Here is another post in my WRITERLY WISDOM series I first ran back in 2013. Five years later, I’ve updated the material and made sure it still applies to today’s writers. Today’s guest blogger, Jodell Sadler, can be found on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jodell.sadler)
Enjoy Revisions: Simply Dare to Delete, Do More
By: Jodell Sadler
When a manuscript comes together and really shines, the difference resides in the author’s willingness to tighten the text, make strong connections from beginning to end and character to character, and use the 5Ps: Pacing, Prosody, Poetry, Play, and Performance to hone the crafting of the story. What this comes down to is this: Writers who dare to delete, do more. Or, if you prefer: Do less to do more. We often times just get to that place where we need to hone and feel stuck. The 5Ps help writers look at the editing process with new eyes and embrace the little things they can do to make a big difference in any story.
Writers can really hone their writing, any piece of writing, by focusing on the pacing of their manuscript. Taking a closer look at the emotional hot spots in a story and being sure they present a rich reading experience for readers to connect to is key. Often times this is exactly when writers will feel they need to write in every detail so they must learn to resist. In early drafts, these sections may appear heavy-handed, but authors who trust the reader to fill in will pull back and let the emotional resonance fill readers with story excitement. There are just so many ways we can improve the pacing of a story: words, repetition, rhythm, setting, objects, and lists name a few.
After reading so many manuscripts, it becomes clear that the ones that catch editorial attention are those that have that beautiful rhythmic of language: voice. To achieve this, writers can look at prosody, the melody of language, which includes rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech, and polish and play with the presentation and sound of sentences. During first drafts, writers write. The story goes down, but as writers rewrite, diving deeper into the musicality of language and how it sweeps over readers is important. When we think about what is being said as well as how it is being said, we are really writing well, for adding rhythm and cadence to a story will enhance reader enjoyment. If we focus on prosody, we have can see ways to add a three, use parallel structure, or repetition to do more in a story. Writers can simply engage readers on a whole new level when they think about how sound and meaning merge with diction. Word choice and sounds of words come together to create the excitement, mood, or tone needed, while also revealing a lot about character.
We only need turn to Langston Hughes to understand this fully.
“The Weary Blues
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway ….
He did a lazy sway ….
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues” (Langton, 1994).
We often wonder about whether to rhyme or not, but the real question should be: what can we learned from poets, from poetry, and how can we use this to enhance a sentence, paragraph, and story? We can look at how well we are using all the language devices to help model the scene of a story. Use alliteration to soften a quiet scene with soothing s-sounds, or add polysyndeton (inserting and) to help a scene feel breathless. We can also investigate enjambment or the transition from one line to the next, which then presents a fresh image or idea. This is an ideal tool for transitioning from chapter to chapters in a novel, or from page to page in a picture book. We can really listen to our words and think about how we might slow, add tension, etc. by using these first three Ps.
Writers may dare the unexpected.
Drop into a poem mid-narrative.
Drift into a quiet place to shift pace or vise versa.
Play and ride out their imagination.
Create an unexpected break in the narrative flow.
We can also drop into a poetic style at any given moment within the narrative and it simply brings the reader in scene as experienced in The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen or in Keeper by Kathi Appelt.
In Keeper, chapter 84 is a great example of how writers can really free themselves to do more with their writing and do less to do more.
Take a deep, dark night.
Take a small boat.
Take a lucky-charm girl.
Take a bent-winged seagull.
Take a rushing tide.
Take a big blue moon.
Add it all up.
What do you get?
One scared dog.
That’s what” (Keeper, 2012).
Play is most often is that is missing from a manuscript. When agents and editors receive novels as submission, they often feel “stiffish” because they lack that fluidity of language and trust that an author must have to really let go and free themselves with words. In any given piece of writing, there needs to be moments that shine. Think American Idol, when a contestant really connects to what they are singing, and they are connected to the song. The performer disappears and the music just flows out to the crowd and resonates with them emotionally. In writing, these moments are where the reader is completely connected to the text that the emotion and presence of scene takes over. This comes from the writer really trusting his/her writing voice but it isn’t accomplished until the writer kicks his/her editor off a shoulder and moves forward to authentically sharing each moment, each scene, each chapter of their story. Take one glance at the opening of The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater to experience this notion fully.
Another great example of playful writing appears in the Newbery award-winning novel, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt. Repetition offers outright fun for the reader, which brings a new level of awareness for the reader. In this title, repetition acts as a pacing marker and links the opening connections to the closing of the novel. Schmidt writes, “Can you imagine what it’s like to walk down the hall of your junior high and just about every single person you meet looks at you and starts to grin, and it’s not because they are glad to see you.” This repeats 28 pages later with only one word removed—the word “not”— and marks a huge change in the main character.
But Schmidt doesn’t stop repetition there, he really plays. Schmidt presents repetitive actions: Holling Hoodhood flies across a stage as Ariel in a Shakespeare play. Then, Holling Hoodhood flies in front of a bud to save sister. He presents repetitive headlines. “Holling HoodHood as Ariel the Fairy Soars Onstage to Rescue His Potent Master.” Then, “Local Hero Holling Hoodhood Soars Across Intersection to Rescue Sister.” He, also, presents repetitive consequences. It’s Holling Hoodhood versus his school and reputation. Later, it’s Holling Hoodhood versus his sister’s school and both their reputations. Each one of these moments is well crafted and keeps the reader grounded in the story. What is most exciting is that this is just a tiny example of all writers can do.
Writers produce their best work when they add a performance factor in to their editing process. If writers think audience, expectation, and setting, and see these elements unfolding live for readers to take in, they will create more engaging scenes. Writer need to trust dialogue to show part of their story, and build the stage with all the details, objects, and light and sound and energy they can muster to engage the reader.
Consider just the movement of dialogue written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Tony Morrison, The Bluest Eye as she describes a conversation:
“Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly.”
When writers do this, they create story readers will want to come back to and experience again and again. As writers begin to tighten story, thread in repetition from beginning to end, word count falls away and the emotional depth of the story rises up to surprise readers. Agents love to find surprises. Predictable is, well, predictable. Stand out, quirky, tight writing that shines—and really keeps the pages turning.
When a manuscript comes together and really shines, the difference simply resides in the author’s willingness to tighten the text, make strong connections from beginning to end and character to character, and use the 5Ps: Pacing, Prosody, Poetry, Play, and Performance to hone craft and story.