Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hairsplitting to the finish line

Here's what I spent the past few days doing. My novel, as I've mentioned in a couple of other posts, is basically finished, and I've been spending the summer so far working on the final changes with my editor. It had been through its last pass before copyediting, and I was just crossing T's and dotting I's when I became fixated on the last line.

I won't put it here, for fear that it will semi-spoil the ending for the nine or ten people who are eager to read it. However, let's just say it's more or less this:

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and began my quest.

So, just to make sure you understand: the book is not a medieval adventure, OK? It takes place in the present day, in spite of the title ("Castle"). But the sentence above is structurally similar to the real last line.

Now, I stared at that thing for about ten minutes, and after some consideration, changed it to this:

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set off on my quest.

Then I alerted my agent, editor, and editoral director, and asked them to please make the change in their copies of the ms. Done!

Except of course I wasn't. Yesterday, the cat woke me up at 5:30, and I couldn't go back to sleep, from thinking about that sentence. What I didn't like was "off on." Off on? What the hell was that? Of course, you don't notice that unless you're obsessing over it, which I was--but it's the last sentence, and it has to be perfect, in meaning, rhythm, and connotation. So at 6AM I emailed everyone again and asked them to please change it to

I strode outside, slid my sword into its scabbard, and set out on my quest.

And I immediately turned off my computer and didn't turn it on again until midafternoon.

You see the problem, right? "set out" and "outside" in the same sentence. Again, it's perfectly clear, but that repetition does not sound right. After another 12 hours of consideration, and a request for my associates to vote on which was best, I went back to "set off on my quest." I'll leave it that way until I get the copyedits, and maybe I'll come up with something better.

There's a school of thought that says that, when you start changing things and changing them back, you're done. The implication is that eleventh-hour hairsplitting is inherently unproductive, and if you're doing it, the problem isn't the work, the problem is you. And personally, I'm sympathetic to that argument. I'm a writer who likes to get things done, and move on to something new, and hairsplitting of this nature is not especially conducive to that goal.

That said, if you're not hairsplitting, maybe you're in the wrong line of work. The sound, the feel, of sentences is important. It's what fiction writing is. Psychological acuity, emotional depth, gripping narrative: these are the things we like to see in a book. But the way they're delivered is as important as any of them individually, and perhaps as important as all of them together. As important, say, as the pot is, when you're making soup.

Every novelist has to find his comfort zone between the need for every sentence to be perfect, and the need to get it over with already. Skimp on the former, you're a hack. Skimp on the latter, you never publish a thing. For some of us, there is no comfort zone, and it's these writers who suffer from a block. And there's danger in finding a comfort zone, too, because if you get too comfortable there, you'll never discover anything new in your work. You will be boring.

Anyway, making art of any kind is a balancing act: between self-confidence and self-loathing; between accessibility and obscurity; between the audience and the artist. Most of the time, a good writer isn't even aware of being balanced: she is in her element. Sometimes, though, even the best writer looks down and notices how narrow the rope is, how far the drop is, and wonders how exactly she's managed to keep standing there all this time.

That's what I was doing this week. But houseguests are coming, and it's summer, and so I'm scabbarding my sword and beginning my quest.

Setting off on my quest.


Pete said...

Beautiful post - and after just finishing the third draft of my novella and being in revision mode for the last few months, I know exactly what you mean. Balancing that fine line between getting sentences just right (not necessarily perfect, but good enough to finally finish the damn book) is one of the maddening things about writing fiction.

And fortunately for me, the last line is my favorite one in the entire book. No revision necessary, or at least not until an editor gets involved.

Warren Adler said...

Carefully chosen words are our gateway into the imagination. And writing a novel is an act of creation that cannot be measured by a stopwatch.

jrlennon said...

Warren, I agree. But for me, admitting the inherent imperfection of the work is a necessary's just finding the right variety of imperfection that's the challenge.

Personally, I never have a stopwatch going, but I do usually have another idea waiting for the current one to move over...

Pete, what's your great line?!?

Ray said...

Very nice. You people continue to post interesting and thoughtful pieces. Thanks.

Now, that sentence. As it stands, it links three elements grammatically that may not have equal weight. Going outside and sheathing a scabbard are business. Starting a quest is, well, a big deal.

"I cooked dinner, washed the dishes, and shot my wife." No, that's not right.

That ought to give you something to think about until the proofs arrive.


OutOfContext said...

I've always had an aversion to using the same word too much. Sometimes it's silly, like seeing 'said' too much. That's in prose.
In poetry I love repetition and use it over and over.
Lately, though, I've been writing drama and it seems as though I am freed from these tendencies because listenable dialogue has its own logic and the words kind of dictate themselves.
Oh and I would never use the word 'quest' in any context. Never cared for it.

rmellis said...

Actually, Ray, I kind of like the sequence ending with "shot my wife." Putting the weight at the end is like a little bomb going off...

zoe said...

I love the "shot my wife" sentence. That's a story I want to read.

Writer Reading said...

jr: You're right in that all three versions are essentially the same and that the differences have to do with the nuances of sound rather than the nuances of meaning, for various boring reasons I won't go into, each one compromising one way or the other. So shuffling them around is indeed a distraction from finishing and noticing the chasm over which your measly rope is hanging.

Ray said...


Does that rhyme with Ian or Dianne or Mayan?

Never mind.

Of course you're right about the bomb effect at the end of the sample sentence ending with the shot wife. And that only emphasizes how sentences, no matter what they look like in isolation, are parts of a context that governs whether they are appropriate or disastrous or tone-deaf or lame.

It may be that the quest sequence approximates perfection in any of its three permutations in jr's novel. I'll have to buy the book to see. I only meant to draw attention to elements in the sentence beyond the words and syntax and to suggest that in revision, often we need to stop fine-tuning and consider replacing the carburetor now and then.

jrlennon said...

The carburator doesn't need replacing--the real sentence (and it doesn't say "quest") is doing what it needs to do. At least to my satisfaction. I just want it to do what it's doing correctly...

Pete said...

JR: I love the line, but others probably won't be impressed, especially taken out of context. So I'll just email it to you instead.

rmellis said...

My name is usually pronounced kind of like REE-en. In Welsh it's a little different, but I'm not about to make everyone say it that way. I don't even notice the variations anymore...

I still think the line should have been "began my quest." Tidier, and also iambic!

Writer Reading said...

I agree with Rhian. Not only iambic, but contains both a hard and a soft consonant. The other two contain only one or the other, which is why I think they sound off.

jrlennon said...

Except that...the real line does not have a quest in it.

rmellis said...

Dude, we're just working with what you gave us!