Writer in Residence · 07/11/2012

Boring vs. Interesting, the General and the Specific

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

I think I have figured out a workable solution to my problem with the section that was in the wrong place. Part of it has to do with the novel as a kind of web, the way that each part can hopefully be traced to the others and the whole of it has enough strength and flexibility to contain its subject, theme, etc. The solution hinges on the the protagonist acknowledging the links between things, thinking about those links, making them clearer to the reader. This is how to make that section feellike it belongs, in the pacing and imaginative landscape of the book, where, to the plot of the book, it does belong. It is a similar solution to the one where something strange happens, and someone in the book says: that was strange, so that the reader isn’t taken out of the experience. Why does the protagonist think about this day at this point? He wonders the same question, and that wondering, mirroring the reader’s wondering, draws a line between the two points and sets the reader on the mystery of how to walk that line.

Plot-wise, the section needs to be there because it complicates how the reader thinks about the event and the events that follow. I suppose I think of the plot more than just in terms of what happens, but what the impact of what happens is on the reader, as well as, of course, the characters. I always give my students the old E.M. Forster standard: “The king died, and the queen died of grief” being a plot, while “The king died, and the queen died,” being two simple coincidences. Or however that goes. But it’s important to note that if we don’t care about the queen dying of grief, then it’s not so interesting a plot. If the princess wanted the queen to die, and the queen died of grief, then I’m not sure that’s even a plot at all, or at least not one I would keep following.

I read a blog post this morning by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, whose thoughts were included in an earlier post here. She talks about how what is important to a evaluating a piece of writing can mostly be boiled down to: interesting or boring. It’s an idea I’ve subscribed to ever since this interview with the always wise Alexander Chee (a must read, as it was for me one of the most memorable writing conversations of my life) that I did for Redivider. One thing I do with a writer friend when we exchange drafts is to give a simple breakdown of where I was most interested and where I was bored, as she does for me. But where I think where the blog post might not be so helpful is that this sort of analysis, or non-analysis, could easily subvert the purpose of a workshop. I believe in the simple truth that what matters is whether something is interesting or boring, but I also believe that workshops need to be about teaching students why something is interesting or boring, and what to do to sustain interest, and how to improve the boring parts. The interesting/boring comment is helpful at a stage in your life where you know what to do, you know what you are good at and bad at, but it isn’t helpful when it stops the conversation. As I think it might do if we allow it into workshops. I’m sure Marzano-Lesnevich would go on from those comments to talk about the why and how, etc. But it’s important to encourage students to think deeper and to talk about how to turn something boring into something interesting, not only for the sake of the person workshopped but (and even moreso) for themselves. Usually what is boring isn’t the section itself, but the fact that it isn’t doing anything for the story.

We have to get specific. Below, we have two examples of revision in stories from Gabe Durham’s forthcoming book, Fun Camp. Durham provides his own revision metaphor, and talks about how he tried to make things more interesting: escalation, lists, specificity, the importance of the last sentence in a paragraph, voice, and titles, some of which we’ve discussed before. A look into side by side drafts.

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Revision Examples from FUN CAMP, by Gabe Durham

The metaphor for revision that has proven most useful to me is one of disease: You write a draft of a short story. You reread the draft and observe that it is boring. It would be rude of you to ask anyone to read it. But there’s a tiny something in there that is pretty interesting. Actually, it’s the most brilliant thing anyone’s ever thought up. Your job as reviser, then, is to infect the boring rest of the story with what makes that tiny part of it so exciting. And when the whole body is thoroughly diseased, the story can be carted off to the hospital where the real fun begins.

But Matt said to get specific so let’s look at some infection in action. Here’s a draft of a piece that eventually became the opening paragraph of my forthcoming book, Fun Camp:

No Moms For Miles

Best to think of the “rules” as opportunities. No holding back. No unfun thoughts. Half a forest got burned down for you to live it up. No boys in girls cabins. No heat strokes during afternoon rec hour. No exemptions from afternoon rec hour. No thinking of pulling the Prank of the Century and then not doing it. No mixed bathing. Leave room for the Spirit on the slow dance. Dance with everybody, especially the kitchen staff, especially poor, poor Puddy. In the event of confusing arousal, play some basketball. If that doesn’t help, the nurse’s muscle relaxants taste like Jolly Ranchers. No not singing. If someone mocks you, laugh with them. No weakness. No allergies. No glasses. During small groups, open up. During one-on-ones, be real. During quiet times, emote. If you see a dog, you should either turn and run or stay and make a lot of noise, depending on what kind of bear it is.

