Dispatches | March 26, 2014
Writing Beyond Good: Mining for Diamonds
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island, and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life. ~ Walt Disney ~
By Alison Balaskovits
Last time in Writing Beyond Good: The ‘So-What’ Factor we covered creating meaningful prose using focused writing to connect each story moment to the theme, employing causation and characterization to invest your reader, and taking care to avoid ‘message prose’ while making sure the story is about deeper truths than the surface plot. For a story you fear lacks the ‘so-what factor’ I offered an exercise—look for current events to tie into the story, as creating context increases meaning for the reader.
Exercises have long seemed useful for teaching myself a particular technique or for generating story ideas. But aside from using them as a teaching tool with my students, I didn’t really use them anymore, since my problem isn’t generating ideas—it’s stopping the flow long enough to finish a story before taking off on the next. I had to laugh when I read in Thought Catalogue last week that this writerly affliction, this “stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off,” is a thing we writers hold in common with crazy people (or proves writers are crazy people).
But a few years ago I had an epiphany about how to use writing exercises as a revision tool. I’m excited to share this with you lovely readers who want to take your writing ‘beyond good,’ because it opened my eyes to the possibility of transforming a nothing piece of writing into something diamond bright. It, Mining for Diamonds, has become one of the more popular workshops I teach at conferences.
Here is how the idea behind it came to me. In WBG: Creating Emotional Resonance, The Sequel, I mentioned creating an ‘emotion playlist’ to match the mood of a piece when revising. I was listening to the ultimate revision song, John Anderson singing Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Chunk of Coal:’
I’m just an old chunk of coal
but I’m going to be a diamond some day.
I’m going to spit and polish my old rough-edged self
till I get rid of every single flaw.
—the track I break out when I need reminding that no matter how coal-lumpish whatever I’ve written is, time and pressure transforms coal into diamonds which can then be polished to dazzling brilliance. Despite the mood music, my usual method of revision wasn’t working—that method being staring at the words on the screen, and/or reading and re-reading a printed-out copy until new or different words magically enter my brain—and I was ready to give up on the unlovely mess before I keeled over mumbling and twitching or threw a brick through my computer monitor (perhaps an overreaction to bad prose).
There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.
~ Charles Dickens ~
I thought of the assignment on the first day of the week-long fiction workshop I had just completed where the leader, Dorothy Allison, told us to write for five minutes using the trigger, “I do not forgive you,” without further instruction. You can imagine the personal demons popping into the writing on that one. Also imagine the participants’ surprise when we were told to go around the circle, reading aloud what we had written . . . Gulp. When we had all finished embarrassing ourselves, Dorothy was puzzled as to how what we had written fit with the three pages of in-progress story we had submitted in advance of the workshop. Um, not at all? My three pages were the start of a story about a shy preteen girl and the boy who ‘takes a shine to her anyways:’
When Buford says, “Hey,” I can’t hardly lift my head, like maybe there’s something mighty interesting down by my shoes or maybe my chin’s stuck to my chest. Same as always. Boys make me get a funny feeling inside. Momma says I talk a blue streak, but I just say, “Hey,” to the rubber toe on my Keds.
Nope. In no way related to anything I would ever think of with a prompt about unforgiveness. Dorothy explained that she meant for us to incorporate the writing prompt into the storyline and characters of the pages we had submitted. She wanted us to use writing prompts to further our work-in-progress, not just as story starters. Ah.
So a couple weeks later, there I was hoping Billy Joe Shaver’s words about blue-pure perfection would lead me to a fix for what the ‘finished’ piece I was working on lacked. I wondered if creating text using a randomly selected writing prompt might strengthen the story. Using a prompt not to start a story, not to further a story, but to make it better.
The thing is, writing is just too damn hard to waste the work product, so I gave it a go. The entirely unrelated prompt I grabbed took a many-times-rejected story in a whole new direction. My re-writing was energized and within a month the renamed story, “The Shape of Desire,” was a Wordstock Ten finalist, selected for inclusion in the prize anthology.
I’ve since discovered that nearly any exercise can be a tool for diamond mining. Here are a few that have worked wonders for my prose as well as for my students’ work:
• The Opposite Exercise. Rescue your prose from yawning predictability by choosing a moment you suspect lacks tension. Whatever your protagonist is doing, have them do the opposite. Have them do the thing that character is least likely to do:
– If your character tends to act out in anger, reverse one of those angry outbursts so the character is dead-calm quiet.
– If your character is handy, always fixing appliances or computers, have them instead break the neighbor’s appliance, have them secretly sabotage a friend’s computer.
– What if your kind, generous character turns cold and calculating in a particular scene? Where would it take your story if your serial killer randomly let an intended victim go free? Explore the ramifications of this unexpected behavior.
Unexpected behavior instantly ratchets the tension, but this exercise is a bit tricky to pull off in memoir. Search through your memories for a moment when your characters (the people included in your memoir) did something unexpected or unpredictable and riff on why to see how that might energize your prose.
• Switch The Setting. Alter a scene’s location to see if that increases the tension: Think of a scene where a couple is arguing. Most people wage their battles in private; there aren’t all that many real people who like their disagreements to be a spectator sport. But a writer’s job is to jack the tension and apply pressure to her characters. What if you moved that argument from the kitchen at home to a quiet and elegant restaurant? How would that change the nature of the argument? I’m not suggesting you turn your characters into public screamers—in fact, quite the opposite. How would your characters behave if they had to keep their fury low-key, barely contained?
