Posts Tagged ‘editing’

Long Live the Fine Arts!

February 20, 2011

There’s a quote from Paul Darcy Boles that I use every year with my writing students. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought it up on this blog before: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” When Mr. Boles said it (and I was there, so I know), he was talking about how all of us writers, regardless of genre, language, level of accomplishment, place, or time in history are all engaged in the same basic and fundamental (and necessary) human activity, which has been around since the dawn of our kind. Today, we are still gathered around the crackling flames while shadows dance on the walls and the night looms outside. We are still entertaining our companions with tales — tales that apply to our lives whatever they may be, if we think about the stories and see the connections. Stories bring us fulfillment, but also education, insight, catharsis, encouragement, and hope.

Yesterday was a great day. Through the experience of seeing many dance performances, of having an exhibition of my paintings (such as they are), and of reading one of my poems aloud as a talented young dancer expressed it visually, I felt again the unity among all the creative arts. They’re all about telling stories.

The performance yesterday was mostly about dancing. It’s the second annual event called “T.A.Y. — C” (the letters standing for the names of the central organizers, who are some of the main dancers). It features the dance club of Niigata’s Minami High School (quite a large group) as well as OB’s and OG’s (which, in Japan, means alumni and alumnae — have I got the Latin right? — and those letters stand for “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” — former members who have graduated and moved on from a particular group). So this event also starred university students who came back for it from their various schools all across Japan — and a professional dance troupe from Tokyo. Quite a big production!

It was held in the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan — the Hall of Music and Culture. And what a day of music and culture it was! We gathered in the morning, set things up, had informal rehearsals followed by a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and then the real thing starting at 6:00 p.m. Lunch and supper were provided for us. The various groups used different parts of the building as dressing rooms. I was with a trio of singers and their accompanists — one of the singers, Aiko-san, is my co-worker at the university who “got me into this.” Their group sang “Singing’ in the Rain” and selections from West Side Story (both including dancers) just before my part in the program.

The images you’ll see below are the pamphlet for my art exhibition, which was held in the corridor just outside the auditorium. This pamphlet was included as one of the inserts in the main program that the audience members received. The teacher who made this for us — free of charge — did a fantastic job, didn’t she?

The cover for the pamphlet introducing me at the performance on February 19, 2011.

Yes, I know that title, “The Dreamworlds of . . .” is awfully pretentious. We were just having fun. I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, and everyone seemed to like that idea. Don’t suppose that I’m taking myself all that seriously, okay? In this scan, the paintings have a strange quality, like you can see the weave of the paper or something. They didn’t look like that on the actual folder.

Pamphlet interior, left side: the English version of my poem (which will appear in THE STAR SHARD this fall).

Pamphlet interior, right side: the translation of "Blue Were Her Eyes," set with great care and sensitivity into Japanese by Ms. Aiko Sato.

In the morning, a group of high-school girls helped me set the exhibition up. They attached monofilament strands to the backs of the paintings, and we suspended them at artistically-varied heights on two large corkboards along the corridor wall, just opposite one of the auditorium doors. I had made special laminated placards giving the title and some other information about each painting (usually a hint as to how to understand it — though of course, who am I to dictate that? — once a painting is out there, it’s all up to the viewer). Personnel announced the exhibition over the p.a. system, too, and invited the audience to see it. In the half-hour or so before the show started and during the intermission, I was on hand to talk with people who browsed the pictures. That was a good time.

The pamphlet's back cover. (That weird rectangle of paper isn't part of it. It's there to cover up my signature.)

My experience with the world of dance is very limited. Back in college, we needed a certain number of p.e. credits to graduate. Not being adept at sports, I wondered what course to take . . . until I saw one called “Folk and Square Dance.” Aha, I thought! Here was a chance to do something that might be fun, especially because I was sure it would throw me together with a lot of girls. That sort of physical contact would be infinitely better than getting slammed into by guys in football or basketball. And the course was a great time, but that’s the subject for a different post. My point here is, in nearly all the dances I’d encountered until yesterday, the moves are prescribed. There are right and wrong ways to do the steps.

But yesterday, these kids were doing what we always celebrate on this blog. They had chosen songs or simply ideas and developed their own movements to express them to an audience. They were telling stories with physical motion. And it was poetry of the most exquisite sort. I wish you could have seen it!

It would take far too much space to recount all of the dances for you (there were 17 other performances on the program, not counting mine). But I’ll try to hit some highlights. During the dress rehearsal I got to see most of them, and even during the real show at night, I went in by a back door and stood at the rear of the dark auditorium to watch the first half (the place was packed, and I heard that it seats 500 people!).

