THE TRUTH ABOUT REVISING

Dog pissing on a computer.
Dog pissing on a computer.

You may find in working with a mirror that a much better one comes along to take its place or that something that is intellectually very clever, becomes strained in its application.  Remember this is a technique to make storytelling more interesting, not more difficult.  The great thing is that like story ideas and scenes, mirrors are everywhere in real life.  It’s not a matter of being inventive, its’s a matter of opening you eyes to what is already there.

           

What about revisions?  First of all, get most of your first draft done before you begin.  I like rewriting but find it often sidetracks my energy.  Move forward, not backward.  Here are two other observations about revising work.  I was in a book store looking at William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, skimming over sections titled, “Simplicity,” “Style,” “Usage,” when I happened to turn to pages 10 and 11.  These were reproductions of a typed manuscript heavily crossed out, with arrows going everywhere, like the roughest of first drafts.  They were the fifth draft of pages 8 and 9.  Why is it as writers, when we read someone else’s work we think the words came to them as gracefully and easily as the finished version we read?  We know better, but isn’t this the disappointment we feel in reading our original draft–it seemed so good when we were writing it and now it will take so much effort to really make it that way.  Well, ignorance is bliss.  Enjoy it.  Move forward before you realize all the work in rewriting it will eventually entail.  Once this subject has taken possession of you, you will do whatever it takes to communicate it precisely, anyway.

           

A funny incident happened to me years ago.  I was typing some examples while at work during the afternoon for an evening class I was teaching.  I put a copy of one of these on the desk of a copy writer who worked for me.  She and I had often discussed writing and I thought she would enjoy this piece.  The next day, I found the two pages on my desk crawling with corrections.  On a note she said she knew I was using this in my class and I might want to tighten it up so that it read better.  The comments included: “vague,” “not a sentence,” “doesn’t ring true,” “usage,” “seems strained,” “beware of adjectives, describing–telling the reader is not as strong as helping the reader to experience,” “not precise, but a good start!”

           

I broke into laughter.  The comments were true enough and are ones I would put on other people’s manuscripts, but this was the first page of D.H. Lawrence’s short story masterpiece, The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.  Not only is it one of the great short stories of all time, but this opening part in which we see a village landscape from the point of view of a doctor on the opposite hillside, is a perfect mirror for his alienation from the people of the village and a foreshadowing of his stifling involvement with the woman, Mabel Pervin (who is making her way to the pond below to kill herself).  Was there room for improvement in the writing?  Who knows.  But this I am sure of.  Her nit-picking comments were like a piece of gravel next to Mount Rushmore.  That’s the power of using the right mirror.

           

What about revisions?  First of all, get most of your first draft done before you begin.  I like rewriting but find it too often sidetracks my energy.  Move foreword, not backward.  But, I have two other brief observations to make about revising your work.

 

I was in a book store looking at William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, skimming over sections titled, “Simplicity,” “Style,” “Usage” when I happened to turn to page 10 and 11.  These were reproductions of a typed manuscript heavily crossed out, with arrows going everywhere, like the roughest of first drafts.  They were actually the fifth draft of pages 8 and 9.  Why is it as writers, when we read someone else’s work we think the works came to them as gracefully and easily as they are when we read them?  We know better, but isn’t this the disappointment we feel in reading our original draft–it seemed so good when we were writing it and now it seems to take so much effort to really make it that way.  Well, I say ignorance is bliss, and enjoy it to move forward before realizing all the eventual work in rewriting it entails.  Once this subject has taken possession of you, you will do anything to make sure you get it right.

           

My second observation stems from a funny incident that happened to me years ago.  I was teaching an evening class, and typing out some examples while at work during the afternoon.  I put a copy of one of them on the desk of a copy writer who worked for me.  She and I had often discussed writing and I thought she would enjoy it.  The next day, I found the two pages on my desk crawling with corrections.  On a note she said she knew I was using this in my class and I might want to tighten it up so that it read better.  The comments included: “vague,” “not a sentence,” “doesn’t ring true,” “usage,” “seems strained,” “beware of adjectives, describing–telling the reader is not as strong as helping the reader to experience (to discover),” “not precise enough, if you get my drift, but a good start!”

           

I howled with laughter.  The comments were true enough and are ones I would put on your manuscripts if I had them in front of me, but this was the first page of D.H. Lawrence’s short story masterpiece, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”.  Not only is it one of the great short stories of all time, but this opening part in which we see a village landscape from the point of view of a doctor on the opposite hillside is a perfect mirror for his alienation from the people of the village and foreshadowing of his stifling involvement with the woman, Mabel Pervin, who is making her way to the pond below to kill herself.  Was there room for improvement in the writing?  Who knows.  But this I am sure of.  This copywriter’s nit-picking comments were like a piece of gravel next to Mount Rushmore.  That is the relative power of the right mirror.


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FIREWORKS

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Here is the first page of a short story by  Richard Ford.  It makes use of a mirror right away.  By the way, the one suggestion I have for hooking an editor is to use a mirror within the first several sentences.  Before you write, let’s look at this piece together.

