you guys have enough regular readers that if you just posted an opinion, our comments would create a dialogue...even if you didn't provide questions for us.

  2. I'm having trouble concentrating because you wrote an interesting post and then followed it up with questions about a different topic. That's what happened, right? You caught me off guard with filler Friday, Mr. Bailey.

    Regarding the post proper, I don't agree. I mean, I guess I agree that this can be the case. And, you did say sometimes. But, in my experience a problem sentence is usually a problem sentence, or a problem in the thought that the sentence is based on. Yes, my stories can have much bigger problems as well, but rarely if ever has a sentence been a symptom of a bigger problem. I think the sentence you mentioned here is quite nice. The word changes might have made it better, but they weren't necessary at all. And, of what I've read of this story, I think even with this sentence in place, you could still turn the story as a whole into something that works. In other words, nothing I've read here, including your troublesome sentence is indicating to me that the story can't work.

    Now, for the questions!

    1. Yes, it was helpful because it made me think more deeply about my own work.

    2. I think they are of value, but they don't need to be the only contents of the blog.

    3. You've talked about this a lot, but I still think about it. Story.

    4. I'm trying to nurture a more anarchist approach to the comments where people can say whatever, even if it has nothing to do with the post. Then, the questions aren't required! I almost wish it was like a long discussion thread, where anyone can start.

    5. I would like to come to your barbecue, please.

  3. Yay for barbecues!

    I am going to a luau this weekend. It will be the second cold Michigan luau I have attended in the past 6 months. The first time, I wore long johns under my bikini.

    Comment anarchy, yes!

    The posts on the Lit Lab are always thought provoking and help me to reflect on my work, whether I agree wholly or not, or whether I leave an interesting comment or not. I always check on what you have to say. Technical posts on craft are some of my favorites.

    P.S. There is a Bad Girl Blogfest going on today... what fun!

  4. In my last short story, whenever one of my critique partners questioned a sentence, I usually yanked it entirely. Sometimes whole paragraphs disappeared. I found it easier to excise than to rework, in most cases, and the story suffered not a whit for that. All this to say that you're probably right, good sir.

    As for your questions:
    1. Yes. Because you included an actual excerpt for analysis.
    2. Certainly. If not for me, all the time, then for others looking for resources to help them hone their skills.
    3. I wish you'd post about vodka more.
    4. Ha! Why do you even have to ask this question?
    5. No, and am I invited? I can't make it anyway, but it's always nice to be invited.

  5. I found the post helpful, because it made me think.
    I've certainly found what you said to be true. Last time I couldn't get a scene to work, it turned out to be, because the part of the book it came from was deeply flawed. Fixing the deeper flaw cleared up those problems better than endless tinkering with the scene could have.

    I find these posts about craft to be of interest, though I think Davin has a point when he says they don't need to comprise the entirety of the blog.

    Have fun barbecuing. :)

  6. Amy: Yes, forest/trees. Apparently Mr. Malasarn has never had this problem, which is why it's nice to be Big D!

    Big D: You are wrong, sir, wrong! Er...or not. No, you are wrong about this particular story. It starts strong, I think (so that's all I've shown), and maybe a better writer could make something of it, but I couldn't. This is the story NOON turned down, those bastards. I shake my fist in the general direction of California. Or wherever they are.

    I can talk about story more, if I find I have something to say. I also like the idea of an anarchic comments page. Yay, anarchy! You're invited to the BBQ.

    Genie: I'm just trying to make sure my posts have value, you know. What's Bad Girl Blogfest?

    Simon: Maybe the difference of opinion (or observation) that Davin and I have is because he and I (and you, too) construct our stories in a different manner, so maybe he (and you, too) don't end up with passages that are artifacts of wrong turns or scars built up around bad ideas. I don't know. Also: what do you think of the new bacon-flavored vodkas? I haven't tried them (they cost as much as Grey Goose or Square One, for gosh sakes!). For mixed drinks at home, we use Luksosowa a lot, though sometimes we buy other brands in the $15-$20 range. Spudka amuses me, mostly for the name. There are some good midrange Idaho potato vodkas out there, too. I think Absolut and Stoli are over-rated, and Ketel One is maybe under-rated. I hate flavored vodkas. Discuss. You are also invited to our BBQ, sir.

    Dominique: That's exactly what I mean! I write about technical stuff because it interests me, mostly. Aesthetic questions are problematic (whatever that's supposed to mean).

  7. About your post, I don't really agree. Well, I don't agree in a general sense. I think that for your writing, this may be the case and you're 100% correct. However, I'm with Davin in that if you wanted to, the excerpt you've provided kept my interest, and I don't think it's necessarily something you should toss out just out entirely.

    As for my own writing, the sentence problem is often an indicator of a bigger problem. The key is figuring out if I'm just being super OCD or if it's really a problem. Usually time and distance will answer that for me. For instance, I the recent comments you've made on Monarch have helped me see that all those sentence/paragraph issues I've had in the first few chapters of the book are indicators of the bigger problem - too much back story. Thanks for that, by the way.

    For your questions:

    1. This post was very helpful, thank you. I love it when you do posts like this!

    2. Even if it is something we have discussed on LL before, I think these posts about craft are helpful to a lot of us. Being reminded about things, or viewing them from a different angle, is always helpful. Writing is a craft that requires constant checks and balances, and these posts help with that.

