Friday, February 04, 2011

Dabs with the Language Sander

Revisions on my Tudor novel are almost done. I mention this because I've been blogging mainly about poetry in recent months, yet I seem to have spent most of that time writing - or fiddling about with - prose.

It's always been a secret thought with me that prose rhythms are akin to poetry, or ought to be. Certainly I take my time over sentences that don't sound 'right' to me in their context, whatever that may be.

A good sentence should flow, should be both elegant and fit for purpose - by which I mean it should communicate whatever the writer needed it to communicate, which might be nothing or everything, or any point in between.

Clumsy writing is the last thing I want to find when looking back over what I've written.

Unfortunately, it's almost unavoidable in early drafts.

This is how it happens. You need to present a thought or a situation or a mood, and the words don't want to come, but you don't have time to coax them. You're a professional writer, you have deadlines, you have bills to pay. So you bodge it. You write what is needful and make a mental note to return later - preferably after dark when no one but the night watchman's cat is there to witness your shame - and rewrite the damn thing so that it says what is needful without leaving mental splinters in your reader's head.

That's one part of the revision process. Sanding off the rough edges.

A less pleasurable part of revision is having to rejig characters who now have beards, or no longer have beards, or whose motivation is entirely changed, or who must now swim the moat instead of swinging across it with the help of trailing creepers.

I'm joking, of course. But when you change even one detail, you quickly realise that nothing happens in isolation. Everything in the novel is interconnected. This is where we get our word 'text' from, a marvellously hard-working word which is related to 'textile' and the idea of weaving.

So once you decide, at the revision stage, that a minor change needs to happen, you also need to find places where a knock-on effect will occur following that change, and to make sure everything remains consistent within the world of your novel. Once you have six or seven 'minor' changes like this to make, the process of scouring the book for places where further changes need to happen becomes quite time-consuming and fiddly.

And meanwhile, you can't help little dabs with the language sander ...

But the hardest work is more or less over. I have one key scene to entirely rewrite, and maybe a short chapter to add early on, and the rest is about style.

Then I have the next book to begin.

11 comments:

Teresa Morgan said...

I certainly do 'bodge' it if the words won't come. I at least try to put what I want, or am trying to mean there in whatever context I can, then I know I can go back to it and go 'ah, yes, that's what I meant.'

Also, pondering over something too much that won't come isn't productive, so best to put what will do for the time being and move on, right? That's what editing is for after all.

Talli Roland said...

Oh, the word sander! I find I need to get mine out again and again and again... and then I'm still not pleased! It takes so much sanding to make it smooth. Maybe I need an axe?

Jane Holland said...

LOL @ Talli.

Though Kafka apparently believed that 'A book must be the axe which smashes the frozen sea inside us.'

So why not?

Teresa, I agree. Editing is for precisely this purpose. I just wish sometimes that I could get it right first time round ...

Teresa Morgan said...

Well, yes, totally agree, would be brilliant to write a masterpiece first off and not have to edit.

Writearound said...

I find, now I am attempting my second novel, that I am a little better at not trying to polish the language as I go along but sometimes, like you, my poet's head kicks in and I can't leave a sentence alone until it is absolutely right . The right word has to be in the right place or I fret. The second novel is far more pacy and plot driven than the first and that has also helped to make my first draft roll along a little faster without me needing to constantly polish on the first draft. I have also found that the Point of View, as an omiscient narrator in the second giving the ability to move and shift scene effects the language in a different way from the first novel, which was in the first person. I would be interested to know what POV your novels take and why you decided on the POV you did.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry I missed those last couple of comments in the waiting list. Blogger seems to have a blind spot with some comments and doesn't let me know they exist until I log in!

Writearound, my POV in the Tudor series is a third-person one, because I have multiple viewpoints, but each POV is specific to the person 'speaking', i.e. they are not omniscient. I was amazed to realise so many of the new historicals are first person. It's easier for a new writer, yes, and can be highly intimate and engaging to read, but is also enormously limiting in terms of style and overall depth or breadth within the novel. For that reason, this age of the first person novel we seem to be living through may produce some engaging fiction, but is unlikely to bring us any towering literary giants. My own commercial debut was first person, but I swiftly found it too narrow a style - within popular or commercial fiction, that is; I think there's still mileage and room for first person experimental fiction within the literary world - for the kind of books I want to write.

But then, I'm easily bored. And one way to stave off boredom in a novel is to have multiple viewpoints. But while Phillipa Gregory may be happy writing multiple first person POVs and differentiating between them with chapter headings or italics, I find that too confusing as a reader, so would prefer to use good old-fashioned 3rd person when there's more than one narrative viewpoint.

Hope that's helpful.

Kiss My Art said...

Dear Jane

As I get older I appreciate a flowing prose style more and more. I am naturally short-winded (even my e-mails are concise and to-the -point!) Conversely, my wife (pictured) is always struggling not to let her pen run away with her. I think that ultimately it must be a matter of linguistic temperament. I admire people like you and Sophie Hannah who are equally at home with both poetry and prose. I just wish I was too!

Best wishes from Simon

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
I endure icy showers
Whilst envisioning you.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Dog shit is brown
And attached to my shoe.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Now that you're rich -
I would like to be too!

Love from Simon R. Mitaj

Jane Holland said...

Thanks for that, Simon.

You are surely one of the strangest people I know. Though I imagine you work hard at that.

J.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

I really don't have to. I am naturally eccentric!

Love from Simon R. Mitaj

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

I never work hard at anything! That is my problem.

Thrice love from Simon R. Mitaj