How can I make my writing accessible to readers?
June 2, 2006 1:08 PM   Subscribe

How can I make my symbolic/abstract writing style more accessible to readers, so that they won't turn away from my stories in boredom?

My writing ("prose poetry" style) mostly features lots of "interior monologue" desciptions of what the characters physically feel, see, and smell, etc... etc... All of these details add up to significance for me personally. It seems to me that these express concrete meaning and themes. However, most readers don't seem to agree. To them, all the descriptions add up to nonsense and lack of cohesion. They find my fiction writing not only to be boring, but also believe that it doesn't mean anything at all.

To boil all this down to one question: How do I retain the symbolic descriptions in my stories, but do it in a way that engages the reader and makes sense to him?
posted by gregb1007 to Writing & Language (58 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Can we see a concrete example of your writing? That way we could try and rephrase or see what exactly it is that you're doing that is turning people off.
posted by agregoli at 1:12 PM on June 2, 2006


My suggestions:

1. alternate styles. using the style you mention only when necessary.

2. make it so beautiful (see "wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath.) that even if they can't catch all your symbolic significance, they are still enthralled by your phrasing.

3. connect the words, symbols that you use during the "interior monologues" to sections of the book that aren't written that way. Make it interlocking, a puzzle, a challenge, rather than impenatrable pages of overly poetic prose.

4. read ulysses, then read it again, if you haven't already, which I asssume you have, but include it as a suggestion anyway just in case.
posted by milarepa at 1:15 PM on June 2, 2006


Post a sample?

I suspect, based solely on what you've said above and several years of reading slush, that you are guilty of one or more of the following:

- failing to connect the dots enough for your non-mind-reading audience to know what you're going on about

- details are too generic and/or vague to really grab the reader long enough for her to pay attention.

- your interior monologues are boring because your characters are boring, and boring people have boring thoughts; alternatively, your characters are interesting but what happens to them is boring

I suggest finding examples of what you are trying to do in other people's writing, and figuring out how they've structured their stories to make the internal monologue and symbolism work for the reader.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:45 PM on June 2, 2006


Sounds like you need to spend more time developing the story and less on the characters' thoughts/motivations. As a reader, I need something to grab my interest and give me a reason to keep reading. If the interior monologues don't consistently advance the plot I'd probably find them a bit distracting. But then I'm a science fiction guy, and don't have the patience for a lot of "serious" lit.
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:47 PM on June 2, 2006


agregogil, here's a sample paragraph:
As she keenly watched the woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that garishly announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow painted exterior against the sultry sleepy evening darkness. The headlights' gleaming stare illuminated the lady's wrinkled face as she got up from the bench... Zena thought she might have been hallucinating when the lady briefly turned her face in her direction and whispered urgently: "Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform." This was of course nonsense, Zena didn't know any young men in that area. She wasn't even sure that she could ask the lady, whom she didn't know either, for clarification.
Ironically, this paragraph is not the most offensive one, as far as prose-poetry goes. There are others that have less narrative and more interior monologue.

If you'd like to look at other paragraphs, see the full story at http://krenseby.blogspot.com/
posted by gregb1007 at 1:55 PM on June 2, 2006


It's hard to say without reading some of your writing. There are several different approaches to what you're describing, although I can't tell if you're interested in being formally complex or not. If you've not read Diane Williams, I would recommend her highly as someone whose stories are beautiful and allusive, difficult to understand, but ultimately pay off hugely. I think she's a good model of well-thought out writing that is demanding of the reader.

Thomas Pynchon also tends to write interior monologues that are filled with symbolic personalness. Give Gravity's Rainbow a look.
posted by OmieWise at 1:56 PM on June 2, 2006


After reading your paragraph, I might also suggest Virginia Woolf.
posted by OmieWise at 1:57 PM on June 2, 2006


use less adjectives and adverbs. that'd go along way toward increasing comprehension and reducing the "turn-away" factor. however, that's a cop-out answer; much of my job is editing the (technical and PR) writing of others, so in my field simpler is always better. Maybe this doesn't apply for creative writing.
posted by luriete at 2:05 PM on June 2, 2006


After reading your work, I might also suggest trying to write shorter sentences. I am a fan of long sentences, but they can be hard to pull off, especially in succession. (For a good example of long sentences in succession, read Nabokov.)