The professional girls from Tokyo did a fantastic piece from Senegal, which featured a red-lit background at one point, driving rhythms, and the music of Africa that evokes heat and an ancient heritage. I do not know how people can remember such a long progression of complex movements, let alone perfectly coordinating them with an entire team of dancers.

One of the more interesting dances was called “Passing Each Other,” performed by a guy and a girl. The soundtrack was simply a jingling, an irregular ringing, as if you would take a spoon, hold it loosely, and shake and jerk your hand to keep the spoon bouncing against a metal pipe. The dancers’ attitudes conveyed a sense of unfulfillment, of longing toward each other, but their paths were always skewed, always at odds, never quite lining up. They never quite managed to come face-to-face and make contact. So it is with some relationships, right? People can bounce all around the edges of a genuine connection, never quite getting there, until time takes its toll and their ways part irrevocably. The jingling became more urgent after the halfway point with a sound like static, which increased the sense of desperation. Toward the end, these sounds were joined by a recurring deeper note which, to me anyway, signified the big chunks of life breaking up and beginning to move, bigger things changing, the time of opportunity passing. At the end, when the guy almost embraced the girl from behind, she bent her knees, slid downward through the hoop of his arms that weren’t quite touching her, and very slowly paced away into the dark with him following — their postures showing resignation and sadness.

The most beautiful dance, I thought, was one called “Cosmos” (the flower, not the Carl Sagan show). It was performed by one girl. I won’t even lessen it with an inept description, but it communicated all that is best in the feminine and in the beauty of spring and awakening summer.

To me, the most interesting and moving dance was done by two girls — the same one from “Cosmos,” but in a different costume, and another girl in a matching costume. It was called “Little Girl.” I had the chance to talk to both of them at the party that night, and we discussed the interpretation of it. The dance showed the fear, reluctance, sadness, and shaky, fluttering hope of growing up, of moving from childhood into adulthood. The dancers very effectively used two pairs of bright red shoes as symbolic props. Barefoot, the girls slowly approached the shoes from opposite sides of the stage at the beginning, and then they did all sorts of things with them — tentatively trying them on, rejecting them, being drawn back to them, and at one point linking them together into a dangling chain of four shoes that then came apart and rained down like falling petals. In the end, the girls put on the shoes and moved forward into their grownup years. (I couldn’t help thinking of Narnia’s Susan.)

The music for that dance with the red shoes was Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” It’s about having a dream when you’re very young, and trying to find what you’re supposed to do in life. The end, which really got to me emotionally, goes like this:

“Now I’m old and feeling grey. I don’t know what’s left to say about this life I’m willing to leave. I lived it full and lived it well, there’s many tales I’ve lived to tell. I’m ready now, I’m ready now, I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing. I had a dream.”

Man, I can’t even type that with dry eyes! Sooner or later, I’d like to get a recording of the song. Isn’t that great, though? Live full, live well, and when it’s time to die, be ready.

I asked those two girls why nearly all the songs the groups chose to dance to were English-language songs. Their answer really made sense. It’s because their audience won’t be familiar with the songs. If the dancers chose popular Japanese hits, the audience would already have a clear mental image of the particular artist singing the song — they would bring all sorts of baggage to it. By using music that is unfamiliar, the dancers have a clean canvas to work with. Isn’t that an impressive answer?

The atmosphere backstage was energetic and a great thing to experience, too. It reminded me of my thespian years in high school, but this was on a much bigger scale. Imagine all these groups (many involving 15 or 20 people, many in identical costumes) crammed into various rooms and hallways, some girls helping each other with makeup, and many of the chief dancers (guys and girls) stretching in near-impossible ways and bouncing on their toes and practicing their expressive twirls and bends and gestures — everybody leaping around, the stage manager with his headset trying to keep things coordinated, the lighting and sound people at their consoles, adjusting toggles, watching the needles hop . . . Most of the large groups had to use long hallways to eat lunch, keep their stuff, and change (outer) clothes in. The room my group was assigned to was at the end of one such hallway, so every time we went in or out, we had to pass among all these high-school girls.

The dance club at Minami High School is incredibly well-mannered and highly disciplined. They act and answer in unison, like troops — Mrs. Funayama’s troops. Every time we would pass them, every one of the girls would brightly say “Konnichiwa” to us. So we would say it back. We all greeted one another all day. (The girls have an abbreviated form of the word that sounds like “Ch’a.” They say it politely, with a little bow.)

