That title sounds kinda Zen, doesn’t it?
I don’t really mean it that way, though. This isn’t gonna be some Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of (insert name of favorite/most reviled self-help/New Age/religious book here). I’m not gonna ask for contributions to save pygmy orphans in Australia or anything. Remember: this blog is about observations and lessons learned in the writing life. In this case, I’m not sure how many “lessons” I’ll be able to impart or even guarantee that anything you read here will work for you. As always, consult your doctor before beginning this or any other program of its type.
As writers, we all live with our inner editor, that part of us that screams, “Use this word, not that!” at us. Or, “No, you idiot, it sounds better this way.” And the worst, “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.”
Mine likes that first criticism best. I go along, writing my little heart out, and he jumps up out of his chair and pontificates on the way I choose words. He goes on at great length, at times, most times, on the virtues of one word over another. The result of this is that, when I go back and edit, I can see sentences where I changed my mind on words or, his second favorite, phrases, partway through and didn’t get all the changes made on first draft. Well, you know, that’s okay. That’s what edits are for, right?
You can imagine my relief when, during a critique of her YA novel (which I believe is titled something like The Doc is in, Take 2, but that might be a working title), I caught instances of my daughter doing the same thing. I had to laugh. It was easy to recognize what had happened, and I could even see, or at least guess, what the original sentence was before she edited herself midstream. And, of course, I was laughing with her, not at her.
Speaking of my daughter, the way her inner editor manifests most visibly is in that last statement I made above: “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.” I’m not trying to embarrass her or force her to do anything she doesn’t want to, but I know she has one story in particular, called All the Same, that she says will never see the light of day. Now, while I’ll agree it’s probably not up to par with her YA novel, it’s still good.
Maybe she looks at it the way I look at some of my early novels, too. I have two and a half fantasy novels about a bounty hunter that I view as learning experiences. They gave me the confidence to know I can not just start a novel, but finish it as well. But, at roughly 60,000 words each, they’re short, especially for fantasies, and while the stories are okay, I doubt very seriously I’ll ever try to publish them. They’d need extensive rewriting, and I’m not sure if I’d be up to it now.
My inner editor also argues with some things, and I can’t say I always disagree with him.
When it comes to critiques, learning to deal with them (I’ve written about it elsewhere) isn’t always easy. You have to learn to take the criticism in the spirit it’s offered and not take offense. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it. You put your heart and soul into this story, after all, and here’s all these people nitpicking it to shreds, or so it seems. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with it is by using the democratic method: if more than one person thinks it’s a problem, then I’d probably better do something about it. Then there are those whose opinion I trust almost implicitly, and I’ll make their recommended changes pretty much without question.
But as picky as my inner editor can be about individual words, there are some even he thinks should remain, or at least doesn’t quite understand the need to eliminate them from our writing vocabulary.
One of these is the word now. The argument, these days, against using this word is that you’re writing in past tense and there’s no place for it in past tense. Outside dialogue, of course. Most rules are off when it comes to dialogue.
Let me give you an example (it’s off the top of my head, so bear with me here): He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.
Obviously, that sentence is written in past tense. It’s the tense most novels use, even though there’s a fad going on right now where a lot of them are in present tense. But that’s a whole ’nother subject for a whole ’nother day. Doesn’t matter what our character is considering. Like I said, I made it up off the top of my head, rather than searching through mine or someone else’s work for an example.
But here’s the thing: in my mind, that sentence is relative. No, I’m not getting into the Theory of Relativity here. What I’m saying is, if I’m supposed to be writing so deep into my character’s POV that I eliminate phrases like “He thought” and “He saw,” then why is the word now off-limits? Because, if I’m in his POV, he’s thinking that he now has to consider this new possibility, where he hasn’t before. To me, it’s a line of delineation, a way of differentiating between the story’s present and its past.
Despite being a writer, I’m not all that hip to the parts of a sentence or any of the other things you learn in high school English (assuming you manage to stay awake, that is). I’ve learned a lot of my writing through osmosis, as it were. I know when something sounds right, and I know when to make it sound wrong to get your attention. I don’t mean that arrogantly, and I ain’t sayin’ I do it right all the time. Me know me messes up. Or, as W said in one of the debates he had with Al Bore—er, Gore (I always get that wrong, for some reason), “I’ve been known to mangle a syl-able or two.” I’m not sure how to write that so you get the way he deliberately mispronounced the word syllable. The point is, I can’t even remember the proper name for how we write, but I think it’s past perfect tense. I just call it past tense.
