Sweating the small stuff

Perhaps that title should be: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Or it could be: Why sweat the small stuff? Or, Sweating – the small stuff. That one sounds quite funky. Or, perhaps it could be . . . and that’s my point.

How easy it is to agonise over the syntax or grammar of a sentence. I have to confess to a love of all that tinkering. Part of the beauty of the language is that we have a lavish assortment of ways to express the same thought. I enjoy taking the time to feed every single one of the eighty thousand words in my WIP through the mental thesaurus?

Writing a novel is all about making a series of decisions. Martin Amis made this point in a conference speech about one of Saul Bellow’s books. He includes it in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, but I can’t check exactly what he says as all my books are in boxes at the moment with builders crawling all over the house. As I remember, Amis describes the process a bit like a decision-tree with Bellow starting with big decisions and then working his way steadfastly down to ever smaller ones. The biggest decisions include the overall structure of the plot, who's the main character, the setting, etc. The small decisions include choices of words.

The question I want to ask here is whether it's tempting for those of us somewhere below Saul’s status to jump on the small stuff too early. Am I the only one who goes through manuscripts again and again, polishing and polishing, without having corrected the mega-problems? That way you end up with something akin to a highly polished dustbin lid.

The more you polish, the more you’ve invested of yourself in a piece of writing and, because it is well-written it can be harder to see the problems, and easier to let yourself off. The more you polish, the more difficult it is to make bold changes or even to junk pieces altogether if that is what is really needed.

Is it a form of laziness? In a way, yes; and in a way, no. It's shirking the disagreeable work, but those of us who do this also work long and hard on our prose, attending to each sentence with lapidary care. It's harsh to call us lazy. We're just doing the wrong work. Doing what we feel comfortable with, like the builder doing up a house (an easy image for me at the moment) who rapidly settles on painting the gloss on the dado rail in the dining room when the wall still needs to be moved because the kitchen’s too small.

The bigger questions are often structural, especially whether to remove chunks that don’t work. Does the plot work? Is there enough pace in the narrative? Is the main character interesting enough?

I recently read someone’s draft novel: over 107,000 words without a single typo. That's an amazing achievement for a writer working alone, with no proof-reading help. It was a highly polished piece of writing. What he had missed were the serious structural issues and that there was far too much interior monologue.

When we do this, I think we do it because we long to call the thing finished. We ache to put it in front of some sort of an audience. We've laboured over it for months or years. If it’s polished we can convince ourselves it’s ready to submit even when a little voice in our heart knows about the lurking problems. We know that, at least, it will look professional, from the micro-angle of the quality of prose. Nobody will be able to say it’s badly written, but will anyone want to read it?


Susie Nott-Bower said...

Oh, Rod.
This is so depressing, and so utterly true. You've put your finger on exactly my own problem. I think it relates to the OCD thing we were talking about on an earlier post. You want what you do to be 'right' from the beginning. So you polish it and hone it. Only then, when it's time for Draft Two, it's too heartbreaking to start discarding all that crafted work and rewriting and revising. I think it was Helen who said that if something is woven too tightly, it's hard to unpick it.

Administrator said...

Rod, what you've described was me with my first 2 books.

In fact, if i'm totally honest, it's only with my wip that i've massively tweaked and restructured over a period of months.

But then i do know of published writers who polish as they go along and more or less get that version into print, so i suppose we all work in different ways.

The only thing that propels me along to writing the next chapter, is reading what i previously wrote, and if that really was rough stuff i'm not sure i'd continue.

Interesting post!

Caroline Green said...

Very interesting, this. I wish I was a bit more of a tinkerer [am tempted to add another 'er' on the end of that]. I think I am too naturally impatient to take that extra care sometimes..
Great post, Rod.

Derek Thompson said...

I think as writers we need to fel we are making progress and doing what we can is better than doing nothing. Except of course it may not be. Back in the days when I had a 'proper job' they bandied the corporate phrase around: "Work smarter not harder." I think we polish because we need to feel initmately connected to our work and it's less painful than calling a halt, even temporarily.

Anonymous said...