Two of my teacher friends from the university came for the big night, as well as one other acquaintance — it was good to see them.

As I said, I spent the first half of the show out in the auditorium itself, standing at the back, so I knew just how packed the place was. Five hundred souls. But when you’re on the stage under the bright lights, you can’t see the audience at all. Out there in front of you is just this huge black gulf that somehow conveys expectation and attention. If you listen really hard, you can hear the gulf stirring . . . you can hear it breathe.

In an interview, Gilda Radner talked about nerves before a performance, but how the moment before she’d go on stage, she just couldn’t wait to go on. That last part has always been my feeling when it comes to performance. There’s this sense that I have to get to that moment or I’ll go supernova — I belong there, I want to be there — I feel that I could tear through an interposing brick wall with my fingers if I had to.

I honestly wasn’t nervous for this one because there was nothing hard I had to do. I had my manuscript on a music stand, I knew the sound and the height of the microphone were adjusted, I knew the material, and I knew Tsuchida-san would do astounding things with the dance aspect — for me, it was just a matter of stepping out there in front of the breathing gulf and letting the moment ignite — enjoying it to the fullest, doing the sort of thing I was born to do.

When you have the audience there, an intangible something nearly always happens that simply can’t be generated artificially. No matter how well you nail a part in a rehearsal, when you’re doing it for real, something kicks in and takes hold and pulls you up out of yourself. I think that happened for both of us. When we’d finished our part (three scant minutes of a long evening of phenomenal dancing and singing), the applause was thunderous, and when I got back into the wings, two of the singers threw their arms around me in emotional hugs, which is pretty rare in Japan.

During the reading of “Blue Were Her Eyes,” I had to be looking mostly at the invisible audience, with occasional glances at the text — so I couldn’t be watching Tsuchida-san. (I’m told that I’ll get to see the video, and of course I saw some of his work in the first informal practice we did in the morning.) [He is the "T" in "T.A.Y. -- C," by the way -- according to one of the singers, he is nationally known among dance people -- he's that good.] What he did in this case was a kind of spontaneous interpretation — chance art, or art of the moment. He had practiced for some weeks with an audio tape I’d made of me reading the poem, but we didn’t meet until yesterday. He coordinated his movements to the pace, pauses, mood, and volume I was using. He started out in a side aisle among the audience, appearing there under a spotlight as I began to deliver the poem. Then he was up on stage, flying and whirling, as the narrative led us through love and painful parting to the battle . . . to long imprisonment like death . . . to eventual release and the reunion of the lovers, with the changes their lives have undergone. By all accounts, he outdid himself — I can’t wait to see it!

Aiko-san, the singer who invited me to be part of this, described how she first started arranging for dancers to dance along with her group’s vocal songs. The stars of musicals, she noted, have to be able to act, sing, and dance. But not everyone is good at all three of those. So why not put together people who excel in the individual disciplines? After all, think of the various talents that go into making a movie — hundreds and hundreds of people working at their own crafts, but joined to produce a whole that no one person could possibly create — not even someone like Da Vinci. (Or a book! Again and again I’ve experienced — and did so again this week — how greatly my writing is helped by editors who know their business. And thank goodness I don’t have to do the cover illustrations myself! Or the binding . . . or getting those pages to be the same size . . .)

Just before the poem, Aiko-san interviewed me on stage. She made the point to the audience that when you see a poem and a dance come together like this, the sum of it is much more than one thing plus one thing. She asked me what the sum was, and I said, “I’m terrible at math,” which got a laugh. She asked me about the relationship between my writing and teaching, and I was able to say how blessed I feel to be able to teach creative writing — to share what I love so much with my students. When she asked what I thought of the dancers, I said they gave me goosebumps, and the breathing gulf laughed pleasantly — I think they were surprised I knew that word. (Don’t worry — I know “goosebumps” has the same meanings in both cultures.)

So — it was a shining day, one of those experiences that remains as a treasure of the heart — one of those times you’re thankful you had the privilege to be there for. It made me want to do more with performance when the opportunity arises.

Let’s all keep living in a way that will take us to that moment of readiness to depart when the time comes. “I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing.” Let’s put on the red shoes, but not too quickly — first, let’s string them together and let them fall like petals. And when it’s time to put them on, let’s put them on with calmness and grace, and discover all that is good about wearing red shoes.

Oh — that’s another thing Aiko-san and I agreed on in front of those two young dancers at the party: there’s nothing at all bad about growing up as long as you keep your childhood’s heart — as long as you love, and take part, and keep space in your life for stories.