But, okay, we’re writing in past tense. For the character, though, it’s the present. That’s why I tend to think of this writing as being in the past present tense. Yes, technically, it’s past tense. But it’s the present for the characters and, in a way, for the reader. So, in my mind, that means it’s perfectly legitimate to make a statement like I did: He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.
Another one is suddenly. I’m not sure what the theory is here. The only real explanation I’ve ever heard is things don’t happen suddenly.
Excuse my American.
Anyone who’s had some idiot jump out of a closet at them knows damn well things can happen quite suddenly. And sometimes with embarrassing results. I think part of the argument here is that, by saying something happened suddenly, I’m being lazy. In other words, I should be more specific: it happened abruptly. Or unexpectedly. Something like that. But please oh please don’t try to tell me things don’t happen suddenly, ’cause they damn well do. I’ve had ’em happen to me.
Then there are those who go gerund hunting. Or, should I say, those who are going gerund hunting. They’re gerund exorcists. You’re supposed to get rid of every –ing word you possibly can. Well, more and more I understand keeping them to a minimum, but there is also what I think of as the poetic turning of a phrase. Not to mention my writing voice. In this case, I’ll use an example from my own writing:
Ed was waiting for me in the parking lot at County, leaned up against a black Dodge Charger with blacked-out windows.
Now, I will entertain arguments from you that I used the word black redundantly. I remember this sentence because it came up in a recent reading group meeting and because I’m still trying to decide the most effective way to reword those two occurrences of the word black. But those words aren’t the subject here, so let’s not worry about them right now.
This is the opening sentence for a chapter. It’s designed to be what I think is called in media res, which means I’m dropping you in the middle of the action, rather than leading up to it with some long, boring intro or loving description of the setting. It’s bam! and Ed’s waiting for Lyle.
In the original sentence, the word leaned was leaning. I changed it with great reluctance, and still might change it back. Why? Cuz it sounds frickin’ awkward the way it is, that’s why. I really, really dislike that he’s leaned up against the Charger. Makes it sound like he’s a leaf rake. In my mind, if something is leaned, that’s an action that was performed on it, hence the leaf rake analogy: He leaned the leaf rake against the wall. To me, that means he leaned it there, then walked off and left it till he needs it again. It’s an action performed against an inanimate object.
Ed ain’t inanimate. He’s a police detective, and he’s by-God leaning up against that damned car. He put himself there. No one left him there and walked off until they needed him again.
Man, we can’t kill all our gerunds. What’ll happened to the ecosystem if we do?
I have a theory about these examples (and others that are like them): somebody, somewhere, went to a writing conference. Some editor/agent no one’s ever heard of, outside of the conference organizers, perhaps, gets up and makes his little speech. And, along the way, he mentions that he doesn’t like to see gerunds. Or the word suddenly. Or states that there can’t be a now in past tense.
Suddenly, the attendees are thinking that this is now the industry standard. Next thing you know, they’re coming back to their writing group, telling everyone else that, suddenly, things like this are now off-limits. Don’t use ’em. They’ll put you on the black list, label you a communist, and you’ll never work in this city again.
Okay. So I’m exaggerating things a bit. And I realize they’re trying to help make me a better writer, that I can take everything they say and throw it out the window. I don’t do that, believe you me. I carefully consider everything I hear in my group. There are published writers there, after all. They’ve cut and pruned and refined and somebody somewhere liked their scribbling enough to put a contract in their face.
I should be so lucky.
It’s what we all want. But we have to listen, at times, to that inner editor. He’s the guy who knows our voice best. Yeah, there are times when you gotta tell him to get in, sit down, shut up and hang on, ’cause you’re driving this puppy.
But sometimes his BS meter goes off and you should listen. If you want that formal voice, get rid of now and suddenly and kill all your gerunds, leaving their bloody carcasses lying all over the place. But if you’re reaching for something less formal, more everyday—as I am—you gotta go with what feels right, baby.
Even if that means that, suddenly, you’re doing something right now.
You gotta live with your inner editor like you live with that noisy neighbor: sometimes you just gotta groove to the music he’s playing too loud, even if you don’t like Slayer or Metallica. Just live. Exist in the moment.
Kumbaya, my lord.