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George Pollock State Kid Issue 57 Slash,Chop, Kill Billy Stone read his draft carefully from

beginning to end. When he had finished, he put the 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 larded with windbaggery, dependent clauses and high-fat adverbs and adjectives. It sagged from long, overwritten descriptions. There was a deluge of exposition, which Sister Francis Helen hated. Fragments sat unconnected like pitiful orphans, without a sentence to call home. Subjects and verbs did not do their first and most obvious job, which is to agree. Tenses jumped in and 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 put in (like this one). And, oh, the speechifying! A self-righteous narrator delivered moralistic lectures. On the least 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 expected that 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 the famous 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 novels that have enthralled tens of millions, was asked by a reporter what made him such a great writer. “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 the world's greatest rewriter.” Many who take pen in hand, and who are not as wise as James Michener, think that revision 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 and expected. 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. A writer unwilling to revise and accept editorial suggestions, in effect, puts up a wall against 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, line up in all their proper places and have it be his or her best effort. Such a writer would have to be the playwright, Samuel Beckett, who did not revise, or Shakespeare, of whom Samuel 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 need more 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 through of 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 backward glance. 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 to give, did he read the results of his labors. Reading what you have written is an essential step in writing -- and not reading to admire. 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 Godot opened in Paris in 1953 and he was told that it was a triumph, he replied, “All I can do is see 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 characters yearning 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 long descriptions of daily routines at Granite City School. The story lost nothing, except excess weight. Leaner and meaner, it gained in focus and narrative drive. Some of the cutting touched bone, weakening the factual infrastructure. He shored it up with factual supports throughout. Generally, he gave readers what they needed to know through what characters do and say. As much as possible, he kept background information 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. Following it 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 nuts and 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 words with four or three or none. He cut verbal fat like a miser cuts expenses. He dispatched a truckload of adverbs and adjectives. “The adverb is not your friend,” Sister Francis Helen had 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 tense wherever possible, but dared to change tenses if it suited the story. Cutting and pasting like a maniac, he gathered up related ideas and placed them together. He toned down flighty metaphors. Main cure for the weak dialogue? Cut most of it. People don't speak in speeches. In addition, he cut adverbial hangers-on like “he said angrily” and “he said sadly” and “he said 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 it sounded phony or didn't look right, he rewrote. He kept rewriting until the dialogue was natural, perfectly pleasing to eye, ear and brain. *** Reading and rereading the words of his characters, something else happened -- Billy got to know them as never before. He began to feel as they did, see as they saw. They ceased acting 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 inflection of the voice, became as familiar to him as his own. As his characters sprung to life, signs of writing disappeared Billy 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 crossed out 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 little twenty-five-cent ones. He trashed foot-long Latinized words for little pug-nosed AngloSaxon 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, fending for himself, he had always needed an indomitable will just to survive. Serving needs outside 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 things depending upon the writer. Billy Stone wanted more than a great story. He wanted a great

story beautifully told. Despite the nature of the story, or perhaps because of it, he was determined that the reader's journey would be through language of uncommon beauty and power. *** With each reading, he found problems -- loose or missing threads, inexact word choices, awkward syntax -- which, unaccountably, he had missed in previous readings. Why was it that with each reading things jumped out at him that he had missed several times before? Why is it always that way? The simple answer is: That is writing. For a more complex answer, scholarly journals can be consulted for dense explanations that pretty much say the same thing, but with a lot more words. He listened to the flow and rhythm of the language. Hearing an irregularity, he performed instant doctoring. A string of short, simple sentences sounded choppy; he reworked them into free-flowing sentences. A series of long, complex sentences was monotonal; he broke them up with simple sentences. Thoughts began and ended abruptly; he inserted transitions, helpful little bridges to the next thought. Anything rough, he sandpapered smooth. Anything pedestrian, he elevated or cut. He corrected, revised, excised, polished. He added, though rarely, filling in plot and textual potholes. He used ever smaller tools. The hatchet he started with had now been replaced by a tiny scalpel. He read aloud some more, and kept reading aloud until there was no work for his miniature tool. *** The manuscript pushed back at him, resisting further change. Changes no longer improved, but only made different or worse. At this point, either the manuscript was as good as it could be, or he had reached the limits of his ability to make it better. Of course, it was theoretically possible that both could be true -- some of Shakespeare's plays come to mind -- but that would be for others to judge. In any case, he was finished, or at least he could not think of anything else he could do to improve what he had written. Only now did he notice stalwart figures standing tall and unbloodied amidst the carnage. They were survivors from his original work. Having escaped the slaughter, they stood unbowed, defiant, right the first time. Drained (physically, intellectually and emotionally got cut here), he flopped onto his bed and was soon snoring with the manuscript rising and falling on his chest. The work was in tatters, with every page a blizzard of “blotting,” arrows and pasted scraps of paper. After many tortured weeks, his story was ready for re-typing. And he prepared to bare himself to the merciless editorial lash of Sister Francis Helen.