Revising

‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!

Making Oneself Clear

Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Sir Harold Evans Was published in May, this year, and there was an intriguing interview with Sir Harry in the June issue of Time Magazine.

The first two questions caught my eye:

Q: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns.  What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

A: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive – insurance policies, political statements.  Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions.  I find myself getting much more angry about the moral obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

Q: And do you believe in freedom from the language police?

A: The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular.  The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers.  Do you know that word pettifogger?  It is somebody who stumbles over a neck, but misses the body lying on the floor.

Sir Harold Matthew Evans (born 28 June 1928) is a British-born journalist and writer who was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when he had a falling out with Rupert Murdoch.  He moved to the United States in 1984 and was naturalised as a US citizen in 1993.   He had leading positions in journalism with US News and World Report, The Atlantic Monthly and the New York Daily News.  He has written various books on history and journalism, with his The American Century (1998) receiving particular acclaim. In 2000, he retired from leadership positions in journalism to spend more time on his writing. Since 2001, Evans has served as editor-at-large of The Week magazine and he has been a contributor to The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 since 2005.  In 2004, Evans was knighted for services to journalism, and he became editor-at-large of the Reuters news agency in 2011.

Sir Harry Evans

In a New York Times book review in May 2017,  Tim Holt says: “As a master editor and distinguished author, Evans is well qualified to instruct us on how to write well. But can he delight us in the process? After reading this book, I can affirm that the answer is yes. For the most part. Up to a point.  ‘What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt,’ Evans tells us. And the key to clarity, he insists, is concision — a virtue allegedly less honoured in the United States than in the author’s native land: ‘Newsprint rationing in wartime Britain enforced economy in language, a conciseness not required in American print journalism, where acres of space invited gentle grazing.’

Holt continues: “I also enjoyed Evans’s history of the ‘readability’ movement, launched by 19th-century American reformers who wanted written sentences to be shorter and easier to understand (especially for immigrants); his witty choice of quotations, like Winston Churchill’s gibe that Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had ‘the gift of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought’; and his various lists of pet peeves — pleonasms like ‘close proximity’ and ‘self-confessed,’ abused pairs like ‘discomfit/discomfort’ (to discomfort is to make uneasy; to discomfit is to defeat or rout), and ‘flesh-eaters’ like ‘We are in receipt of’ for ‘We received’.

In a Financial Times article in May 2017, Matthew Engel writes: “He is a sworn enemy of . . . the lonely modifier  — which means one had better explain what he means by a lonely modifier. His example is a sentence in the New York Times where presidential ‘advisers’ and the crucial fact that they were taken ‘by surprise’ were separated by 36 words of the same sentence, all irrelevant parenthetical detail. He is also a welcome enemy of two of my own hates. One is the ludicrous non sequitur, found most abundantly in American newspaper obituaries: ‘A keen golfer, he leaves three children.’ The other is what he calls monologophobia, a phrase he credits to Theodore Bernstein of the New York Times, who described a monologaphobe as someone ‘who would rather walk naked in front of Saks Fifth Avenue than be caught using the same word twice in three lines’. This is the widespread practice (also known, too kindly, as ‘elegant variation’) whereby sports writers, having said Federer once, have to refer to him thereafter as ‘the Swiss’, ‘the 35-year-old’ and ‘the seven-times Wimbledon champion’ before they dare use his name again — even if the reader ends up forgetting who is under discussion.

At the very least, Sir Harry has a keen sense of humour!

Artistic Ladder

A good friend of my wife’s and mine is an only child and when her father died, he left her a large industrial site on the outskirts of a major city.  For some years, she thought to sell it to a developer, but the area is not ideal for a residential – or commercial – development.  She is an art lover and gradually, she began to put on exhibitions by two or three eclectic artists in the buildings.  The site became known as an art venue and she developed a mailing list of ten thousand ‘members’ who pay a small fee to be advised of events and are admitted for free.  Recently, she put on an exhibition by three prominent artists in different disciplines from three different countries.  One of them is thinking of establishing a studio on the site.

I asked her what she could do with a grant of one million euros.  Her face lit up and the ideas came tumbling out, but then she stopped and said, “But I haven’t any idea how to raise one million euros.”  We talked about it further, and she agreed that grants in that size can be obtained with the right connections and a persuasive proposal.  She certainly has connections in the art world, if not the actual fund-raising skills.

She also said that her surname will die out with her and she wants to somehow leave her name attached to whatever she does in the art world.  We talked about a way to do that, and then she was back on the subject of the kind of exhibitions she might put on.

I asked her to give serious thought to providing same ‘ladders’ for aspiring, but unknown artists with talent.  I pointed out that in every art discipline (including my own – literature, and including sports) there tends to be an enormous gap between the well-known, well-paid, big names and the skilled but unknown, and unpaid beginners.  I suggested two possible ladders for her to consider when possible.  The first was to put on an aspiring artists exhibition, at least once a year, with exhibitors selected by a panel of experts, and prizes being awarded to those judged to be ‘the best’ by another expert committee.  Perhaps provision could be made for the public to buy individual pieces, or for a gallery to pick artists to carry.  The second ladder was to establish an artist’s workshop space in the premises where young artists could come and paint or sculpt, where they could exchange ideas, and minimise the loneliness of their trade.  Maybe a small coffee shop would be opened to serve them, and perhaps interesting events could be organised.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I feel that there are not enough ladders to success for aspiring artists of all disciplines.  In fact, in literature there are structural disincentives for the advancement of new talent: the tight grip of the traditional publishers on whom to select and promote.

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.