Writers on Writing #33: William R. Hincy
The Act of Reading for Revision
I once watched a baby eat his boogers, and did nothing.
I’ve been looking for a place for that sentence for months now, but haven’t been working with a character amused by both moral ambiguity and bodily fluids who could express it. The reason I’m so eager to use it is singular and simple: it makes me laugh every time I read it. I treat every sentence I write this same way—they all exist as objects of amusement, either by being funny, provocative, sad, sexy or just plain interesting in construction. (If you asked my wife, she’d say I treat everything in life this way.) What many writers struggle with, and what I still struggle with from time to time to this day, is reading and making revisions based on what is most amusing to the reader. To do that, we have to find methods to take ourselves out of the reading. Below are some practical steps any writer can use to better read their work, and by extension, make better revisions and send amusing works into the literary world where they can spawn characters who watch children picking at their shouldn’t-be-picked body parts without feeling the slightest moral obligation to do anything.
- Be the actor. Read your work like an actor reads a script. Think about what movements, inflections, and mannerisms you would use to convey the theme and feeling of the piece to a live audience. And don’t kid yourself, it is a live audience. (I’ve never seen a dead middle-school English teacher read a book.) But the point is that when your reader is reading your work they are every bit as present as when they are sitting in the audience of a play or movie. How are you going to convey to Ms. Lewinsky from Tuscaloosa the emotion of being a god frustrated with traffic and overly apologetic followers? Are you going to yell, whine, slouch, spend an afternoon drinking wine? The text should have these answers, and if it doesn’t, it should be revised accordingly.
- Play all the roles. Yes, you’re writing the thing so you don’t want to be relegated to the peppy coworker who makes it sound like she’s just cured male pattern baldness every time she brews a pot of coffee and who only shows up in two scenes to further the protagonist’s aggravation, but if you want the audience to feel your agony you need to play her role too. In reality your work is a one-man/woman play, but it shouldn’t feel that way to the reader.
- Be the director. If the way a character acts or something he says makes you ask “what is my motivation?”, be the director and find a clever way to explain the motivation—and if you can’t, a revision is probably necessary, lines may need chopped, and actors may need eliminated (there’s a reason they call them “extras,” right?). As the director, you are also in charge of identifying your audience and how to appeal to their sensibilities.
- Be the audience. After you’ve let the story sit—and you better have let it sit, nothing is done in two hours, not even grandpa Carl’s comb-over attempt—you should laugh at the funny parts, be troubled by the paradoxical parts, and be infuriated whenever a character speaks in acronyms or uses the word “like” when they are describing something literally and the word “literally” when they are describing something figuratively. As the audience, there should be some emotional distance between you and the work you are viewing. Even if the actual act of writing is as therapeutic as an abusive marriage, the reading of your writing shouldn’t be. It is not a letter from your disgruntled spouse (even if it is). It is a letter from a disgruntled spouse who you have never met.
- Be a stranger. This ties in closely to number 4, but it bears mentioning that you should not be your own personal audience. I know it’s hard. We’re all terribly amused with mirrors. Every face we make, every new line beneath our eyes, every unsightly hair sticking from our noses, is captivating. I mean, who could possibly keep their eyes on the road? But have you ever watched someone in the car next to you looking at himself in the rearview mirror? If you’re like me, you step on the gas and speed away from the scene as fast as possible. Don’t assume that just because you’re assumed everyone else will be—some people may actually find a kid eating his boogers crude and repulsive.
- Don’t be a slave to grammar. Your final revision should be for how well your work “works.” Allow yourself a final mop-up to find typos, etc., but don’t do any revising at that time. This is a mistake I’ve made far too often. Prior to publishing the story “Amen” in the literary little miracle that is Passages North, I knocked out its teeth in some frantic attempt to scrub it of grammatical errors. I remember reading it for the first time a few months after I’d made it resemble my nephew Elroy from West Virginia—my impression was one of complete boredom followed closely by an intense self-hated. What in god’s name had I done, and why? The answer is I put grammar above art—and it’s a lesson I try to keep in mind to this day. Grammar is important, but it should not rule your creative life.
- Every piece should have memorable lines, but don’t be afraid to orphan the children who just don’t fit in. Perhaps this defies that sacred maxim of only having sentences that move along plot or reveal character, but I firmly believe that there have to be at least a few lines in every piece that pop up in the reader’s mind long after they’ve finished reading it. We’re working in a language medium, after all, so there should be something memorable about the language. That said, if you want to be fancy, your memorable lines should not just be memorable but also serve to further plot and/or character. In my novel The Hoards of Torment, a compulsive hoarder is confronted with the fact that she is actively working towards her self-destruction. Her response to the alcoholic telling her this is, “Some people run from their demons; you and I sit down and have cocktails with ours.” It’s a line I commonly think about in my daily life, and it works so well in the story because it reveals both of their characters. That said, if the line is just a good line and stands out as something so foreign that it makes the reader remember that they are reading, you have no choice but to leave that snot-eating kid at the nearest orphanage and think up something new.
- Write and revise like your mom is never going to read it, and read like your mom will never know you’re reading it. You’ll be bolder, and better. If your mom is your best friend, heed this advice double. I, like many of you, often base characters on people I know—bosses who spend an hour talking to you about being five minutes late, my mom, some girl who never gave me the time of day in high school and would feel really sorry about it now because I finally have my own car—who then quickly turn into fictional sources of amusement with a life of their own. The danger with doing this is having too much regard for how they might feel about the depiction. In the short story “Flying,” a character based on my dad dies—if I’d worried about my dad’s feelings I would’ve never let him die. After all, who’s going to do anything horrible to their family? If you’re out after 2 a.m. and some stranger in a van offers you a ride home, it’s good to consider what your mom would think about the situation. But if you’re writing a story you may need to get in the van (figuratively speaking, of course—please god don’t get in the van). Your writing decisions shouldn’t be based on what is safest for you. You’ll end up pulling punches in plot, language and subject matter. After all, who wants to think of their mom reading a sex scene? What if she is titillated? It’s all too horrible to comprehend. So don’t. Even if your mom will read it—and she will—never let that thought affect your decisions with your work. The fate of Fifty Shades of Gray depended on it.
By taking time to consider the act of how you read your work, you will improve the decisions you make during the revision process. Even if the steps outlined above don’t work for you, every writer should have a theory on how to read their work. By the way, that baby eating his own boogers was my son. I suppose number 8 should be amended to read: write and revise like your wife is never going to read it.
Fiction writer William R. Hincy’s stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including ellipsis and Passages North. His first novel, The Hoards of Torment, is scheduled to be published in May 2013. His website is: williamrhincy.com. For comments, questions and stern rebuttals about this posting, you can contact the author directly at William.firstname.lastname@example.org