The first sentence of the paragraph you posted, for example, I think could be about 3 sentences. You have too much going on. The sky, the taxi, zina realizing, the lady running, etc. Breaking it up might not seem as beautiful for you, but it would be easier, and therefore less boring (your word not mine) on the reader. Then, bring out the long sentences for when it's needed.
posted by milarepa at 2:07 PM on June 2, 2006


Most readers are smart, and can think for themselves, so drop a hint, and the reader will fill out the rest. I know a taxi is yellow, and how it arrives. My job as a reader to imagine and constuct - please do not insult my IQ or take away my joy.


Read J.M. Coetzee - any of his books. Start with Disgrace. (He won 2 Booker prizes and a Nobel for fiction) Short, powerful sentences writen in the present tense.

Enjoy!
posted by bright77blue at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2006


Too many adjectives!
posted by DieHipsterDie at 2:10 PM on June 2, 2006


1 - join a writer's group where people will mark on your manuscripts what they think should change. If your writer's group can't help you write prose that readers find more accessible, find another group.
2 - the problem isn't internal monologue; it's passive voice, non-telling details, and uncertainty on the part of your main character.
Rewrite:
"A taxi arrived, its yellow painted exterior shining garishly in the sultry sleepy evening darkness. The headlights illuminated the lady's wrinkled face as she got up from the bench... The woman turned to her and whispered urgently: "Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform." This was of course nonsense, Zena didn't know any young men in that area. Realizing the woman was going to get into the taxi, she struggled with her desire to ask the strange lady for clarification."
posted by mistersix at 2:10 PM on June 2, 2006


I think simplifying it could help, too.

I had to read through it a couple times to make sure I parsed everything correctly.

The sentence starting "Zina suddenly..." is long and a bit convoluted. The pace of the paragraph urges the reader to read quickly, and get involved in the plot. I got tripped up by the long over adverbed/adjectived sentence with no punctuation, strange tense and weird verb phrase.

If you're trying to be frentic and confused in your mood, you actually need shorter, faster paced, sentences that throw the reader further and further into the page.
posted by voidcontext at 2:14 PM on June 2, 2006


Indeed, I agree. Too many adjectives and it feels like you're running out of breath when you try and read it.

As she keenly watched the woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that garishly announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow painted exterior against the sultry sleepy evening darkness.

I would drop so much here.

"As she watched the woman on the bench, Zina became aware that the woman was going to jump into a taxi..."

And then I don't even know where to go from there - the taxi is described as yellow twice, when most people would already assume it's garishness (I've never seen a bland taxi cab). Garish is the same as bright, cars don't really actively flash their sides (flashing in combination with a car makes me think lights, not color) and why wouldn't the exterior of the car have paint? It doesn't warrant a mention for me. Sultry sleepy evening darkness is kind of nice, but a comma or two (don't know if you were in a hurry and didn't put them in for us here) would help slow the reader down.
posted by agregoli at 2:28 PM on June 2, 2006


I have to say, I agree with recommendation to break up the sentenses, but the bit that breaks my concentration the most is this bit:

"Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform." This was of course nonsense, Zena didn't know any young men in that area.

Your authorial voice breaks in and tells me what the old lady says is "nonsense". Instructions to take a train somewhere and meet someone aren't nonsense -- they might be incorrect or delivered to the wrong person or whatever but they're not nonsense. "Take the snail to the green monkey where an invisible octopus awaits you" is nonsense.

Plus your objection actually doesn't make sense. She doesn't know any young men in the shopping district? Neither do I, but I can still meet one there, that being the function of public transport systems.

I think stuff like this is better written in "free indirect style", i.e. the author uses the third person but incorporates the character's voice.

"Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform." But she didn't know any young men! How strange. Should she ask the old lady for clarification?

That way your readers are a bit more inside her head, and your voice doesn't come in and tread on what you've just written.

Also? It helps if you characters actually have the same name at the end of the paragraph as they have at the start.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:31 PM on June 2, 2006


Yep, shorter sentences and fewer adverbs and adjectives will go a long way. Instead, put your creativity and vocabulary into finding the strongest verbs you can imagine.