Changing the setting can increase the stakes as well—getting lost in your own city might make you late, but getting lost in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, or in the wilderness where you’re in danger of running out of food and have no shelter makes for dire consequences. Simply by changing the setting, a character who refused to ask for directions moves from petty annoyance to high-stakes danger.
• Thesis Statement. Another exercise to use with prose that seemingly lacks meaning is to create a thesis statement. Pretend that your story or essay is a term paper. Construct a thesis statement for the piece, and see if the prose proves your thesis. This can help you see where your work is weak or your theme vague.
• Incorporate Other Writer’s Words. Sometimes finding quotations to frame your story or dropping an unexpected literary allusion in mid-story gives the chapter, story or book a broader view of the world. Freelance writer David Paul Williams (my husband), wrote an article about fly fishing for chum salmon, which are also known as dog salmon. Chum are hard-fighting, strong fish. He started the article with a quote from Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war,” which set the tone for the unusual style of his sports writing, and set the article apart from the standard fishing magazine feature. Because of the nature of his readership, he selects easily recognizable quotes, but elsewhere, little known, but spot-on quotes can pique a reader’s interest. In an assigned piece about fishing for rainbow trout, David referred to Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” and compared German brown trout to Henry Kissinger. He got an email from the editor who said he never expected to see a piece that referred to either Hemingway or Kissinger, adding that he was prompted to go re-read Hemingway, and said that David was at the top of his list when making additional assignments. I’ll say again what I’ve said before: Surprise is every editor’s drug of choice.
• Switch It Up. Telling a story out of order can also pique a reader’s interest, where the same story told linearly would not. Remember how surprising it was to see Jules and Vincent alive again in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction? In a less extreme example, I got nowhere with my story, Racking The Slide, until I told the story out of order, moving the most interesting paragraph to the start.
Years ago I made a suggestion in a critique group that a woman’s story would work better if X happened before Y. Her response: “But that’s how it really happened!” Among the pleasures of writing fiction is that you can go anywhere in service of the story—doesn’t matter ‘what really happened’ [she had presented her story as fiction]. But ‘what really happened’ is no excuse for not maximizing the potential of a non-fiction piece, either. There is no rule dictating non-fiction be relayed linearly.
• Smash It. Take a competently executed, grammatically sound, perfectly okay story and smash it. If you know the rules and are able to execute the rules, try selectively violating the rules of good writing. Make the story one long sentence; rewrite the whole thing using only dialogue much like a stage play but omit all ‘stage direction’ and action [then submit it here]; rewrite using only sentence fragments; play with punctuation . . .
The photo below is of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Michelangelo certainly knew the rules of proportion, but chose to violate them in the service of the story he is telling with this sculpture. Mary is something like nine times larger than Christ, her full-grown son, but had he been sculpted proportionally, he would look gangly and awkward, limbs extruding far beyond where he is cradled in his mother’s lap. Violating the rules allowed Michelangelo to tell a specific story, to convey a mother’s love and loss—though the dead son was thirty-three, he was still very much her child.
• Employ Prompts. Back to where we started—Collect writing prompts to use like jumper cables, zapping life into good, but not yet beyond good stories.
• Stockpile. And when you improve a piece by cutting gorgeous-but-unnecessary sentences, or interesting-yet-unneeded characters, or slow-but-scenic scenes, create a document or file where you save these glittering orphans. Troll the orphanage from time to time, particularly when needing to jazz up prosaic prose by adding the unexpected.
We all know writers who have relegated a novel manuscript to the bottom drawer—or these days—to their back-up drive. Perhaps you’ve even deleted a story or essay as unworthy, unsalvageable. Don’t do it. Don’t give up on it. Sure, give it time, set it aside, but then come back to it when you’re ready to apply pressure or pickaxe to extract the diamonds. Sometimes there is a character or concept which would thrive with a new plot; sometimes there are golden sentences surrounded by sewage, but dig deep enough and you’ll unearth the gems in your slag heap of discarded drafts.
Taking old, discarded stories and resuscitating them can be like remodeling, making a dreary home fresh and new. Or it can be more like salvaging the durable parts of a house about to be leveled. Bricks and timbers and fixtures are given new life in other homes by talented masons and carpenters and electricians.
When a book raises your spirit, and inspires you with noble and manly thoughts, seek for no other test of its excellence. It is good, and made by a good workman.
~ Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696) ~
So strap on your tool belt, slip on your Davy lamp, and see what treasures you salvage from the wrecking ball.
There are so many more fantastic exercises I’d like to pass along to help you reimagine stalled work ~ But I’ll close with these encouraging thoughts from Bill Kenower:
Within the slog of everyday life lived with someone you love, you can uncover the divine, the lovely, and the meaning in absolutely everything.
So too is it with a story you love. Every story will become as tangled as a late night argument; every story will appear as hopeless and small as a flat tire. But if you love that story you will discover you have the patience to find your way through a tired middle, will have the discipline to discard an unnecessary character. Love is simply not a mistress you can quit. What you call quitting is only a search that will lead you back exactly where you started, where she will be waiting for you to start another story.
Thanks for reading ~ QLB
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountain and taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic
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