Wednesday, August 21, 2013
If the first line of your manuscript doesn't grab your reader, it's not the right first line. Readers don't have time to waste on false starts. Cut lines until you find the most compelling opening. Then start from there.
I once told an author-client to cut his first three chapters and start with the fourth. "That's where your story starts. The previous chapters are backstory, necessary to you, maybe, but not to the reader. Weave in the few details that the reader needs to know to understand certain plot points and restart from that great first line of chapter four."
My client was ticked off, let me tell you! "Just throw away all that work of the opening chapters? Do you know how many times I rewrote those? They were my most difficult chapters to revise!"
"And once you finally got those chapters done, the rest flowed much more easily, right?"
"Right! Only after all that initial set up was done!"
"And 'set up' is the operative word. You know how in a play script you read the stage directions, separate from the lines? Well, chapters one to three amount to stage directions that set up the play and the players for YOU, the director, who will use those stage directions to plan and direct the scenes. But your audience doesn't read or hear those stage directions; they merely absorb the essence of them that you infuse into the actions. All that your audience needs to see is the point at which the spotlight introduces the first action. Get it?"
He didn't get it, and I thought he would fire me...until a few weeks later. The one piece of advice he had taken from me was to set the work aside and take some time away, to freshen his perspective. Then he sent me a new manuscript, with a Post-It note that said, "Thanks," but not much more, while under that note was a much tighter manuscript, more than three chapters thinner.
What I got out of that experience--which has occurred numerous times in my book editing past: If we struggle to create certain chapters or lines, rather than pour them out of our minds, that's our Muse's hint that we should delete them. Immediately. Before we waste more time. Know when it flows. Redirect when the flow gets clogged.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
One of my dearest friends died on this day, a decade ago, and in thinking of her and our relationship, this verse pops into my head:
"Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another's trouble,
COURAGE in your own." (Adam Lindsay Gordon, Australian poet)
That verse from a much longer poem came to my attention via other memorable words, by one of my new favorite authors, Owen Egerton. Egerton quoted Gordon in his indelibly moving novel The Book of Harold: Illegitimate Son of God. Thus, memorable words give rise to other memorable words--and to images, ideas, and anything else born of artistic passion.
While reading those words aloud, I imagine a short film of the tide rolling in, leaving froth and bubbles on the shore--seen via a close up shot--and then rolling out to reveal two rocks protruding from the sand. Zooming in on the rocks, we see that each one bears an engraved word: one says KINDNESS, the other says COURAGE. Then a huge wave crashes over both, and the shot of the submerged rocks is drawn out, making the viewer wait for it, wait for it, wait for it--until the water again recedes, showing the engraved stones standing firmly where they were.
My mental movie shows how memorable words affect me. How do they affect you? How do they affect your own writing?
I aim to evoke mental movies in my readers. From the bottom of my computer screen, where I've minimized the document containing my current novel-in-progress, a voice now yells, "Rolling!" I need to get back on set. 'Bye-bye!
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
A 13-year-old student asked me the other day, "What's the difference between sympathy and empathy?" I happened to have a poem, written years ago, to explain. Here's an excerpt:
Sympathy is what you SHOW to others; Empathy is what you FEEL for them.
Sympathy is external; Empathy is internal.
Sympathy is a polite action; Empathy is a compassionate one.
Sympathy is expected in polite society; but Empathy is a welcome, cherished surprise.
Sympathy can be expressed by greeting cards; Empathy is only expressed in sincere words and/or hugs.
Sympathy is announced; empathy is understood.
Sympathy shows caring; Empathy creates sharing.
Sympathy is to shine another’s beaten-up shoes; Empathy is to wear those shoes.
Loss is cluttered by the sympathetic shoe-shiners,
And simplified by those who share our burdens,
Leaving us a smaller fraction of grief to bear alone.