Here's a rewrite, with fewer adverbs and adjectives:

As she watched the woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that announced its arrival by flashing its yellow exeterior against the evening darkness. The headlights’ stare illuminated the lady’s wrinkled face as she got up from the bench. Zena thought she might have been hallucinating when the lady turned her face in her direction and whispered: “Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform.” This was of course nonsense, Zena didn’t know any young men in that area. She wasn't even sure that she could ask the lady, whom she didn't know either, for clarification.

Your sentences are kind of long and confusing, too. Try to have one specific event or idea per sentence. Make sure any events described in a sentence are described in chronogical order.

This sentence fragment, for example, confuses me: "Zena thought she might have been hallucinating when the lady turned her face in her direction and whispered ..."

We have just read, "The headlights' gleaming stare illuminated the lady's wrinkled face as she got up from the bench," and it sounds like this might be what makes Zena think she might be hallucinating about, since that's the logical progression. Or is she hallicinating about what comes next?

Rewrite, with shorter sentences and events in chronological order:

Zena watched the woman on the bench and suddenly realized that the lady was going to run. A taxi had just arrived, its yellow paint garish in the dark of night. Its headlights lit the lady’s wrinkled face. The lady dashed toward the car. She stopped, turned toward Zena and whispered: “Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform.” Zena thought she might be hallucinating. She didn’t know any young men in the area. She didn’t know the lady. She wasn’t even sure that she could ask for clarification.

An even better next step would be to show us what people know, rather than telling us. She suddenly realized that the lady was going to run, but how did she realize it? Instead of telling us she felt like she was hallucinating, just leave us with the exact thoughts and let us draw our own conclusions.

The woman clenched her jaw, leaned forward, laid her hand on the bench with muscles tense. Zena suddenly realized that the lady was going to run. A taxi had just arrived, its yellow paint garish in the dark night. Its headlights lit the lady’s wrinkled face. The lady dashed toward the car, stopped, turned toward Zena and whispered: “Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform.” Zena didn’t know any young men. She didn’t know the lady. She didn't understand.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:33 PM on June 2, 2006


=~ s/sentenses/sentences/

Oh and I forgot to say:

it feels like you're running out of breath when you try and read it.

This is the best way to test writing. Read it out loud.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:34 PM on June 2, 2006


Zena watched the woman on the bench. A yellow taxi announced its arrival by flashing its yellow against the evening darkness. The older women would soon disappear. Headlights illuminated the wrinkled face as she got up from the bench.Thinking she was hallucinating, Zena heard the women whisper: "Take the train to the shopping district. A man awaits you on the platform."
This was nonsense. Zena didn't know young men in that area. Unsure, she could not ask the women for details, who she did not know.
posted by bright77blue at 2:35 PM on June 2, 2006


Bleh. Strip it down and start again. Here's a quick edit.
As she watched the woman on the bench, a taxi pulled up. The woman turned her wrinkled face toward the headlights, stood, and opened the taxi door. Before she climbed in, the woman looked at Zina and whispered, "Take the train to the shopping district. A young man is waiting for you on the platform."

Then the taxi drove off and Zina was stood in the dark wondering if she had been hallucinating. Zina didn't know any young men in that area and didn't know the woman. If there had been a woman.
Your symbolism, wherever it is, can't depend on excess adverbs. If you want to write prose poetry, cut cut cut.
posted by pracowity at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2006


Remember that people are animals. We respond to simple, basic things. We respond to our senses -- what we can hear, taste, smell, touch and see. Abstractions are fine and necessary, but they must be attached to concrete, sensory detail if we're going to be able to process them.

It's not enough to include lots of specific details. Your "yellow taxi" doesn't activate my senses. Is there a rough spot on the seat?

I'm not suggesting you include lots of gratuitous detail. The trick is to find away to include this detail so that it ties in with -- and furthers -- the point you're trying to make. Usually, this takes many rewrites.

We also respond to plot, by which I mean "What happens next?" This probably comes from the predator, prey experience. Where did that rabbit go? I'm trying to spear him? Shit! Where's the lion. Will he pounce on me?

We're social animals, so we respond to character. We yearn to learn about other people. But we want to know the simple things: what does she look like with her clothes off? does he have lots of money? does he find me attractive? is she scared? What's his guiltiest secret?

Again, it's fine to include abstractions, but see if you can tie them to the smell of a hot apple pie, the question of what's behind the door, or the guilt she feels for the lie she told her mother.

As she keenly watched the woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that garishly announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow painted exterior against the sultry sleepy evening darkness.

