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Slash, Chop, Kill

Slash, Chop, Kill

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Published by George Pollock
A draft based on his big new idea is done and Billy Stone hates it. Turning into the literary equivalent of a homicidal maniac, he slashes away without mercy. Warning: It is not a pretty process.
A draft based on his big new idea is done and Billy Stone hates it. Turning into the literary equivalent of a homicidal maniac, he slashes away without mercy. Warning: It is not a pretty process.

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Published by: George Pollock on Mar 29, 2007
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01/01/2013

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George Pollock State KidIssue 57
Slash,Chop, Kill
Billy Stone read his draft carefully from beginning to end. When he had finished, he putthe manuscript down and paced around his little dorm room. He thought:
 If I ever showed this to Sister Francis Helen, she'd kill me.
To start with, the manuscript was obese; rolls of flab drooped over its belt. It was lardedwith windbaggery, dependent clauses and high-fat adverbs and adjectives. It sagged fromlong, overwritten descriptions. There was a deluge of exposition, which Sister FrancisHelen hated.Fragments sat unconnected like pitiful orphans, without a sentence to call home. Subjectsand verbs did not do their first and most obvious job, which is to agree. Tenses jumped inand out of time periods. Related ideas were all over the place, instead of together.Metaphors soared into outer space (like this one). Lazy, passive-voice sentences were putin (like this one).And, oh, the speechifying! A self-righteous narrator delivered moralistic lectures. On theleast pretext, faceless figures jumped on soapboxes and orated like Marc Anthony. And,unlike in real life, other perfect strangers, to each other as well as to the putative reader,listened with infinite patience. The talk was too much, too impersonal, too fake, too
written
.This was the star of Sister Francis Helen's English class? This was a guy who expectedthat his manuscript would be so good that Fairview University, which accepts under ten percent of applicants, would just wave him through its prestigious portals? This was thefamous author Billy Stone who had just accepted a zillion-dollar advance from a major  publisher?Well, yes.***In the twilight of his career, James Michener, the author of Hawaii and many other novelsthat have enthralled tens of millions, was asked by a reporter what made him such a greatwriter.“I'm not a great writer,” he said. “I'm a lousy writer. ”He paused, letting perplexity spread over the reporter's face. Then he said, “But I'm theworld's greatest
rewriter.
Many who take pen in hand, and who are not as wise as James Michener, think thatrevision is somehow beneath them. They view it as grubby, sweaty, messy work unsuitable for an
author.
They think:
 Let some churl of a copy editor clean it up
.Unfortunately, even a brilliant copy editor can only do so much with a typical first draft.There is no shame in a rotten first draft; publishing professionals consider it normal andexpected. A first draft is considered just that, a start -- though a major one -- in a long,
 
difficult process toward a finished product. It is hard work for everybody involved. Awriter unwilling to revise and accept editorial suggestions, in effect, puts up a wallagainst his own success. Every good editor will tell you this.Rare is the writer who, on first effort, makes the words march smartly onto the paper, lineup in all their proper places and have it be his or her best effort. Such a writer would haveto be the playwright, Samuel Beckett, who did not revise, or Shakespeare, of whomSamuel Johnson wrote, “He scarce blotted a line.”The rest of us would be advised to “blot.”A modern playwright, Tony Kushner, says that his plays “tend to cling and cling and needmore attention” and that his “entire life is about blotting.” He said, “A gush of ideas or words absolutely has to be reexamined and reread and worked on. Is it a breaking throughof a muse's song, or is it just noise that you generate to distract your terror?”***On fire with the story, Billy had poured out the words with barely a pause or backwardglance. Writing in pencil on long yellow-lined sheets, furiously filling up page after page,he had emptied himself onto paper. Only after it was all out and he had nothing left togive, did he read the results of his labors.Reading what you have written is an essential step in writing -- and not reading toadmire. Many writers fall in love with what they have written. Reading their own work,they see only brilliant insights, wit, clever twists and turns, flowing sentences, and shiny phrases. They think,
 Readers are going to love this. They're going to think I'm brilliant.
It was not the way that Samual Beckett viewed his work. After his Waiting for Godotopened in Paris in 1953 and he was told that it was a triumph, he replied, “All I can do issee what's wrong with it. It's a bad play.”When Billy read over his manuscript, he was appalled. However, he did see, buried beneath all the sludge, glimmers of a story wanting to be dug out and ghosts of charactersyearning for human form. Something was there.*** Now came the part that James Michener loved -- rewriting.Billy took a hatchet to his treatise on the juvenile justice system. He chopped page after  page about the workings of the Department of Social Services. He hacked off longdescriptions of daily routines at Granite City School. The story lost nothing, exceptexcess weight. Leaner and meaner, it gained in focus and narrative drive.Some of the cutting touched bone, weakening the factual infrastructure. He shored it upwith factual supports throughout. Generally, he gave readers what they needed to knowthrough what characters do and say. As much as possible, he kept backgroundinformation in the background where it belongs.The young writer was acting on advice that Sister Francis Helen had drummed into him:“Don't tell; show.” It is staple advice at writing seminars, and for good reason. Followingit is good for the reader, who gets a faster-paced and more compelling narrative, and for the writer, who is forced to get off his author's high horse and serve the reader.A writer who is serious about putting the reader first may have to get his hands dirty
 