God bless the storytellers — including those who pirouette!

Reading and the Full Corn Moon

September 1, 2009

There’s an enormous yellow moon hanging outside my place tonight. The crickets are shrilling in the bushes, and the lone streetlamp in my dark little street is flickering insanely, about to give up the ghost. An inside source tells me the Farmers’ Almanac says our full moon this week is called the Full Corn Moon. (Did you know the full moons all have names?)

So anyway, in the wake of August, when I was working like mad on editing The Sacred Woods, I’m now allowing myself to “be on vacation” for a few days. There are other writing tasks immediately ahead, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the chance to immerse myself in other people’s words for awhile. It’s an indescribably good feeling to get out of the driver’s seat, down off the conductor’s podium, out of the control booth, off the ladder, out from behind the Dungeon Master’s screen — choose whichever analogy you like — and just read for a few days. I really should allow myself to do this more often, because I feel like a dry sponge that’s been squeezed hard, thrust into a bucket of water, and then unsqueezed. Or like, you know how when the ground gets bone dry sometimes in midsummer, and when you pour some water on it, the water just vanishes instantly? That’s what I feel like. It’s so nice to be reading. (Go ahead and laugh! I know pretty much anyone who’s reading this makes time for reading as a matter of course, like eating and brushing teeth. I never claimed to be normal! [And for the record, I do read all the time -- just not nearly enough fiction.])

My mom used to have her office in the very center of our house, in what was once the dining room, until the house expanded, and the dining room migrated one room to the south. Mom had two desks and a file cabinet all pushed up together and covered with mountains of books, magazines, papers, and office supplies. The drawers were brimming over, and there was more of the same stuff in cardboard boxes on the floor under the desks. Mom did almost all her actual writing at the kitchen table, but her desk was where her typewriter — and in later years, her word processor — was, so that’s where she’d go to type final drafts, find envelopes, and look up addresses.

But the point I’m getting to is: one of my favorite things about Mom’s office was a very large, framed poster she had on the wall over and beside her desk, dominating the room. I suppose she got it through her work as a librarian and creative program director for the schools — perhaps at some conference. It was a picture of a princess, framed in the window of a high tower. A handsome knight/prince was standing on a ladder leaned up against the tower’s side, and you could tell from the surrounding scene that he’d journeyed through a dark forest and gotten past a dragon to rescue the princess. But she was turned away from him with her nose in a book, and there were books stacked all around her. The poster’s caption proclaimed: “‘I’d rather read,’ she said.”

Isn’t that excellent? I kept that poster, of course, though it’s brittle with the passage of years and locked away in my storeroom in that house. I hope someday to have it out again and on the wall.

So anyway, a few days ago, a good friend asked me if I’d ever read any of the host of stories by other writers that are based on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft — for example, my friend said, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” I hadn’t read that one; and hearing that it was in one of his collections, I thought, “I wonder if. . . .” So I went over to my bookcase, pulled down Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and lo and behold, “A Study in Emerald” is the first story in it!

To this point, I’d kind of wondered what all the fuss over Neil Gaiman was about. I liked Coraline okay — he was obviously a good writer, but I thought the book was a little uneven, that he’d gotten a bit careless toward the middle. (Several people have told me that the movie is better than the book — I haven’t seen it yet.) I don’t mean to run Coraline down. It is quite clever and nicely done overall, and I always mention it when I’m asked to compare Dragonfly to something. (I actually have very fond memories of reading Coraline. Some friends of mine in Japan had to be out of town for several days because of a death in the family. I was on a summer vacation at the time, and I house-sat for about a week — feeding their cats, watering their plants . . . and reading Coraline. It was an interesting time.)

But I did wonder why we hear Gaiman’s name everywhere, why he can do pretty much anything he wants to do, and why he keeps winning all those awards. Well, now I know! After that story, I decided I had to read the whole collection. I can’t speak for his novels: I haven’t read the ones he’s most famous for. He probably is a genius at longer forms, too, or he wouldn’t be the king of the genre today. But as a short story writer in the field of dark fantasy, I think he may very well be the greatest living practitioner. For the past decade, his stories have consistently won Locus, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards. The tales he crafts are simply elegant in their craftsmanship and brilliant in their content. They’re unfailingly clear and approachable. You don’t have to “wade through” anything. He has the ideas, the language skills to make things happen, and the reading experience that allows him to pay homage to almost anybody while still producing strikingly original stories.