I agree with many here. Your modifiers -- adjectives and adverbs -- work against you. It's because they don't activate the senses. Usually, strong subjects and verbs are better at this. So lets start by taking them out:

As she watched the woman on the bench, Zina became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow exterior against the evening darkness.

I already like it better. "Keenly watched" needed to go, because it's a little hard to imagine. How does a keen watcher look different from a regular watcher. I know that there IS a difference, and if the whole thing wasn't overly adjective laden, I might allow it, but it's not an image that instantly activates my senses, so for now, it goes.

You've probably heard the old advice, "show don't tell." (Showing activates the senses; telling doesn't.) "garishly announced" is a perfect example. That's telling. It's like saying, "he's a very rich man." Don't tell me that, show me his yacht! In fact, you later do show me the garishness -- the bright yellow against the night sky -- so why tell at all? It's like you don't trust me to pick it up on my own, which feels insulting.

Same with "sultry sleepy evening darkness." Make me FEEL the sultriness, the sleepiness. What senses would you need to awaken to do so. It's not playing fair to tell me that the night is sultry or sleepy. Show me the evidence and let me judge for myself. Don't lead the witness!

Here's a quick rewrite, FAR from perfect. I only have a few minutes to do it. See how you can improve on it:

As she gazed at the woman on the bench, Zina realized that this lady was going to bolt into a yellow cab that scandalized the night like a splat mustard on a black evening dress.

You may or my not care for my histrionic metaphor, but I'm trying to engage the senses. Maybe you can do better. I didn't like the verb phrase "was going to run off to jump", so I replaced it with the stronger, and more evocative "bolted". I played similar games with some of the other verbs.

I might also play around with the order as follows, just because I think it's clearer:

As she gazed at the woman on the bench, a yellow cab appeared, scandalizing the night like a splat mustard on a black evening dress. Zina realized the lady was going to hail the cab and bolt.

You can continue to play games, as follows:

As she gazed at the woman on the bench, a yellow cab appeared, scandalizing the night like a splat mustard on a black evening dress. Was the lady was going to hail the cab and bolt?

Think of it as a game. Think of the words and phrases as tiles that you can plonk down on a table, re-arrange, replace, and endlessly shuffle with the end goal of turning the reader on.

You should put at least this much work into every sentence. If you don't find yourself lying awake at night, wondering about which verb is better, "kill" or "butcher", you're not doing your job.

Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 2:45 PM on June 2, 2006


Awesome simile, grumblebee!
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:48 PM on June 2, 2006


I agree with the general "Too many adverbs and adjectives" (but especially adverbs!) advice, but I'd also emphasize that verbs are really the bones of the story. So if you're going to use that many words, your verb better be strong enough to carry their weight.

"Became aware" is not anywhere close to strong enough to carry that many adjectives. It's not active, and it doesn't give the reader any sense of what's going on.

Strengthen the verbs.
posted by occhiblu at 2:49 PM on June 2, 2006


Great thread! It's very cool reading all the rewrites. A MeFi writers group????
posted by grumblebee at 2:49 PM on June 2, 2006


(On non-preview, what grumblebee said!)
posted by occhiblu at 2:50 PM on June 2, 2006


As she keenly watched tThe woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jumped up. The headlights of into a yellow taxi that , garishly announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow painted exterior against the sultry sleepy evening darkness , . The headlights' gleaming stare illuminated washed the color from the lady's wrinkled face. as s She got up from the bench... Zena thought she might have been hallucinating when the lady briefly turned her face glanced in her Zena's direction and whispered urgently:, "Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform."

This was of course nonsense, Zena didn't know any young men in that area. She wasn't even sure that she could ask the lady, whom she didn't know either, for clarification. Zena sat and watched the taxi drive away. She didn't know anybody in the shopping district. She didn't know the lady. She didn't understand.
posted by joannemerriam at 3:03 PM on June 2, 2006


Too many adjectives. But let me clarify that this is not because adjectives are bad, or because I dislike wordy writing. Overuse of adjectives becomes kind of a crutch, though -- it's verbiage rather than writing. Be vigilant for redundancy, including emotional redundancy.
posted by desuetude at 3:13 PM on June 2, 2006


I was given some advice like what you're asking for from a professional writer at a time when I really needed it, and it was very helpful.