under the hood of the English language. That's where Billy Stone was now, into the nutsand bolts of the language, fixing... tinkering ... replacing ... tuning ... and always,
always
making it cleaner and clearer.He replaced three paragraphs with two or one, three sentences with two or one, ten wordswith four or three or none. He cut verbal fat like a miser cuts expenses. He dispatched atruckload of adverbs and adjectives. “The adverb is not your friend,” Sister Francis Helenhad said, “and the adjective is a fickle friend. Both will hurt you if given the chance.”He rejiggered sentences from passive to active voice. He used the strong present tensewherever possible, but dared to change tenses if it suited the story. Cutting and pastinglike a maniac, he gathered up related ideas and placed them together. He toned downflighty metaphors.Main cure for the weak dialogue? Cut most of it. People don't speak in speeches. Inaddition, he cut adverbial hangers-on like “he said
angrily”
and “he said
 sadly”
and “hesaid
hopefully
.”He went with plain old “said” almost every time.To make the dialogue more natural, he read it aloud in front of a mirror. Whenever itsounded phony or didn't
look 
right, he rewrote. He kept rewriting until the dialogue wasnatural, perfectly pleasing to eye, ear and brain.***Reading and rereading the words of his characters, something else happened -- Billy gotto know them as never before. He began to feel as they did, see as they saw. They ceasedacting like characters; they behaved like real people living, walking, talking, struggling,failing and succeeding. Their faces and gestures, down to the tiniest facial tic or inflectionof the voice, became as familiar to him as his own. As his characters sprung to life, signsof writing disappearedBilly attacked what Sister Francis Helen called “ego infestation,” in which the writer struts his stuff, showing off his learning and wit and mastery of the language. He crossedout every literary reference that did not advance the story. He replaced big, ten-dollar words (many of which he had newly learned, loved, and was dying to use) with littletwenty-five-cent ones. He trashed foot-long Latinized words for little pug-nosed Anglo-Saxon ones. Anything serving Billy Stone's ego instead of the reader's needs -- anything-- he threw out the window.Essential to this process is unhinged self-denial and self-criticism -- even self-mutilation-- in which the writer consciously sacrifices self for art. It is a killing field that is brutal,chaotic, arduous and full of pain and risk. Not every writer is up to it. The will may not be there. Or there may be too much ego or too much fear or too little tolerance for sustained self-punishment.This was not the case with the writer Billy Stone. He had never known anything but fear and risk and rejection and struggle and insecurity. Young, without family, poor, fendingfor himself, he had always needed an indomitable will just to survive. Serving needsoutside of himself, those of the reader, was almost a refreshing change.Finally, there was a matter of style. Writing is an art. Like all art, it can be many thingsdepending upon the writer. Billy Stone wanted more than a great story. He wanted a great

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