Rod, what a terrific post! It's absolutely true. An editorial client paid for three read-and-reports of his novel. I was the second, and it was one of those ones which had lots wrong with it but lots right with it, too: the voice was great, it was stuffed with great characters and ideas, but it had huge structural and plot problems. There was a lot to do, but all of it was fixable, and I really did think it could have been got to submittable standard, which in the editorial service game is rare indeed.

The weird thing was, I later discovered that all three reports, from three experienced editors, all said much the same things. The writer'd hardly changed a thing between reads, at £500 or so a time. Why? He had an MA, so can't have been unused to taking feedback and working with it. I can only imagine that when he got down among the words he could no longer see the wood for the trees, in just the way you've described so clearly.

One way I try to stop myself being diverted to the small stuff is to make sure that I always sit down with a specific job to do, and stick to it. There are so many times when it's easier to polish a paragraph, than to decide that a darling needs its throat cut, with all the attendant re-knitting.

Roderic Vincent said...

Susie, I totally relate to that idea of wanting it to be 'right' from the beginning. And as you get more experienced it's easy to have higher and higher expectations of your first drafts, rather than allowing them to be shite, as they should be. Of course there should also be some natural improvement but it's tempting to force it.

And Emma, your points are fascinating. I've sometimes wondered whether part of the appeal of workshopping or paying for feedback is to avoid the tough work I describe in this post. Get someone else to point out the big problems while the writer gets on with polishing.

Paula Williams said...

This post really struck a chord with me too, Rod, particularly the bit about the highly polished dustbin lid. I've got a horrible feeling that's exactly what I'm doing at the moment, fiddling around with something I know isn't quite right.
Off now to ditch the dustbin lid.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Rod, I loved this post! I am a dustbin lid polisher too, which seems to work for me as I only ever write short pieces. But I think it truly would stand in the way if I was in the business of trying to knock out 100,000 words. I would definitely do as you're doing. But what's the answer?

Anonymous said...

Rod, getting a report doesn't avoid having to deal with the big problems, of course: it ought just to be making them unavoidably clear. I think it's a very common reaction to a report to think, 'Oh, shit, I can't possibly do all that!'. You have to let it brew for a while, and then you start to see how you could. I imagine that the head-in-the-sand reaction, as with that guy, is to go on fiddling, convincing yourself that you're working on it when you're not, not really. As anyone who's ever had a job they hated knows, it's possible to look very industrious without actually doing a damn thing.

Susannah Rickards said...

What a brilliant (and beautifully written) post. And er, hats off to anyone who has the discipline, however ill-founded, to go over 80 000 words and treat everyone with care. I gulped when I read that.

I love short fiction because one can do that and the grand structural overhaul all in the same edit. With a novel, I've never got beyond the structuring to love-up the prose, and get so disheartened by how dreadful the prose is, in comparison with a short, that it seems an insurmountable task.

So... I suppose maybe there is an upside to veneering the wobbly table: it makes a book look worth the necessary remedial work.

That Amis/Bellow quote is brilliant. This really has made me think about not only my approach to writing a novel but also what it is that feels so gruelling about it.

Thanks for a fabulous post


Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks to everyone for your lovely comments.

Susannah, as soon as the house is out of boxes (if that day ever dawns) I'll dig out the Amis quote and tell you exactly what he said. He will have put it somewhat better than I could.

I'm about to print off the whole dustbin now and have one more good polish of the lid. I've bought some Mr Sheen wipes - the sort that top authors use.

Rosy T said...

Ouch! Rod, I'm another one for whom this post absolutely hit a sore spot. I always hone my writing as much as I can as I go along and don't go back and edit before I send it to my agent/editor. And it makes it incredibly painful, then, when changes come back or cuts are proposed.

My beautiful words! How can they do this to them?

Your post was like looking in a mirror. (On a very bad morning.)

Stroppy Author said...

Fantastic post, so well expressed - thank you :-) I know I do this when I haven't laid something aside for long enough. It's much easier to fix the words than to realise the structure needs work and then do it. But of course fixing the words makes you reluctant to make bigger changes as you'll have to throw away those lovely, shiny pretty things...

Roderic Vincent said...