E. G. O.

EGO, "eyes glaze over," just be sensitive to that point where an average readers eyes glaze over. That grammatically correct run on sentence? identify the EGO point. And simplify.

Imagine a smart friend of yours, that having just read your work, says "You had me, but then you lost me."

Identify that point, and again, not to over simplify, simplify.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:15 PM on June 2, 2006


A lot of focus here on nuts and bolts; let me try to address the larger question with what little I've learned about storytelling:

My writing ("prose poetry" style) mostly features lots of "interior monologue" desciptions of what the characters physically feel, see, and smell, etc... etc... All of these details add up to significance for me personally.

vs.

How do I retain the symbolic descriptions in my stories, but do it in a way that engages the reader and makes sense to him?

Major point. All those details may be as significant as the whole world to you, but you had better make sure that they are significant to the reader. How do you do this? I can't really tell you – it depends on how universal the significance is. If it's something everyone can sympathize with, maybe a light touch is all that's needed. If it's coming from someplace personal and particular, maybe you need to lay some groundwork and sell why it's important. Or maybe you'll find you should abandon the details in question entirely if they just don't resonate.

Minor point. Interior monologues tend not to be so much about people just observing things. They tend to be about people processing things. What does the taxi mean to Zina? Is she right?

Hopefully this is of some use.
posted by furiousthought at 4:00 PM on June 2, 2006


Another thought: beware of words that seem to be concrete but are, in fact, abstract. Examples: yellow and bird. There really isn't such a thing as a bird in the real world. Bird is a platonic category -- an abstraction. In the real world, there are hawks and sparrows and canaries. Even these are abstractions in a way, but they get closer to something we can actually see, smell and touch than "bird."

A confused writer might think he's specifying by referring to a "yellow bird," but yellow is another abstraction.

In general, watch out for abstract modifiers. Colors, for instance. a red car doesn't tell me much -- it doesn't engage my senses. Same with a sweet drink (though sweet is somewhat less abstract), a loud noise, a smooth table and a stinky smell.

Those "mirror neurons" don't fire when I read "stinky smell." I get the idea, but nothing happens in my nose.

You can get away with such modifiers when they're used in surprising ways, such as with a blue apple. I am forced to play an interesting mental game with my concept of apple when I read that. I actually have to paint it blue in my mind.

So again, that rule against adjectives and adverbs is not because they are intrinsically bad. It's because there are so many weak, vague ones. There are great ones, too but it's so easy for forget about them, that it's easier to tell beginning writers to forgo them altogether.

Think about greasy hair, dung-tinted walls and rasping voices. Notice in these instances, the modifiers are tied to specific sense-words or real-world objects and the words they are modifying are more generic. If the subject itself is specific, say a saxophone, it probably doesn't need a modifier.

gregb1007, you mentioned that your writing, "express concrete meaning and themes." Maybe I'm taking your use of the word "concrete" too literally, but that implies themes that are clear and stateable -- like "love conquers all" or "truth can kill." I don't think all writings needs such overt themes, but since you say that, if I was your writing teacher, I would ask you -- when working with you on a specific piece -- to state your intended theme. If you couldn't say it clearly, we'd work on that. We'd refine it until you could.

I bring this up, because it will -- or should -- affect many of your other choices. Do you even need to mention the yellowness of the cab? Does that further elucidate your theme, or is it gratuitous detail? Maybe the reason why the readers don't get you is because they are lost in a sea of detail. Even if you take everyone's advice here and tighten things up, this still could happen. The ultimate question is: does each specific detail serve your ultimate aim? If it doesn't, trash it. As Hemmingway said, "You must kill all your darlings."

Maybe you meant that you write all these details and that, upon reading it back, YOU are able to divine a theme. That's fine, too. I think many fiction writers work that way. They don't set out with any specific theme or aim. They just get lost in the details. Then, in the editing process, they see a theme (or plot or larger aim of some kind) emerge from the details. But since this is a somewhat random (or unconscious) process, it must be nurtured if it is to survive and penetrate into the reader's consciousness. If the writer likes the emergent theme, he must then re-evaluate each detail and keep it or chuck it, depending on whether or not it helps or harms the theme.
posted by grumblebee at 4:17 PM on June 2, 2006 [4 favorites]


