Help me! > BookMarc by Peter Abresch

Writing/Rewriting -- Part 3

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Bob Mueller:
 Date:         Thursday, April 01, 1999 01:06 PM


BookMarc #21
Writing/rewriting part 3

Nobody has the right to bore their reader.

Imagine that we are in bed together... Let me rephrase that. Suppose our reader is in bed, late at night, bleary eyed, just finishing a chapter of our book, and looking at the next page. And it's solid print from margin to margin. That goes on for another page. And another page. Page after page. Guess what the reader will do folks? And guess what will happened when they return the following night, tired, and look at that relentless block of print? If we lose them that first night, we could lose them for all time.

Now contrast that with them turning the same page to a new chapter and find a short paragraph. Maybe one sentence. Maybe only one word. Or a piece of dialogue. And we follow that by some more short paragraphs or dialogue, all of varied lengths. The eyes are drawn to the first line, just to see the connection with the previous chapter, and that leads to the next. Maybe they'll read the whole page, or just a paragraph. Either way, we have whetted their appetite so they'll be eager to return the following night.

Why should we worry about readers late at night? Because if we can hold them at this time, think how we'll grab them when they're fresh. So let's give them some white space by varying the paragraph lengths. If a bit of business requires a lot of explanation, just break the paragraph. And if you don't think that works, throw in a bit of action or dialogue to interrupt it. "He blinked to clear his eyes and looked back to the bomb." Or even--he blinked.

I think we should view our pages almost like a picture. This might be a crazy thing to say about writing, but our job is to marry our reader to the printed page. It's only black print on white paper. There's no color. No graphics. So we have to make it interesting in the only way we can, through variety.

The same holds true for varying sentence length and structure. Here it's not so much of a overall visual effect as it is with paragraphs on a page. With sentences it's pace. If the cadence of one sentence is like that of the next, and the next, and the next, it goes on like the clickity clack of a railroad track, or the thump of expansion joints on an endless bridge. Now we might want this for a small section to deliberately pound something home, but otherwise the drone will bore our readers to sleep. Try reading a passage out loud, or into a tape recorder, and see how it sounds. This is something else I really urge you to try, reading your work out loud to see how it sounds.

We have a similar problem with word use. Using the same word two or more times on the same page is jarring. The mind stumbles on the redundancy and loses the flow, a bit like a sleepy raft ride jolting against some unseen rocks. Well, this is so elementary we would never do that. Right? Maybe not as we are writing our story, but how about when we come back for another draft? All we want to do is change one paragraph. Do we look at the preceding paragraphs and those following to see how it all flows together? This is the time words, and even phrases, get inadvertently repeated. So after we rewrite a sentence, we re-read the paragraph, and then re-read the whole page to see how everything flows.

This is a particular problem to those who work on hard-copy. On a computer we can repeat the paragraph and work it to death, but on a hard copy the temptation is to effect a correction in the space between two double-spaced sentences. And there is another temptation in working with hard copy, to squeeze in a fix that will not require the re-typing of the next page, and maybe the rest of the chapter. Or we'll decide the page is good enough as it is. It's not good enough, folks. Either it's the best you can make it or it's not. There no back door to effective writing.

Still, somewhere in the process it's important to print out a hard copy. I do it after what I hope is my final draft, but never is. The hard copy looks different. Rough spots that slipped by staring at the monitor now stand out like red painted gargoyles. Things I had honed to a sharp edge now appear dull and lifeless. I don't know why this should be, but almost every writer I know experiences the same thing. The saving grace is that this should be the last step before the final draft. If we are lucky.

Someone recently told me that they e-mail a chapter to themselves, and just seeing it in a different format was enough to pop out all the errors. I haven't tried this yet, but I think I will when get to that point on my present novel.

On a personal note, let me wish a Happy Easter or Passover for those who celebrate them.

Copyright Peter E. Abresch BookMarc February 13, 1998

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