When I wrote it I thought this post might only be applicable to novices, but thinking about it and reading the comments I now wonder if it's almost as strong a temptation for more experienced writers. The more experienced and better you are as a writer the easier it is to make a load of old rubbish look shiny and well-written - to trick yourself and others that you've done the work. Perhaps that explains some of the howlers that occasionally escape from successful novelists into the bookshops.

Now back to the polishing.

RosyB said...

Another one to say what a great post, Rod.

Mind you, I think there are reasons for it. It is really really HARD doing the bigger stuff - not least because it is very difficult when writing a book to have a proper sense of it as a whole because it's simply too BIG. Which is why what someone said about putting it on one side for a while and reading it through fresh like an actual reader is so important.

But it's weird how you don't have that sense of it as a book until it is one. I was thinking recently how useful it is to the mind to be able to flick through it in bookform and how I will - at some point when I have my first draft of book 2 - try and print it as a draft book with Lulu or something - just one copy for structural purposes. It is so much harder to look at and think about structure with a flapping manuscript of muddled papers - or worse, on the screen which only ever gives you bite-sized chunks...

This is why (I think) people fiddle. Because the computer makes that the natural thing to do and it takes your focus to the microlevel from the off.

Also, perhaps, novelists naturally have their attention at the microlevel anyway to write in the detail required for a stonking great long manuscript...

People never talk much about structure either. If you go on critiquing sites like WW the talk is all about sentences. Partly - again - the nature of the computer. But also perhaps the sheer difficulty of talking about bigger issues. But perhaps we all should try and talk about it more and define it and demystify it (and get less scared of it).

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Rosy. You've got me thinking again. I was just about to go and buy a ream or two to print out the whole thing. Perhaps I should do Lulu or something. I'll have a look at the options. At least I've left if alone for weeks, twice now between drafts. I hereby resolve to tackle the big stuff, but confess to hoping there isn't any.

Stroppy Author said...

That's a horrible thought, Rob, but probably true - once you've got a few things in print you get good at making it all look slick and good on the surface and can con your editor into believing it's a good book. Oh dear. Wonder if I should call my editor and say 'don't publish! it's probably slick crap!'

Re Lulu - quite a few people do this. It's especially useful if you want to take the MS away to work on as you don't lose odd pages. I wonder if, at some point in the future, the author-anotated Lulu copies will be hugely valuable? Not of my works, I'm sure - but, say, Philip Pullman's Lulu copies?

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Stroppy. Perhaps it's a good idea to scribble a few gnomic comments in the margins of the Lulu copy, just in case.

Rosy T said...

"...you get good at making it all look slick and good on the surface and can con your editor into believing it's a good book. Oh dear. Wonder if I should call my editor and say 'don't publish! it's probably slick crap!'..."

Oh God, I have a horrible fear this is me, as well!

Sandy said...

I put this quote on my blog for the very reason you describe here:

"The difference between
the right word
and the wrong word
is the difference
between lightning
and a lightning bug.”

~Mark Twain

Lucy Coats said...

Very good post (which I found courtesy of the Stroppy Author, so thanks to her). After years of dustbin lid polishing, I now ONLY go over what I have written the day before, in order to get me back into the groove of the book (or story, or whatever). I don't go over anything else UNLESS it's something I have to change (ie I've now written something that contradicts or doesn't fit anymore, or else I need to go back and check a fact ie blue eyes or green in a character). To help with the latter I keep a 'characteristics/facts' file on each character, and on dates and timelines. Know it sounds a bit anal, but I find it hard to keep track otherwise. When I've finished, I do put it away for a while, or at least I try to. Then I can come to it with a fresh eye, and (hopefully) iron out anything horrible in the way of structure. Perhaps it comes of having (once) been an editor, but I usually know in my gut when something isn't working, and can then be ruthless about changing it, even if it's something I am very fond of. I can't understand how Emma D's author could have spent £1500 on readers and not learned anything. But what do I know? Only that my books can ALWAYS be better, however much individual polishing of words I do--and that my m/s usually have to be ripped untimely from my desperately scribbling hand by the editor in order to be sent to the printer. Sigh.
Lucy at: http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com