    3. I'm with Davin - story. I think one of your greatest strengths is structure and framing.

    4. I like your simpler posts, and I don't think they detract from the blog at all. I also don't see that it's a problem if you want to post less. I only do once a week, and that has worked well for me. I feel like I can put more thought into what I say. Also, if you post less that leaves other days free that if I want to post something more simple I can. Still, it doesn't matter too much. We're all pretty easy going. :)

    5. I expect to see that grill when we come to visit you.

  8. Bad Girl Blogfest: I have an entry on my blog and a button in the sidebar linking to the host, who has a list of everyone participating. Simon also has an entry, as well as many other fun writers! We're just posting short pieces of fiction with a "bad girl" theme.

  9. Ha! I might have to pick up a bottle of Spudka--as you say, just for the name! My personal favorite is Sobieski, for a couple reasons: 1) it's as good as Smirnoff and Stoli, but much cheaper, and 2) they have a Twitter account, and I tweeted about them enough that their US marketing firm sent me a free bottle. :)

    I don't mix, though. I keep the bottle in the freezer and sip it neat.

    But... bacon flavored vodka? Wha...? That just sounds wrong. Why flavor it at all? I've yet to bother with a single flavored vodka.

    And thanks for the invitation, good sir. I must respectfully decline, on account of being on the east coast, but appreciate the offer nonetheless. :)

  10. I think you have a point. I know that if I've rewritten the opening of a project nearly ten times and still haven't really moved the project forward, it's usually because it isn't going anywhere. Thanks for such an interesting post.

  11. Simon: We keep a bottle in the freezer too. If we're just going to drink something straight, though, it's either tequila, grappa (also in the freezer), mastika (when I can get it which is rarely), or Ardbeg. I do like a very dry vodka martini with a twist, though.

    Check out for bacon-flavored vodka. No, I have no interest in drinking it, but I keep seeing it in the liquor stores.

    We also like Back In USSR vodka, from Produse Cerealiere in Moldova. Their packaging is cool.

  12. Michelle: You and Davin are both telling me that there's nothing apparently wrong with the story I posted, but neither of you have seen the second 2/3 of it. Trust me, you don't want to.

    You're welcome about Monarch! Remember: grain of salt; I can usually only say what I'd do, not what will help your vision of the story. I know my limitations there.

    I haven't decided if I'm going to just post on Tuesdays or Fridays, but I do think I'm going to move toward just once a week. Fair warning. I'll see if I have anything intelligent to say about story and structure.

    You'd best come by our house for barbeque if you ever make it up to Seattle, or I shall be very put out. Very put out indeed, madam!

  13. 1. Was this post helpful? Why/why not?

    Yes, you always present a well-informed viewpoint.

    2. Are these technical posts about craft of value/interest? Why/why not?

    Yes, because they make me think more about my own writing. Even when I disagree, I rationalize to myself why I disagree, and it improves my confidence in my writing, and the writing itself.

    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?

    Posting weekly is tough, let alone posting multiple times each week. I won't begrudge you an occasional off-topic post or ponderence.

    (NOTE: according to spellchecker I just made up the work ponderence. Feel free to carry its use forward into common English.)

    5. Have I mentioned that Mighty Reader and I bought a new Weber Q120 grill and we're having a barbeque this weekend?

    I have a great recipe for lamb chops.

  14. RE: sentences as a symptom.
    I have only experienced it a few times, but yes, polishing and re-applying wax and re-polishing has revealed itself to me as busywork to distract my more objective mind from doing major surgery.

    It takes a lot of experience, and guts, to know when a work needs overhaul or when the sentences really do just need polishing. And in the end, for me at least, I don't always know that I've made the right choice. Which is why I always keep files (remember which title goes with which version is another story.)

    Now to your questions:
    1. Yes. Because it points out something that I may not want to believe in at some point, and having someone else spell it out is a good thing for those times when the lazy me is winning the argument.

    2. Yes! Craft topics: good and helpful. These are the ones that drew me to your blog initially and keep me coming back. Okay, don't blush now, but here's my point: anyone can come up with a craft post if they need to turn in an assignment or submit to a magazine. Introduction, point 1, 2, 3, throw in some anecdotes, and conclusion. But craft articles from high caliber people (told you not to blush) are much, much rarer. And if you guys stop writing these posts, I'll sit and pout and that ain't a pretty sight.

    I think I'll stop now. How's the BBQ going?

    Rick: what's that lamb chop recipe?

  15. Yes, this post was helpful to me. It reminds me to listen to my wip, especially when it's telling me there's a problem.

    Absolutely this kind of technical post is helpful. Since I'm a fairly new writer, I want to learn, learn, learn all I can. In fact, I would say this type of post is my favorite kind.

    I'm still fairly new to the blog, so I don't know what you have and haven't covered. It's all good to me.

    A blog doesn't always have to end with a question to get a good discussion going.

    Yum, barbecue! You need my dad's famous barbecue sauce recipe.

  16. I love your technical posts! I'm working to improve my writing, and every bit of craft I acquire helps enormously. Thanks!

  17. Best wishes from CHMagazine!
    Daniel D. Peaceman, editor

  18. Yeah!
    Sometimes the problem is that the story is not compelling enough to make you carry on. Stop polishing the silver; get the meal on the table. We're hungry.


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