Monday, November 30, 2015

taking the hatchet to a draft



Writers' conferences can provide good venues for learning from featured speakers and fellow writers which techniques had worked best for them in producing good, publishable fiction.  However, what works well for one writer might not yield good results for another.  Perhaps rules for a sort of terse, active, and staccato delivery suits the range of fictional dreams at work in the mind of one writer, but may be entirely out of synch for the fictional dream flows of another writer.  The point arose when scanning notes I'd taken at several Mendocino Coast Writers Conferences in past years.  We've probably all heard of the need to go over our first drafts, to take out all the flab, exposition, discursive wanderings, and such, to better focus our stories.  A lot of this is absolutely necessary, but the subtractive process might also become destructive of an otherwise beautifully written, fictional dream.   Let's look at an excerpt from a piece by James Joyce, from his short story, The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drafted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I've always loved the imagery, the sense of hushed sound, and sense of timelessness in the arc of our lives.  I wondered if the same feeling could be maintained if the more severe draft editing rules were to be followed.  Here are a few typical, random notes taken from lectures given at the conferences by two accomplished writers.

John Lescroart (crime fiction)
Get rid of your 'to be' verbs, like 'when' and 'as.'  Don't use 'thought' to convey a character's thinking.   When reviewing draft, do a search for 'had,' which usually signals some sort of exposition.  Get rid of it, or replace.  Don't use any '-ly' adverbs.


John Dufresne (general fiction)
Eliminate progressive form of syntax; i.e., 'I was brewing coffee.'  Say I brewed coffee.  Don't use adverbs--you just haven't got the right verb yet.
 In the following, I've applied such rules to Joyce's piece as closely as I was able, while trying to maintain his complete thoughts and sentences:

A few taps on the pane made him turn to the window.  It snowed again.  He watched the flakes, silver and dark, fall against the lamplight.  It was time for his journey.  The newspapers had it right: snow all over Ireland.  Snow fell on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, upon the Bog of Allen, and fell on the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It fell, too, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay in drafted heaps on crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned at the sound of the snow that fell through the universe and fell, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I think it lost some of its beauty and whispered softness. There are undoubtedly other ways to edit the piece with the same rules that might yield better versions, but it is hard to imagine anything that could approach Joyce's offering.  So, while I think the lecturers have given useful advice, it need not be considered rigidly in every case.

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