Ah, grumblebee, we know ye by ye wordcount.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:28 PM on June 2, 2006


grumblebee, unfortunately I don't have any specific goal when I start out to write. I just pursue random trains of thought. Freewriting essentially. Transforming that into a coherent story doesn't come easy. As you can guess, even if after some refining work, it still doesn't become as coherent as readers would want it to be. (Ironically as a reader of my own writing, the incoherency doesn't bother me so much - the details, feelings, interior monologue seem interesting to me.) The task of making my text interesting to others is a real challenge. Unfortunately, it would probably take more work than I already have put in. As you said, it's probably wise to come up with a more clear theme and throw out the descriptions/events that don't support it.
posted by gregb1007 at 4:29 PM on June 2, 2006


While much of what has been said here is spot on, but I wonder if some of it might not be missing the point a bit.

especially comments like this:

it feels like you're running out of breath when you try and read it.

or this:

The sentence starting "Zina suddenly..." is long and a bit convoluted. The pace of the paragraph urges the reader to read quickly, and get involved in the plot. I got tripped up by the long over adverbed/adjectived sentence with no punctuation, strange tense and weird verb phrase.


Not to second guess gregb1007's intentions, but these characteristics could be read as being completely intentional in that Zina's thought process could be repetitive, awkward, convoluted, tripping over itself. word choice in an interior monologue can be just as reflective of the person having the monologue as they are of the author.
posted by juv3nal at 4:30 PM on June 2, 2006


As you can guess, even if after some refining work, it still doesn't become as coherent as readers would want it to be.

Consider thinking about the best grammatical structures for you writing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:36 PM on June 2, 2006


(innocently) greg: Are Zina and Zena related?

Snarky question, yes. But what I'm really asking is: How much rereading, rewriting, editing, polishing, put-it-away-and-come-back-to-it-latering are you really doing?
posted by rob511 at 5:07 PM on June 2, 2006


Well, I've certainly do some editing in that I've smoothed out a few contradictions and removed a few superfluous details and sections. Then there's the general spellchecking, grammar corrections, etc... etc.

However I haven't obsessively rewritten. That means that I didn't change much of the imagery and details and the way they fit into my sentences. Most of the text in the story is unchanged from what I had jotted down in my freewriting sessions.
posted by gregb1007 at 5:16 PM on June 2, 2006


Not to second guess gregb1007's intentions, but these characteristics could be read as being completely intentional in that Zina's thought process could be repetitive, awkward, convoluted, tripping over itself. word choice in an interior monologue can be just as reflective of the person having the monologue as they are of the author.

I hear you, but none of it will be interesting to the reader if it's that hard to follow - I've seen it done but it's very difficult.

Language is fun because it is malleable - I'm not saying he should drop his style entirely, but a reader shouldn't feel like they are gasping or repeating themselves if they try and read it aloud (a great test of writing, as others have said).
posted by agregoli at 5:18 PM on June 2, 2006


However I haven't obsessively rewritten. That means that I didn't change much of the imagery and details and the way they fit into my sentences. Most of the text in the story is unchanged from what I had jotted down in my freewriting sessions.


I would consider changing your process. Rewriting is an unfortunate evil and an awful pain in the neck, but revisiting things first plopped on paper can yield a much better version. Few things are perfect when we first spew them out.
posted by agregoli at 5:19 PM on June 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


"Most of the text in the story is unchanged from what I had jotted down in my freewriting sessions."

It reads like it, and I'm sorry that I don't mean that in a complimentary way. Your writing sample is inaccessible to the reader because it's unreasonable for the reader to be expected to follow your "freewriting." The end result of jotting things down on a page is markedly different from writing to be read. Decide which of those is your goal, and apply your efforts appropriately. Either "freewrite" and damn your readers, or focus less on trying to preserve your initial output and more on writing for the reader. They're not utterly contradictory goals, but it takes an enormous talent to be able to achieve both.
posted by majick at 6:30 PM on June 2, 2006


Well, following some of the wonderful suggestions here, I went back to my story and decided it to focus it around one theme. The story now refers to most of the details and symbols in terms of that theme.

The result is that the reader can follow a clear narrative that makes sense.

I also cut out much of the interior monologue description of feelings and sensations. Some of it was redundant anyhow. That change has increased the ratio of action/plot: description/symbols. The narrative seems to progress a bit more rapidly, now that it is less lagged down by detail.