 

What do you think the mirror is going to be?  Remember my formula for figuring out theme?  Well the title is the author’s signpost to tell you this is the mirror to watch for.  In the opening of this piece very little actually happens.  The central character is out of work and his wife calls him up every day from the bar where she works to cheer him up.  On this particular day there’s an old lover of hers at this bar, and this leads to a split in their relationship.  Now here’s the first page of the story FIREWORKS:

 

 

                        Eddie Starling sat at the kitchen table at noon reading the newspaper.  Outside in the street some neighborhood kids were shooting firecrackers.  The Fourth of July was a day away, and every few minutes there was a lot of noisy popping followed by a hiss then a huge boom loud enough to bring down an airplane.  It was giving him the jitters, and he wished some parent would go out and haul the kids inside.

                        Starling had been out of work six months–one

              entire selling season and part of the next.  He had sold real estate, and he had never been off work any length o time in his life.  Though he had begun to wonder, after a certain period of time not working, if you couldn’t simply forget how to work, forget the particulars, lose the reasons for it.  And once that happened, he worried, it could become possible never to hold another job as long as you lived.  To become a statistic: the chronically unemployed.  The thought worried him.

                        Outside in the street he heard what sounded like

              kids’ noises again.  They were up to something suspicious, and he stood up to look out, just when the phone rang.

                        “What’s new on the home front?” Lois’s voice said.  Lois had gone back to work tending bar near the airport and always tried to call up in good spirits.

                        “Status quo.  Hot.”  Starling walked to the window, holding the receiver, and peered out.  In the middle of the street some kids he’d never seen before were getting ready to blow up a tin can using an enormous firecracker. “Some kids are outside blowing up something.”

                        “Anything good in the paper?”

                        “Nothing promising.”

                        “Well,” Lois said.  “Just be patient, hon.  I know  it’s hot.  Listen, Eddie, do you remember those priests who were always setting fire to themselves on TV?  Exactly when where they?  We were trying to remember here.  Was it ’68 or ’72?  Nobody could remember to save their life?”

                        “Sixty-eight was Kennedy,” Starling said.  “They

              weren’t just setting themselves on fire for TV, though.  They were in Asia.”

                        “Okay.  But when was Vietnam exactly?”

              The kids lit the firecracker under the can and went running away down the street, laughing.  For a moment Starling stared directly at the can, but just then a young woman came out of the house across the street.  As she stepped into her yard the can went boom, and the woman leaped back and put her hands into her hair.

                        “Christ, what was that!” Lois said.  “A bomb?”

                         “It was those kids,” Starling said…

 

I said nothing happens.  That isn’t quite true.  Nothing happens to Eddie Starling and Lois, but there is an escalation in the fireworks which provides a mirror foreshadowing what will happen in their relationship.  The equation between “outside” and “inside” is set up in the first two sentences:          

 

Eddie Starling sat at the kitchen table at noon reading the newspaper. Outside in the street some neighborhood kids were shooting firecrackers.

 

It is sustained simply and naturally. 

 

            Starling walked to the window, holding the receiver, and

            peered out.” 

 

 

This is our excuse as a reader to peer out. The mirror starts with some little popping fireworks, to “a huge boom loud enough to bring down an airplane,” to Buddhist priests setting fire to themselves, to the Kennedy’s assignation , to the war in Vietnam…”  There is an explosive tension here even before we are introduced to the real conflict between the two characters.  That’s how a mirror works.

           

Now, when I tell you go back over the scene you wrote as part of the storyboard.  Does something in that scene, or in the others from the storyboard, suggest a mirror.  It should be simple and natural.  The various rooms in a house where the different scenes take place, preparation for a wedding, different stops along a trip (any physical journey is easily symbolic for an emotional or spiritual journey or change), even an stages of a disease can parallel stages of a relationship.  And, the symbolism is up to you, provided you make it very clear to the reader, what is standing for what.  Traditionally black has stood for evil, but in Moby Dick, Melville, does just the opposite–anything white is to be feared.  Moby Dick, by the way is a wonderful example of an author’s starting out with a piece of good writing, then finding a mirror through the writing that transports a travel-adventure novel into great literature.  There’s not a great piece of literature that doesn’t have a great mirror, without exception; though there are pieces of writing with great mirrors that aren’t great literature. 

           

Give it a try.  Find a mirror or interject one in the scene you have written.  Then start a subsequent scene with that mirror.  Elaborate on it.  If it is a location, go there to capture the mood.  Make it work for this point in your story idea, but in the back of your mind also be considering the role it will play at the end of the piece (much as the description of your leaving a location took on added significance in the first exercise we did).

And, be particularly open to any titles the mirror might suggest.

 

We’re getting into longer blocks of writing time.  Don ‘t hesitate or prepare any more or less then you did when we were doing the ten minute writings.  Finding a mirror and adding a few sentences to your scene should take about twenty minutes.  Writing a second scene, about one hour.  Stop reading and begin writing now.