Thursday, June 4, 2015

Break out the Windex - I'm editing!

There is a certain literary novelist I'm not going to name (because he's alive and he might - you never know - have one of those Google alerts) who said he reads his thesaurus looking for more obscure words to use instead of the ones that popped into his head. Or, as he might say, "detonated within his cranium".

If anyone wants to rush out and buy his latest, email me and I'll fill you in.

Don't get me wrong; I use a thesaurus when I'm writing too. I use it when I know there's a word that's perfect and it's on the tip of my tongue and argh it means "plague" sort of, or "torment", but it sounds grungier than that and . . . Oh God, I can almost hear it.*

But I'm with Steven King, on this as on so many other things, who says that the first word you thought of is probably the best one.  In fact, nothing dumps me out of a story so completely as when a writer uses what's unmistakably the wrong word, and you wonder why and then you see the right word in the next line and you know they didn't want to repeat it. And then all I can think about is the writer sitting there working on the second draft saying:

"I attempted to imagine how hard they'd tried I tried to imagine how hard they'd worked I worked to imagine how hard they'd attempted . . . "

And I want to shout "Give it up! You need to change the whole sentence!"

In short, it's not that I don't care about the writing in my writing. My most frequent "stet" at the copy-editing stage is the one that goes "stet, please, for rhythm".

But I want my words to be a clear pane of plate glass that lets anyone who looks see the characters and the setting and follow what's going on. I don't want them to be - buckle up for more of this metaphor - a stained-glass monster that shows a saint getting martyred and stops anyone inside the church from knowing whether it's raining.

My favourite kind of writer is one who tells a compelling story in beautiful prose so squeaky clean that, although you're drunk on the language, when you try to pick out an impressive bit, you can't catch them at it. Ian McEwan is one of those. So is Dorothy Whipple. So I've got no examples.

So here's PG Wodehouse instead. It doesn't matter what book it is, the story is that someone's engaged, someone's not, they've stolen a priceless antique and the policeman is locked in the coalhole. And that pane of glass? He's breathed on it and written this in the steam: “he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle.” 

* scourge, by the way


Susan C Shea said...

"Clear pane of glass" is a great metaphor for the best writing, Catriona. As always, I relish (love, admire, look forward to, enjoy) your post!

Robin Spano said...

So well said! Effing brilliant.