John Hudspith. Writer, editor, Mr Spot-On.
I’ve been reading and admiring Johnny’s critiques for many years and personally benefitted from his hawk-eyed observations on countless occasions. Quite simply, he can make your best even better. How, I wanted to know, does he do it? He generously agreed to share his thoughts as this week’s guest post. Pure gold dust for writers.
When editing or critiquing, I work with the definite knowledge that every word matters. Every single word. To create beautiful prose, or prose that works well; i.e. it gives reader the smoothest and therefore the most enjoyable read he can have, means examining closely, in detail, the true meaning and the order of the words you choose to use, considering above all, reader’s moving imagery in his reading brain.
Misused words bring poor prose. Poor prose brings cloudy imagery and broken rhythm. Being a good editor/analyser is having the ability to perceive the given prose as a reader; to build the imagery via the given words one word at a time. The more considered those words are the better the writing becomes. Attention to the nuance of every word is what matters.
The more one delves into the operational processes of reader’s reading brain the greater the understanding of word power becomes; the attention to detail always prevalent.
The craft of writing is indeed a pedantic minefield among multitudinous minefields of hair-splitting (and hair-tearing) possibilities. Adherence to trends, rules (or not), preconceived genre conventions, individual author’s unique style ingrained by his years, his peers, his perceptions of what works and what doesn’t, all add up to one mighty soup of alphabetic entanglement – and that’s because our prose is the human form in words; our diversity as unique individuals inextricably linked to the nuances of word choice and order which identify the individual author.
Get ten editors to analyse the same piece of writing and the results will show varying degrees of perception. Some will see what others do not. Some will disagree with the degrees of distortion.
So how can one produce notes on word analysis when no one perception, (reader’s or writer’s), is definite? I suppose one can only generalise, at best, while trying to get as close to the physics as possible.
Consider the `best` reads. The best reads are those which pull you into the page. Reader forgets, for a while that he is reading, he becomes character, lives the story, and moves through every scene as if he were right there. Note that I have not included `good story`. Although I’m a believer in story mattering a great deal, I do know that a read can be un-put-down-able if the writing is at its `best` even if the story has holes, or a weak ending. How often have you finished a book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it because the characters were amazing, or the scenes beautifully portrayed, or the tension hammered your heart, but the ending was not quite what you had hoped for? Yet you would go back and read it again, purely for the pleasure of the read. That’s good writing.
Now that we know what a good read can do, we best ask what makes a bad one; what causes an editor to pounce? Simply: he detects distortions in the connection between reader and writer. We’ll call these `distorters`, and imagine them as ghastly Death Eaters sucking the soul from your prose.
Let’s identify the main distorters.
- Weakened connection through over-writing.
The grandest, most slap-happy distorter of them all. He zooms about with pots of paint, daubing pretty much everywhere. Responsible for a massive 80% of editorial pounces. We’ll name this monster: The Pollock.
- Loss of pov through over-writing.
A nasty side-effect of the Pollock distorter.
- Word rep, echo or clash, causing a blip in the reading flow.
A rhythm distorter. Hops around like a flea. Nasty little fella. Often wears a cloak of invisibility and can hang around your prose for years. It usually takes fresh eyes to spot these buggers.
- Poor use of page space diluting the scene effect.
This one’s a magic puzzle distorter. Like those puzzles where you have to shift the blocks around before you see the picture, this distorter will mix your puzzle. Quite amazing how one single white space on the page can make a difference to reader’s perception of the scene in question. Be aware of effective use of page space to nab this distorter.
- Loss of tone, momentum or tension through poor word choice.
The mad-eye distorter. This distorter is a flimflam man. He’ll tell you not to look too closely, that it doesn’t really matter – that word – that one word. But it does matter.
- Loss of pov depth through dubious dialogue.
Mad-eye’s brother. This distorter chuckles a lot. Not only does he tell you not to look too closely, he laughs at the results. Pummel this distorter by getting real, by acting it out loud, by saying it with the passion that is meant, BUT not only with the words that match mood and situ, but the words which retain rhythm, flow, and pace whilst keeping other distorters from leaping in. Do all that, then you can laugh at the banished distorter.
- Loss of continuity through misuse of props.
The disgruntled runner distorter. This distorter looks like a decent enough stage hand, but turn your back and he’ll change the coffee for tea, a she to a he, a cat to a dog, and even make the sun set in the east. Never trust a runner. Always, always check the props. Every last detail.
- Loss of setting through poor continuity.
The dunce hat distorter. A close relation of the disgruntled runner distorter, this is one magical wiz of a distorter. He’ll play with your mind until you believe the impossible. He’ll make it night when it should be day, bring nesting birds in November, daffodils in December, turn shine to snow and give you frost which does not melt. You only realise he’s been when you find the dunce’s hat plonked on your head. Say duh, triple check your facts, and move on.
- Plot holes and storyline weaknesses.
The digger distorter. Keep a tight leash on this one. He will have your story riddled in a blink if you let him. This distorter despises any form of planning. Fix him by doing just that, and know that there is never a plot hole that can’t be filled or a story weakness that can’t be made stronger. Take the distorter’s shovel and do some digging yourself. Sometimes you have to dig deep, but the answers are always there.
- Dubious character actions/reactions.
The twisted director distorter. He’ll make punished characters laugh, hungry characters abstain from food, angry characters happy, and vice versa. Related to the dunce hat distorter. Deal with this one by wearing your character’s shoes and triple checking his actions and reactions.
- Lost or weakened reader connection through unconvincing character mood swings.
A side effect of the twisted director distorter. Overlying mood is so easily overlooked. Triple check, wear the shoes, live the mood, fix, remove the dunce’s hat, say duh and move on.
Spotting (or perceiving) the distorters when editing, requires the editor to read with the mind of the reader; that is: to open the book with an empty stage like any new reader does, and rely on the author to bring on the best settings, characters, and props with which to move story along smoothly.
Editing (or critiquing) fresh prose from a fellow writer is a whole lot easier than editing your own, sweat-soaked stuff. And that’s because your editing brain accepts unseen prose with ease, filling that empty stage with moving story from the intake of fresh words. When editing/analysing your own work, however, there is one important factor to success: Time.
Published writers have their own ideas about how long to shelve a first draft before going back to edit. Some say three months. Stephen King reckons on six months being a decent enough time for your neural pathways to rid themselves of the imprinted first draft program. But the truth is, the `best` time between drafts will be different for each writer. How often have you gone back to read something you wrote only to be amazed that those words came from your fingertips? Sufficient time has passed for your reading brain to rid itself of the old imprint and you can read again – fresh. Or at least as close to fresh as it gets.
So it’s easy right? Simply use fresh reader perception, a list of distorters to help spot the bad guys, leave sufficient time between drafts, and fanny’s your aunt?
To perceive one’s own work with complete unbiased freshness is, I suspect, near enough impossible and that’s when truly fresh eyes are needed. Whether employing an editor or a fellow writer to help you with your work, remember that doing so is akin to inviting a fellow sculptor to wave his tool, providing nicks and cuts as to where distortions might be smoothed out. So be sure you can trust that this fellow craftsman is apt in the art of catching distorters.
Is `perfect` prose therefore possible? No. Individual reader perception prevents such a thing.
Is `good` prose therefore possible? Absolutely. Discover the distorters and how they exploit your weaknesses. Pay attention to the detail and the fixes will come. Every word matters.
The more attention paid to the detail, the more distorters are caught.
Fill your nets!