This is a little early for the season, but anyone would do well to get Fragile Things ready for reading in October. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again as the long-shadow season draws nearer, but my all-time favorite Hallowe’en short story is Richard Laymon’s “Boo!” I think I now have a second-favorite. (Laymon’s is still the best — I don’t know how a story could be any more perfect than that one.) In the second position is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” (which, incidentally, he dedicates to Ray Bradbury).

And I’m not saying that’s the best story in the collection. Every one of the stories I’ve read so far has been astonishing, and they’re not all the same. This is a collection of tales that have been award-winners in the years they were published, so you’re reading the best of the best. I emphatically recommend it.

But I’ve made one more reading discovery which, for me personally, is even greater. I’ve also found another book which goes onto my small, small shelf of the absolute best. I haven’t loved a book this much since Millhauser’s Enchanted Night. And the book is:

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. I’ll quote the back flyleaf: “The writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in thirty-five languages. The Summer Book was one of ten novels that she wrote for adults. It is regarded as a modern classic throughout Scandinavia.”

It’s been translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, with a foreword by Esther Freud. Another good friend gave me this book as a Christmas present several years ago, and I’d been saving it. (Aren’t books just the most wonderful presents you can give or get? We used to put up a sign in our bookstore window every December: “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” Okay, don’t think too hard about the theology of that ad. But you know I’m right.)

Now let me quote from the front flyleaf: “An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims, and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges — one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs, and unpredictable seas.

“Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults.”

It was first copyrighted in 1972 and orginally published in Swedish as Sommerboken.

(Interesting aside: the best movie I saw this summer was also a Swedish film. That’s a whole other topic. If anyone wants to know the title, let’s take it up in the comments section. This has really been the Summer of Sweden!)

Anyway, The Summer Book, on just about every page, has me laughing out loud, crying (yes, literally), and shaking my head in wonder and awe. It’s about all the things I love most: the magic of childhood and the imagination, the beauty of nature, and the love between people. I deliberately held off starting this book until after I was done with The Sacred Woods, because it’s also about those very same things and features a grandparent and grandchild. If I’d tried to read this as I was writing, I think it would have influenced me in the wrong ways. (They’re very different stories.) I won’t start telling you about my favorite scenes — because the whole book is my favorite scene. This is one I’ll want to revisit again and again and again.

So. . . . Yes, I’m reading Gaiman and Jansson simultaneously. Believe it or not, this works wonderfully for me. The two books are completely different from each other, and I love the variety. I’ll read a Gaiman story, then go back to Jansson to see what Grandmother and Sophia will do next. Back and forth, back and forth: it’s a vacation, it’s an education, it’s an unforgettable summer experience.

Yes, SUMMER, I say! Fall does not begin until the 23rd of this month, so we have a full three weeks of summer left. For me in my Japanese university schedule, it’s right now midsummer: my holiday is August and September. So let’s not go thinking of fall yet: we’ll do that with a passion in October.

Finally, here’s an insight into line-editing which seems edifying and amusing. This is from The Sacred Woods. Here’s the unedited passage:

“[Character A]‘s gaze was dark with worry. He seemed to sniff the air as he trotted toward me. With a tense expression, he waited for me to speak.”

Edited version:

“His gaze dark with worry, [Character A] trotted toward me.”

I eliminated a “was.” Forms of “to be” should always be highly suspect — not that we can’t use them, but they tend to get overused. In the context of this scene, sniffing the air didn’t contribute anything, and seeming to sniff the air is just dumb: you can tell if a person is sniffing the air or not. Since his gaze is already “dark with worry,” we don’t need that “tense expression.” And waiting for [me] to speak is unnecessary, because it becomes obvious when [Character B] is the first person to speak. We’re left with one lean, vivid sentence featuring an action verb.

That’s how I spent my August. And now I’m reading. Happy Full Corn Moon! (As for comments, this might be a good time to let us know what you’re reading in this last golden month of summer. I know Marquee Movies is off to rescue Bilbo and see him safely home. . . .)

Focus, Rhythm, Flow, and the Wodehouse Trick

June 9, 2008

Recently a friend, reading a story manuscript of mine, asked, “What’s this scene doing in here?” It was a valid question of just the sort we writers hope our test-readers will ask. As an enlightened master of the I-Really-Have-No-Idea-What-I’m-Doing school of writing, I gave a typical reply: “Well, rhythmically, it feels like there needs to be a scene there, but I’m not sure if that’s the right one.”

