Focus, Rhythm, Flow, and the Wodehouse Trick

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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2 Responses to “Focus, Rhythm, Flow, and the Wodehouse Trick”

  1. Baron Thredkil Says:

    Sounds like Wodehouse didn’t take the “typing a scroll” thing to its logical extreme like Jack Keroac did with _On the Road_.

    (From NPR.org)
    “Fueled by inspiration, coffee and Benzedrine, Kerouac sat down at his typewriter and — in one burst of creative energy — wrote the novel that would make him the voice of his generation in just 20 days, typing it out on a single, 120-foot-long scroll.”
    (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4500593)

    From the Post Gazette:
    “Determined to produce a novel in a kind of stream of consciousness approach he called “spontaneous writing,” he didn’t want to stop to put a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter. He wrote it in three weeks in April 1951. It was a single paragraph more than 80,000 words long.”
    (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07231/810078-74.stm)

    Of course he later cleaned it up and typed it out on separate sheets of paper, but you gotta admire a writer who wanted to capture “stream of consciousness” to that extent.

  2. I loved Book Center Pepsi's Says:

    Thanks for your post, Baron. I had no idea Keroac was that mad! They only thing I am that dedicated about is Chicago-style pizza (preferably UNO’s).

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