New website is under construction.

May 14, 2009

To Strive, To Seek, To Find, and Not to Yield

The Literary Lab had a post recently about making each word, each sentence count in a novel. There was some argument in the comments about whether this was possible, or even desirable.

One interesting accusation was that novelists who try to do this are secretly short story writers who haven't figured out the difference between 1000 and 100,000 thousand words.

It may be even worse. It may be that novelists who try to do this are secretly poets.

At times, especially if I've been off my meds for several days, I think of my novel as a ballad or epic of the ancient sort, in heroic rhyme. And why not? Much of the source material, the original epics upon which modern fantasies base their structure, were book-length poems.

When I become stuck in my prose, and everything I type is ugly and repetitive, when all beauty and simplicity escapes me, I fall back on poetry.


I write a scene as a poem. Sometimes even with aliteration and rhyme, though often just with unrhymed metered verse. I write it one line, one word, at a time. I let the rhyme and meter decompose through layers of editing. I rearrange and deconstruct and reconstruct until the bedrock poem is there only as a skeletal structure, disguised by less ornate prose. Consistantly, beta readers rave over these as my best passages--and want to know why the rest of the prose is so unispired and infantile by comparison.

Well, now you know why.

Should I do this with every single scene? I am not sure. There's the danger that taken to extremes, stacking too many such scenes, purple prose could accumulate to toxic levels. But more to the point, I just finished a scene like this and found that, after four hours, I had written... 400 words.

Still, if it takes an hour to write a 100 decent words, isn't that better than spewing 1000 words an hour if those words are worthless and ugly? If they must be re-written again and again regardless?

What about those scenes which errupt like volcanoes, far too fast for poetry, but hot with plotty goodness and juicy character tension?

Ah, at least, though, hot and fast or cool and slow, I remember at such times why I love writing.


Scott said...

We give of ourselves for our dream. We sacrifice doing other things - laundry, going out with friends, walking the dog, etc. - because we must write.

I'm one of the believers that sustained brilliance is not possible. There are passages in my writing that are brilliant. I can't tell you the how/why/what of the brilliance. Those passages just stand out for some reason. I could also not tell you the emotions, the lighting, the music, how many glasses of wine I might have had when I wrote those passages. I just did.

But . . . if your brilliance is achieved by writing 400 words in an hour . . . go for it. If it works for you . . . go for it.

We (writers) follow the same dream, we just take different paths to get there.

Unknown said...

I never thought like this before, but with this current WIP, I find myself doing that same thing--working on the language as well as the plot.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Wow, this is fascinating. I have a great interest in epic poems and classical myth, and in fact my new work-in-progress was inspired by "Paradise Lost" and the story of Orpheus in the underworld.

You know where I fall on the question of each sentence in a work being important, and that I think it makes no difference whether the work in question is a short story or a novel. Writers live or die by our prose, because it's all we've got. No, not every line we write will be inspired and gorgeous, but if *we* know that we can do better, then we should.

I have a growing suspicion that there is no such thing as a "perfect" novel, because I don't believe the form allows perfection. Still, we ought to try. Writing is a heroic act, and we should all strive for that heroism.

Ban said...

and i think that is one of the reasons it takes me so long to rough out a chapter - EACH word has to be chosen and placed in exactly the right spot. if i wrote through and finished, i could go back and do all my rearranging etc. later ... right ?

lotusgirl said...

What a great way to get yourself unstuck. I love poetry and can't get enough of books that weave some of that into the prose.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I'm a poet at heart and am disappointed with my current novel because it's not as poetic or lyrical as I'd like. I don't think the genre really allows for that, but I'll try in later layers to incorporate more of that focus on language.

This is a great post, and I love to know this about you! I studied poetry mostly in college, and can never seem to get away from it. It's certainly the medium of language at its finest.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

It's an interesting thought.

I'm considering something similar. In my opinion, it's often better to do the good writing slower. I once wrote 4000 words a day for about two weeks. And what I discovered afterward is that they weren't particularly good. Now, I'm doing 1000 or so on a good day. But, they're BETTER words. I think, in the long run, the slower way is better.

Traci said...

What a wonderful post! I think you just have to write what's in your heart and make it as good as you possibly can, then move on. I think worrying about each sentence might be overwhelming, for one, but could develop into an unhealthy obsession. LOL

Davin Malasarn said...

Nice post, Tara. I do stuff like this too. If I get stuck I'll try to write in a different way just to get moving again, and a lot of times it really helps.

I'm also a believer that every line should be examined. It's not about making everything purple. I'm not into the purple prose, not even for a line. The story form is made up of pieces that complement each other. They shouldn't all be suffocating each other. If examining every line ends up with toxic purple writing, I'd say that was a bad examination, not an overly thorough one. It's like cooking a meal. If you pay attention to every course, you'll end up with a meal that's balanced and varying, rather than six courses of chocolate mousse.

I like Scott's use of the term Hero.

XiXi said...

I've never met anyone who writes like that. How unique. It sounds like fun.

I gave you an award, by the way:

Sherrie Petersen said...

I like that you write from a poetic inspiration. I've never been good with poetry and I'm always impressed with those who are. It's also interesting to hear how others are inspired.

You should read "Because I am Furniture" by Thalia Chaltas. The whole book is written in verse, which sounded kind of weird to me. But the book is amazing. I was pulled in immediately to the story and couldn't stop reading.

Alex Moore said...

rocking post! how insightful, as well. I was just thinking about this (recently inspired by Jess Walter) and how we owe it to ourselves, our readers, and the page to create the imagery, the metaphors, the shards of clarity.

On the other hand, it's exhausting to read pages and pages of it, much less write it. So, I'm thinking that this is perhaps a case where less is more...??