We’re forever paddling along in our canoes, exploring the dim boundaries between Craft and Art, between controlled design, inspiration, intuition, and dumb luck. How much of writing is like shaping and firing a ceramic pot? How much is like stumbling through a pathless woods in a direction that “feels right” and coming out, miraculously, twenty steps from the parking lot? I think the best answer to those questions is, “Hmm. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

“But,” you remind me, “it wasn’t a yes or no question.” And the answer to that is, “Very true. Very true.” So let’s proceed as if this post were making sense. . . .

Most of us would agree that writing involves both experience-based skill and a certain degree of something intangible. Craft and Art intersect and overlap each other all the time. The ceramic pot-maker who is an artist makes more amazing pots; the artist who knows how clay and ceramics work can create shapely and enduring vessels for his/her visions.

Where the interplay of Craft and Art becomes most obvious is when one examines a written draft. (That is to say, I’d argue that in writing our first drafts, we don’t really think of such things; we’re just trying to get the story out without breaking it.) When it’s down on paper, then we have to start paying attention to whether it works or not, which parts do or don’t work, and why/why not.

One year at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, I was enrolled in James W. Bennett’s fiction workshop, and again and again, his advice to us was “Focus.” He was exactly right. I’d say that 99 times out of 100, that’s the difference between a manuscript and a publishable manuscript: the degree to which it’s focused. If you’re only ever going to post one sticky-note above your computer monitor, that’s probably the one word you should write on it:

FOCUS.

Over and over again in my own self-editing, I discover sentences in which I’m not really saying what I mean. We all do this: there are conventions of speech that we use in conversation. We hear and read them all over the place. So when we go to write, we stick them into our prose — even when they’re not serving our purpose. When I write a conversation between characters, I almost always end up chopping out about half of it later, and nothing is lost. Maybe it’s Art that gets stuff onto the page to begin with, pulling it out of the nether realm of imagination, and then it’s Craft that cleans it off, hoses it down, or chips away the stone that’s not part of the statue.

There’s definitely a part of editing that’s like sports or music: aside from the meanings of words and the clarity of intent, there’s a pace that we have to feel. Does the eye move along from one sentence to the next? Are we getting snagged and hung up somewhere (over awkward phrasing, perhaps? — poor word choices? — show-offy overdone metaphors?) or bogged down in the mires of too much description or backstory? [Hint: when we find ourselves using a whole lot of the pluperfect tense in the first page or two . . . or anywhere in the manuscript, for that matter . . . something's probably not right. If we have to tell the reader all these things the character "had" done before s/he did what s/he's doing now, we may not have started the story in the right place . . . or we may think we have to tell the reader a bunch of stuff that we really don't have to tell.]

So — the editing process involves paying constant attention to the focus of meaning, the focus of narrative, and the way it’s all flowing.

Toward those ends, P. G. Wodehouse (pronounced “Wood House,” for all you pronunciation buffs out there) reportedly had an intriguing system. Check this out:

“To save time . . . [he] inserted a long, continuous roll of paper into his typewriter. At the end of the working day, he would cut the strip into pages and pin the pages to the wall. He would then walk around and re-read them, stopping to lower a page if the plot sagged or to tilt a page if he felt the story needed a twist. He then revised, page by page, until all the pages were hanging level.”

     — from On Writers & Writing, 2001 Desk Diary, by Helen Sheehy and Leslie Stainton

I’ve never tried his method, but it sounds like it could work well (at least the pinned-up pages part — I’m not inclined to try writing on a roll of shelf paper, gift wrap, or paper towels). Doesn’t it seem that seeing the whole story at once on the wall would be helpful? You could note, proportionally, how much wall space it was taking to get to points A, B, and C in the story. I think you’d begin to associate parts of the wall with the corresponding parts of your stories: “The first major setback happens under the window . . . things are at their worst between the closet and the sofa . . . the climax happens two steps from that corner . . . and by the thermostat, we need to be out of here.”

Wodehouse, of course, used his system to identify the weak points. Fixing them that way, one by one, on the wall would also give a sense of steady accomplishment; it would tell you at any given time how far along you were in the revision process.

Might be something to try. Though, in my little apartment here in Japan, I may have to use my neighbors’ wall space, too.

“But,” you say, “isn’t this whole posting a blatant contradiction of the last one, in which you and Blake told us we’re better geniuses if we don’t work too hard to ‘improve’ our writing?” To which I say, “This is a really Asian thing, Weed-Hopper. This is yin and yang. Hold both concepts at once and know them both to be true. And breathe. And focus.”


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