Abigail Holstein accepted it for an issue of Saltgrass and then suggested that maybe the last line wasn’t as strong as it could be. I agreed, but couldn’t think of a way to rearrange it. It felt like there just wasn’t enough there. So I took a morning with my notebook and set out to write some more rules. I wrote pages of rules, went in as many directions as I could think of. And when I came back to Abby with a revision, the piece looked like this:

Best to think of the “rules” as opportunities. No coffee. No energy drinks. No unprescribed speed. No sharing prescribed speed. No unprescribed cola. No bowls, bongs, spliffs, one-hitters, some-hitters, kooks, ludes, spanks, syringes, or nards. No paraphernalia except in skits. No peanut butter within thirty feet of the following campers: Piper, Caden, Braden, Persephone, Big John, Little Jack, Tall Eddie, and all three Britneys. No flasks. No flask pockets. No trench coats. No unregistered firearms. No colors that have been gang colors. No gangs. No unprovoked limping. No weakness. No allergies. No glasses. No thinking of pulling the Prank of the Century and then not doing it. No heat strokes during afternoon rec hour. No exemptions from afternoon rec hour. No boys in girls cabins. Leave room for the Spirit on the slow dance. Dance with everybody, especially the kitchen staff, especially poor, poor Puddy. In the event of confusing arousal, play some basketball. If that doesn’t help, Nurse Nadine’s muscle relaxants taste like Jolly Ranchers. If someone mocks you, laugh with them. During small groups, open up. During one-on-ones, be real. During quiet times, emote. No not singing. No unfun thoughts. No holding back. Half a forest got burned down for you to live it up.

A few things I think the revision is doing better: (1) It’s not just naming rules, but is escalating in such a way that you could follow the speaker’s train of thought. (2) It indulges in a pair of lists — first the drugs, then the campers with peanut butter allergies — and draws authority from the naming. What’s a kook? (3) Nixed the dog/bear line. (4) It moves the most severe line from the middle of the original to the end of the revision. And that severity serves as a useful warning for what’s to come. I had so much material from that morning of generating that I eventually wrote two more rules pieces. I had no idea I had so much to say about pool safety until I’d said it.

You want to do one more? Let’s do one more. Here’s an early version of another one of the Fun Camp shorts that I brought to a workshop at UMass:

Day, Dear

Make your mood a battleground and pump your veins with emotional formaldehyde, which is fancy-speak for cake. How good are you at happy? Or, I mean, how adaptable? Cause one year it’s graciousness — don’t fumble the bounty — and the next fourteen it’s stride — don’t hold your hands out like that. If you want fuss, I know a country where waiters will sing at you. If you come to this one place, it’s me and Dan and Danny and Pat and Dee and Allie who will sing. Then we applaud cause you made it, breathing and beating like you’re told to. Fitness helped, quenching helped, other things, and now you’re here. We don’t card so you might be faking and we’re pretty sure you are and you’ll never know we know, us-folks being professionals. How we can tell is: real birthdayers emit a certain glow you don’t have. It’s their day, annexed for them and 16.4 million others. We could use a day and believe me — we’d actually know what to do with it, the way our cheeks ache, the unaddressed support our backs require. So here, a sundae and a song and long shallow spoons for all your nasty little coconspirators.

Now here is the most recent revision:

Speak Up for a Treat

If you campers want fuss, I know a country where waiters will sing at you. If you come to this one place, it’s me and Dan and Danny and Pat and Dee and Allie who will sing. Then we applaud cause you made it, breathing and beating like you’re told to. Fitness helped, quenching helped, other deeds, and now you’re here. How good are you at happy? Or, I mean, how adaptable? Cause one year it’s graciousness — don’t fumble the bounty — and the next fourteen it’s stride — don’t hold your hands out like that. We don’t card so you might be faking and we’re pretty sure you are and you’ll never know we know, us being professionals. Singing away while presenting a flickering sundae with long shallow spoons to diffuse the pleasure to all your little coconspirators. How we can tell is: real birthdayers emit a certain glow you don’t have. It’s their day, annexed for them. We could use a day — and believe me — we’d know what to do with it, the way our cheeks ache, the support our backs require.

Here, very little content has been added to the revision. The showy opening sentence has been pared away and the oblique title (taken from the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”) is replaced with something concrete. A few of the less successful voice-moves are pared down: “us-folks” becomes “us.” These changes are pretty cosmetic, yet the first draft just does not yet click. It hadn’t been fully infected.

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posted by Matt Salesses