On the downside, it felt somewhat wasteful to cut out a lot of the descriptions and symbols. I like all of them and it's a shame to discard some of them from the story. Maybe I'll get another chance to use them later.
posted by gregb1007 at 8:45 PM on June 2, 2006


zina, transfixed,
watches the shriveled wench
rise from the rickety bench,
face-raisin'd beaming by headlight attached
to the yellow yellow yellow yellow
Yellow Cab [radio dispatched]
'take the next train to the mall'
she states
'at the next stop a gentleman awaits!'

do her bidding? zina ponders
ummm...it seems a bit shady
'i don't know no boys, and i don't know dat lady'
posted by troybob at 9:40 PM on June 2, 2006 [2 favorites]


troybob, love the rap rewrite.... sounds great!
posted by gregb1007 at 10:37 PM on June 2, 2006


On the downside, it felt somewhat wasteful to cut out a lot of the descriptions and symbols. I like all of them and it's a shame to discard some of them from the story.

Yup, that's the Hemingway "kill all your darlings" thing. It's hard at first, but -- maybe this is just with me -- it gets fun after a while. Once the story crystallizes in my mind, once I really know what it's ABOUT, I get a sort of wicked pleasure in trashing ANYTHING that doesn't belong. Strangely, the harder I worked on a gratuitous bit, the more beautiful or evocative the bit, the more I enjoy cutting it. It feels like a heroic act. It makes me feel strong.

And you're right, you CAN often use that stuff later. The bit itself is good, and, since it came from you, it probably connects to many other things inside you. The connection will occur again, at a more appropriate times. There are some bits I've cut four times out of four different pieces of wring. Then suddenly it slots right into the fifth piece. Other bits are still looking for their homes.
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 PM on June 2, 2006


If it hasn't already been mentioned, don't use the word "suddenly", it adds nothing. I have also noticed that people who do use it, tend to use it often. If you drop it, in all its instances from an entire text, it will often change nothing.

Not that I know what I am doing when it comes to writing, though.
posted by 517 at 11:18 PM on June 2, 2006


One of the editors was still clutching the threatening note.
He probably thought it was just another short story.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:21 AM on June 3, 2006



What I tell you three times is true: Not rewriting is the highway to Sucksville. Not rewriting is the highway to Sucksville. Not rewriting is the highway to Sucksville.

You see, first write round, your attention is (necessarily) focused on your ideas. As long as you get them all onto paper in any form, you win the drafting game. But you do not win the someone-will-care-to-read-this game until you review and revise from a reader's perspective, rather than a thinker's. You need to see how the text builds up those ideas, assuming no foundation; how it channels attention onto one idea and away from another; how it's paced. You also need to catch the 'duh' moments, such as telling us that a yellow taxi has a yellow exterior. So don't think of your first draft as a text. Think of it as notes toward a text, and work hard to create that text once you have discovered the notes.

As guides to that creation, I second the above advice about specific verbs, specific nouns, and specific in-text motivations/connections for the symbol. I'll add two suggestions.

First, get and study Joseph Williams's book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, which worked wonders for my reader-sense.

Second, take some striking poems that you like, and futz with them to ruin their effect. (Bonus points for especially small, damaging edits.) Aside from being rather diverting, this will sharpen your eye for detail and plant some standards of awkwardness as guardians in your gut. (Due credit to William Matthews's exercise Smash Palace, in The Practice of Poetry, ed. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell.)

Good luck!
posted by eritain at 1:04 AM on June 3, 2006


Erm, I think "kill your darlings" was Faulkner. And it is the best but hardest advice to take.

A lot of good comments here and I don't want to get repetitive but had to say one thing: while there has been a lot of hate for adjectives here, and I agree, they should be used as sparingly as possibly, the real hate should be reserved for adverbs. NEVER NEVER NEVER use adverbs, unless you absolutely must. Ruthlessly pruning them may hurt, but it always improves your text.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:15 AM on June 3, 2006


And pay lots of attention to rhythm and how the sentences stack up against each other. Listen to how the grafs sound, both the music of the words and the beat the sentences create. A long and convoluted sentence can work better if it's followed by one that's short and punchy.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:17 AM on June 3, 2006


Adverbs work in very, very few situations - it's best for developing writers to avoid them. Adjectives should only be used when necessary ("wrinkled" for example is necessary here - it gives us an instant mental image of the woman), and when a more-specific noun won't do the work.

