September 27, 2010

The sunk cost of well-written crap

The Dear Author blog runs a weekly "First Page" anonymous writing evaluation. About four months ago they posted that they were running low on submissions so I sent in a first page. My first thought when they ran it this weekend was, Oh great, that draft is at least six months old by now

And my sister had already made most of the critiques in the comments. Namely that it's horribly overwritten. Not only the info-dumping, but I had twice as many names and proper nouns as necessary (the reader was going to benefit from all my research, whether she liked it or not).

I know what I was thinking when I wrote it: I was still irked by people who'd assumed qualities about the characters in Angel Falling Softly totally unsupported by the text. As in a three-part freshman essay, I was going to define all the facts up front and foreclose misinterpretation.

A Sisyphean task if there ever was one. But here's the most recent draft from a couple of weeks ago:

     Matsu's soul tore free of its human vessel.
     Whether severed from Chieko's body by Hatakeyama's sword or ripped asunder by her own despair, she was reborn in the netherworld of the damned, in an icebound Naraka. A Buddhist hell fashioned from her own karma.
     In temporal terms, not two days had passed since she and Chieko first met. For a mayfly of a moment, Matsu lived the life she'd never known she wanted. And now could not imagine living without. But that brief candle was out. She was a drifting shadow, the bloody price of her wishful thinking staining every conscious thought.
     The infested waters of the Sanzu River gave up her shipwrecked psyche to the permanent midnight of a windswept tundra. The bitter air stabbed at her lungs. Aching cold wracked her body. Her tears froze before striking the ground.
     But the pain was a flea bite compared to the millstone of guilt strapped to her back. She had one recourse left to her—to embrace the hell within and be reborn as a vengeful ghost. Every time Hatakeyama and Ouchi cast off the mortal coil, she would await their reincarnations and hunt them down and haunt them to their miserable deaths.
     In her mind she could hear Priest Gendo quoting his gods: Self-mortification is as grievous a sin as self-absolution. And Chieko quoting hers: Vengeance is mine.
     But vengeance was hers and she would repay.
I rewrote it a dozen times, but it still bugged me. All tell, no show. Ultimately redundant. Finally I hit delete and fed the whole chapter (plus a thousand words beyond that) to the digital compost pile (i.e., cut and archive and maybe the bits and pieces will come in useful later).

A big problem with writing something that doesn't quite work and doesn't belong (versus stuff that is just bad) is that you end up investing so much time trying to make it work and belong that you start valuing the invested effort over the actual value, the sunk cost over the true worth.

Human nature. It's surprisingly hard letting go of the useless, and thus surprising how much things improve when you do. Anyway, I'm pretty sure "Get rid of prologues" is on one of those writing advice bullet point lists I've read somewhere. It's still a prologue even if you call it a chapter.

Oh, and to "Mai": yes, an HEA in this life (and good call on "hungry ghost"; I'd carried that term over from my source material and hadn't fixed it).

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/27/2010 1:56 PM   
Actually, despite years of hearing "show don't tell" from creative writing teachers, I've become a big fan of the fiction thesis statement.

The fiction thesis statement to me is something like: "Then George realized he had to kill the monster to save the farm."

There you go--the whole story in a nutshell! The story will deal with killing the monster and saving the farm.

This is the opposite of show-don't-tell. It's tell. Just tell. No show. Just tell.

"The magician, dwarf, and elf lord decided to go on a quest to Castle Walmart to save the princess."

In journalism, it's actually called a "nut graf" rather than a thesis. And it's very useful to getting the reader on-board: Here's the problem! Okay, let's go!

While wrestling with my own writing, I've decided that the best way to use this fiction thesis statement is to start the action where the action starts. I usually start too far into a story; I want to skip all that boring background stuff. But the background stuff isn't boring (to the reader) if I start the action in the background. Then it isn't background; it's just action. Both the reader and the character are getting information at the same time in the same way.

It's like how Columbo movies always start with the murder. Talk about putting all one's cards on the table: "The bad guy killed his wife to get her money." Fiction thesis statement to the nth degree.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
9/27/2010 4:40 PM   
This is the essence of "high concept" screenwriting. It's supposed to be a derogatory term, but most movies would be improved if the movie makers stuck to it.

The problem in my case was that I started with a 1500 word thesis statement, instead of introducing the thesis in a single line when the action starts a chapter later.
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/27/2010 5:06 PM   
I wonder if there is an inherent tension here. Since learning to write thesis statements made such a huge difference in my life (thanks, Eugene!), I stress it like crazy to my students: "You have to put all your cards on the table UPFRONT. Don't save the point of the essay for the conclusion."

But then there's always a few students who actually take me at my word and swing too far in the other direction, so I end up with thesis statements that tell me EVERYTHING an essay is going to talk about.

So now I say, "Well, you should keep *some* cards up your sleeve. Just tell them you're going to prove that school uniforms will save money. Don't tell them HOW. Save that for the paragraph about uniforms and money."

I think this is the same problem in fiction. The writer wants to tell the reader enough to bring the reader on-board but . . . not too much. And I never know what it is I shouldn't be telling the reader. Am I being too cryptic? Am I inundating the reader with information? Ahhh.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
9/28/2010 10:21 AM   
I think voice has a lot to do with it. I find myself asking now, okay, just how much do these characters know and when do they know it? This is the great advantage of the single POV narrative. But getting the thesis out in a single line helps a lot to bring the point of the story into focus.

Plinkett captures this perfectly when he points out that Lucas never matched the succinctness of the classic first scene in the first Star Wars, the way it sets up the rest of the movie. Hence the endless talking in the prequels trying to discover what they are doing there and why we should care.

There's nothing wrong with "discovery writing" as long as something gets discovered.

Another good "high concept" question to ask is: What's it about? (Theme versus plot.) The answer to the first Matrix is "Red pill or blue pill?" The Matrix sequels? No idea.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
9/28/2010 12:03 PM   
Often I find that the third or fourth sentence I write is the one that best expresses my point. Perhaps a rule of thumb to aspiring writers is to tell them write a paragraph and then copy and paste the last sentence and delete what remains of the paragraph. That rule probably applies in this instance too!