If we can make amendments to our grocery list, why wouldn’t we edit a story we love more than our mothers, more than our children, more than the Red Sox or the White Stripes or Johnnie Walker Black Label?
Remember our excruciatingly awful paragraph from the last post? Let’s recap on our second draft (now we’ve got rid of the dreaded PVZ):
I walked down the street, minding my own business, when I heard a loud bang behind me. Terrified, I turned around, my heart about to explode, and I saw a plume of exhaust from a back-fired car. i felt like an idiot and started walking faster. I didn’t want to be late for work, not today.
If you’re anything like me (and it’s okay if you’re not, because fuck the hegemony), you trawl through Amazon Kindle looking for the magical price-point of £0.00. You stumble on a decent-sounding title (one that doesn’t have “A novel of post-apocalyptic survival” or some such shit tacked onto the end of it, as though the author can’t quite believe in the intelligence of their own Dear Readers to figure out that a picture with a wasteland on it is likely to be dystopian fiction of some sort). Then you click on the ‘Look Inside’ feature – just because it’s free doesn’t mean you’re going to read any old shite. Your time is precious and you want to be entertained not tortured (unless you’re into that kind of thing, which is cool as long as it’s all consensual). And you read that paragraph up there. Would you continue reading? Would you download the book? Would ya? Would ya?
I know I wouldn’t.
Here’s why I’d stop reading and think this was a pile of shite:
- Everyone walks down the street. That’s such a pedestrian opener.
- Minding your own business? As opposed to what? Something more entertaining, perhaps?
- I don’t feel anything.
- By the time I get to the part where my interest might be piqued, I don’t give a shit.
Reader = gone, in three sentences.
“But-but-but,” we say, “my story is really good! If they’d only persevere until the second paragraph/page/chapter, everything will be revealed!”
And the only sane response to that, Word-Sorcerers, is this: if the story gets going in the second paragraph/page/chapter, then put that bit first. Rocket science it ain’t.
As a Dear Reader, I want action, tension, intrigue. I want those words to jump off the page and force my finger to scroll. It’s a war, man – a war for my attention, my feelings, my investment. I want to be imprisoned by prose and end up with Story Stockholm Syndrome.
So what can we do to help our apprentice Word Sorcerer (that would be me, then) salvage this piece of shite?
Where’s the action? Where’s the tension? Where’s the intrigue?
Well, we can surmise that our protagonist is nervous – otherwise a car back-firing wouldn’t scare the crap out of them. And it’s got something to do with not being late for work today. We could have them walk down the street nervously, perhaps – except we should endeavour to kill most of the adverbs in our writing, horribly (there’ll be a post about that later).
My heart stopped for a couple of seconds when the car back-fired. I checked the reassuring weight in my jacket pocket, then picked up the pace, anxious to get to work on time. For the first time in years, I had a reason not to be late.
Now we’re getting somewhere! It’s a gun, right? He’s got a gun in his pocket and he’s going to shoot his boss! Amirite? I’m right, aren’t I? Ooh. But what if it’s a girl? And she has a portable hard drive in her pocket, and she’s going to steal her company’s secrets? Ooh-ooh, wait! It could be a transvestite who’s got a prosthetic dick in their pocket and they’re going to slap it down on their co-worker’s desk and tell ’em to suck on that, motherfucker, with your transgender-phobic potty-mouth. Ahem.
Now I think I might be tempted to read the next paragraph, because I can’t be sure what it’s all about yet.
And that – the elusive moment when our Dear Reader’s interest is piqued to continue – is why we must suck it up and take up the Red Pen of Revision. We can win the war by slashing sentences and chopping the head off every unnecessary word. Aim for a battlefield strewn with broken letters and dismembered paragraph parts, then raise your Red Pen aloft and cry, “Oh god! I’m back down to 20,000 words!”
Then pour yourself a stiff drink and start again.