Eureka

I’ve never blogged about the art of writing. I’ve talked about self-publishing and about progress on my own current novel, but never about the craft itself. I never felt like I had much to add to the conversation. I’m just this guy who’s sole publishing accomplishment is some bad junior high poetry, and I’ve got a ways to go before publishing a novel. But I’m going to share this revelation, if for no other reason than I learn a lot about myself when I talk through things.

In preparing the WIP for the terrifying querying and pitching process, I had a legion (read: 4) of early readers. Their feedback was invaluable, but all three of them aligned on one thing that worried me. They all fell in love with one half of my book, and felt disconnected from the other half.

See, I’ve written a split narrative. One half of the novel is the diary of a twenty-something Japanese girl. That’s the half people connected with. The other half is a thirty-something American guy told in third person. That’s the half people didn’t connect with all that well. But wait, I’m a thirty-something American who’s lived in Japan! How were people connecting with a wholly-fabricated Japanese girl better than the guy who was channeling my very existence and experiences?

I mulled and fretted and eventually ignored this and tried to clean up the American half as best I could, but it didn’t sing true. I wasn’t connecting with it either, and that’s when I knew I had to do something drastic. While I was in Japan earlier this month, I started reading A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway. There’s a scene in the first third of the book where the narrator experiences a shelling during the war. And that’s when I realized what was wrong with half of my novel.

My 3rd person half of the narrative was too far removed from the feelings and experiences of the character it focused on. He saw things happen, and that’s about it. He didn’t experience them. When I wrote the first person half, the girl naturally talked about how she felt, what she thought, how the experiences changed her and why she did what she did. When I wrote the American half, however, all that got left out. Maybe because I felt it so strongly within me, I read a lot of that feeling into the words on the page, not realizing that none of the words on the page really conveyed any feeling at all.

I didn’t want to switch out of a 3rd person POV, but I wanted to really capture that essence and so, with Hemingway firmly in the back of my mind, I set out to rewrite my first chapter–without referring back to the earlier draft. Went in blind, with a blank Word doc. The difference, to me at least, was (cliche alert) night and day.

Here’s the same “sequence”, before and after.

Before:

Chris squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for the cold, infinite void that never came. The tugboat tumbled past inches from his face. He smelled the oil and grease from its engines as it rolled by. Water sprayed up into his face, tickling his cheeks. A few pieces of debris found their way into his mouth and he spat them out, the taste wet and earthy, the sensation like chewing on dirty cardboard. Grit stuck between his teeth and he continued to spit, unable to get rid of it all. A mouthful of sand.

After:

The water reached his neck and his chest felt tight and he knew his heart was giving out and all he wanted was for the madness to stop. Breathing was hard and water pushed at his mouth and the currents pulled at his legs and his shoulders stretched and twisted and he screamed because the scream gave him strength to hold on as the world fell apart. He choked and spit and the smell of musty basements filled his nose.

The first one reads very mechanically to me. “This happened. Then that. Then something else.” There’s no feeling, no real urgency, too much telling and not enough showing. The second one captures that chaos of the moment better, the feelings, the fears, and something about those run-on sentences (please forgive me, Mrs. Boozer) helps convey the sense of urgency.

So now to go through and rewrite half my book. Hey, at least it’s not the whole thing, right?

How about the rest of you? What were some of your big “eureka!” moments where it all started to click and you found your way out of whatever hole you were in with your writing?

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2 thoughts on “Eureka

  1. “he screamed because the scream gave him strength to hold on as the world fell apart”

    That’s my favorite part. I adore it.

    Definitely the second version has more… oomph. You feel it. The long sentences DO convey the chaos.

    But I want to defend the first version a bit. I think it has legs, but some of the verbs are off. “Tumbled” and “tickled” most notably. And then “a few pieces” is kind of vague-sounding. Also we don’t know he’s in the water to start. So I think with revision, the first version could be just as powerful as the second. In fact, I get the gritty/mouth sensation stronger in the first version than the second. It all depends on the style you want to go for.

    (And you seem much happier with the second.)

    My own “eureka!” moments? Cutting out all the inner monologue — “What was she thinking?” “Could I do this?” etc. — and seeing how much sharper, punchier the rest of the prose is without it. It’s the first draft crap that you (the writer) need to feel secure about getting your point across, but which actually, ironically, muddies up the point for the reader.

  2. I’ve trained myself to be very sensitive to the self-questioning. I used to be all about that, and I’ve noticed less and less as I revise.

    As to the two drafts, you’re right. I’ve gotten beta reader feedback on the chapter 1 rewrite I did in the new style, and it seems like some mixture of the two is probably the right way to go. On the one hand, there’s some relief that it’s not a total rewrite. On the other… I have no idea what to do for my pitch next week =)

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