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morning exercises

i recently joined the mailing list for a rather invigorating and inspirational online magazine of fiction, called On The Premises [take a look at the March issue, including the very open and interesting Publisher’s Note], and in the latest newsletter was one of their mini-contests, this one regarding worldbuilding. not the grand scale, overarching kind of worldbuilding, but the kind that turns the bland into the brilliant.

the contest was to write a very boring and basic sentence, then turn it into something intensely evocative and informing, to give a sense of the world and characters. the catch? keep the revision to one sentence, and no more than 30 words.

i haven’t done writing prompts in a while, and i don’t remember why. i really enjoy them and they help me find places i don’t think i’d’ve visited myself. thus sparked, i have just submit a couple (maximum entries: 2), before the deadline of this thursday.

however, since there were only two allowed, i thought i might post a couple that didn’t make it, but which i still really like. i’ll even go a step further and show a little of my own internal process by posting the various incarnations of the second one. love to hear what you think.

nota bene: i mentioned bland to brilliant as the intent; i didn’t say i’ve achieved it.

but i’m trying.

#1 – original:

He left her.

#1 – revised

It certainly hadn’t hurt and she hadn’t even meant to do it, but after he’d left her at the edge of the pond, still carrying his words about his new other ‘her’, she couldn’t resist the impulse to get back at him, even in so childish a manner.

#2 – original

They ran home.

#2 – revised: 1

They moved like bright leaves in the brisk autumn breeze, but Alice, with her own strangled heart, could only watch from the porch, as they skipped and skittered down the old dusty road, chasing each other with laughter through the clear afternoon.

#2 – revised:2

They moved like bright leaves in the brisk autumn breeze, but Alice could only watch from the porch and her own burdened heart, as they skipped and skittered down the old dusty road, chasing each other with laughter through the clear afternoon.

#2 – revised:3

They moved like bright leaves in the brisk autumn breeze, skipping and skittering along the old road, chasing their laughter through the clear afternoon, while Alice watched from the porch with a smile.

#2 – revised:4 (final)

They moved like bright leaves in the brisk autumn breeze, skipping and skittering along the old road, chasing their laughter through the clear afternoon, while Alice watched from the porch rocker with quiet content.

as you can see from the later changes in the second one, i had a realization that most of my stuff lately has been rather depressing. while i like the opposition of the laughter and the unspoken darkness in the first two tries, i really felt like having something simply positive would be nice to try.

you can also see what can drive some people crazy (perhaps you) about my process: what’s the difference? versions 2.1 and 2.2 have a single clause in different places, respectively. it’s the same clause, and the exact same sentence; i’ve simply rearranged a single piece. why? which sounds better. does it matter? does one mean something different than the other? no, of course not. but there’s a weight, a momentum, a flow to a sentence when it’s properly constructed, that carries the reader (i hope) to a deeper place, a more evocative understanding of the message.

this is what i struggle with most in my revisions. the genuine errors (in grammar, character, logic or plot) are easy. finding the best word in the best place? that’s what gets me.

and what i love.

one other thing about these pieces: they all were written entirely on the computer, which is not common for me. as i think i’ve mentioned before, i prefer handwriting because it allows me to self-edit as i go. on the computer, i can type nearly as fast as i think (sometimes faster), which is great for speed, but also means more of the debris in my thoughts reaches the page, requiring more editing.

however, there’s another reason that’s always hung around in the back of my brain that i never was able to fully articulate until this morning, though it seems perfectly self-evident now. on the computer, editing is easy (click, drag, delete, copy, etc.), but once it’s edited, the original is gone .* when i handwrite, i can scratch something out so i can never read it again, but i almost never do that**, meaning no matter how much i revise something, i can always get back to the original.

granted, in most cases, the original was revised for a reason, so there’s no reason to go back, but, particularly in my revision process, i can take a dozen or more (sometimes many more) tries at a particular paragraph, or even sentence, only to discover that an early attempt, even the original, is, in the end, superior to my attempts to make it even better. thus, without access to the earlier versions, i may (and probably will) have only a half-remembered sense of that better version.

of course, there is an argument to be made that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, then it probably wasn’t terribly fantastic to begin with. i generally agree with this, as much as it can hurt, but even so, after 125,000 words, even some great passages can be lost.***

well, if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me, and don’t forget to leave a comment about the sentences, if you’re interested.

now to turn all this to HHNF…

* yes, there are certainly ways around this, like engaging the draft mode to track all changes, but it’s an imperfect system that sometimes tracks an entire sentence, sometimes each individual character, making the whole quite bulky, in my experience, so i don’t use them. ‘undo’ works great, certainly, but only in a given instance. once i’ve closed the document, i can’t go back.

** it takes considerable effort  to really obliterate something with pencil and serves no purpose other than to vent my frustration

*** i’m still haunted by a passage from Witness which i cut out because i thought it was too much at the time, but which later turned out to have been a perfect scene of transition for Rick and Jerra. unfortunately, i’ve never been able to recover that scene the way i remember it affecting me. every few months i’ll remember it and have a dig round, but still nothing.

4 Comments
  1. it wasn’t exactly clear from the instructions or the examples. it seemed there was a little flexibility, so i went with it on the second one. the first one sticks to it (assuming one allows the contraction), and both entries i sent keep the original words, just in case.

  2. #1- I am interested to know what didn’t hurt, and if it didn’t hurt her or didn’t hurt him.
    #2- I think they would be chased by their laughter, as Alice would hear it trailing them… the imagery is lovely.
    #3- I know there isn’t a #3 but a list seems to need 3 things. Your verbosity makes me smile.

    • #1 – you caught me! this is actually a leftover from the original bland sentence (which i neglected to mention above):

      She picked up a rock.

      i was originally trying to force this into a single sentence to the effect that she threw it at him as he walked away, but everything i tried made the sentence obviously over-long. so i adjusted the bland sentence, and left the ‘hurt’ bit, wondering if it would be too much to assume for the reader. which it certainly is. that’s something else i’ve learned from NGD and the reader’s comments: if i have to wonder if the audience will get it, then they probably won’t.

      #2 – good point, there. i was waxing a little too poetic, i think.

      #3 – this made me smile, and i tend to agree. i should’ve stuck with the exercise a little longer! (as for my verbosity, i can’t even briefly reply!)

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