You also need to go over every sentence to see if there's a shorter (and therefore punchier) way to say what you need to say that still retains the style you want - for example, not only is "keenly" unnecessary, but "As she keenly watched the woman on the bench" is unnecessary, since you're about to describe what she sees. We know Zena sees it because the limited-to-her-viewpoint narrator is telling us about it.

Be careful what adjectives you take out. What works about "the sultry sleepy evening darkness" is the rhythm and specificity of the three-adjective image. That's good. But in "the headlights' gleaming stare illuminated" the "gleaming" is not a good adjective, because it adds no information, partly because readers know headlights gleam (although I think that's slightly the wrong nuance, since gleam is something I associate more with non-light-sources reflecting light, but anyway), but mostly because you immediately use the word "illuminate."

Trust your readers to fill in the between-the-lines stuff (like you did with "wrinkled") and you'll be fine.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:26 AM on June 3, 2006


CL, thanks for correcting my Hemingway with your Faulkner. I just googled "kill all your darlings," and found this page, which agrees with you. But it also claims the advice might have come from Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And apparently, Samuel Johnson coined a more verbose version: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."
posted by grumblebee at 9:04 AM on June 3, 2006


As she keenly watched the woman on the bench, Zina suddenly became aware that this lady was going to run off to jump into a yellow taxi that garishly announced its arrival by brightly flashing its yellow painted exterior against the sultry sleepy evening darkness. The headlights' gleaming stare illuminated the lady's wrinkled face as she got up from the bench... Zena thought she might have been hallucinating when the lady briefly turned her face in her direction and whispered urgently: "Take the train to the shopping district, a young man awaits you on the platform." This was of course nonsense, Zena didn't know any young men in that area. She wasn't even sure that she could ask the lady, whom she didn't know either, for clarification.

Adverb explosion!

There are a lot of times when adverbs lend a comic effect but I don't think you're going for that. Kill them. And just go ahead and take "suddenly" out of your vocabulary because it never works. Ne-ver.*

*okay now someone post a good use of it and make me look dumb.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:57 AM on June 3, 2006


I know I'm a broken record, but "suddenly" doesn't work because it doesn't connect to one of the senses. You can't really see suddenly. People do have a sense of time, but it's vaguer than the other senses.

Suddenly is also redundant. When two sentences collide, the effect is sudden by default.

He opened the box. A rat leapt out.

This adds nothing:

He opened the box. Suddenly, a rat leapt out.
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on June 3, 2006


And apparently, Samuel Johnson coined a more verbose version: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Which, when compared to "kill all your darlings," is a great lesson in writing in itself!
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:39 AM on June 3, 2006


"Suddenly" isn't *always* extraneous. Usually, but not always.

"While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping..."

You need it there, no?
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2006


You need it there, no?

Metrically, yes, but it doesn't add to the story.
posted by pracowity at 11:52 AM on June 3, 2006


Hmm...

While I nodded, nearly napping, something started gently tapping...

While I nodded, nearly napping, something started tap tap tapping...

While I nodded, nearly napping, I awoke to someone tapping...

While I nodded, nearly napping... What's that sound? Is someone tapping?
posted by grumblebee at 12:19 PM on June 3, 2006


Suddenly is supposed to convey a sense of surprise. It's a little warning to the reader to pay attention because something interesting and unexpected is about to happen. Maybe, it's simply a sign that the story is going to shift to a new direction or subplot.

Hopefully, after those "suddenly" markers have been edited out, the prose itself will still indicate those surprises and shifts on its own.
posted by gregb1007 at 12:20 PM on June 3, 2006



Suddenly is supposed to convey a sense of surprise. It's a little warning to the reader to pay attention because something interesting and unexpected is about to happen.


Would you feel more surprised if something interesting and unexpected happened or if that same thing happened but someone warned you beforehand?
posted by juv3nal at 12:37 PM on June 3, 2006


It's a little warning to the reader to pay attention

I recognize the impulse, but you need to stifle it. Trust your skill as a writer and -- more important -- trust the reader's intelligence. Don't give him little warnings or indications of what you're trying to do. Just do what you're trying to do.

And don't ever "convey a sense of surprise." The events of your story will either BE surprising or not. No cutting corners.
posted by grumblebee at 12:49 PM on June 3, 2006


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