To edit a line.

Warning to non-writers: If you get bored with nuts-and-bolts stuff, this one’s not for you.

My method of writing is not the usual draft-it-all-first approach. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work for me. If I don’t get it the way I want it, early on, there’s no sense in continuing. Because what comes first influences what follows. I take my idea and start expanding it. While mentally (and sometimes on paper) exploring its potential, I begin to perfect it.

I do this with every line. One line builds from another, until there’s unity within the whole.

Here’s an example of the progression of a sentence in a work in progress, my middle grade* novel, Hans Andersen’s Ghost. The scene: Skim, a boy of twelve, is left standing in the dark on a hilltop far from home. One of the motifs in the story is shoes (he keeps a key in his left shoe).

I’ll start with the first version of the sentence. I would include the sentence before it, but this is the beginning of a new paragraph.

» There’s a rumble again; he feels it through the soles of his shoes. (I’m thinking: Hmm … “the soles of his shoes” —echoes of Paul Simon … a distraction, too sing-song for this moment.)

» There’s a rumble again; he feels it through his shoes. (Better, but it does not convey the immediacy of the feeling, because it’s telling us what he feels rather than sending us the feeling.)

» There’s a rumble again, rumbling right through his shoes. (Now we can feel what he feels. But I’ll try an even closer description.)

» There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. (There. It gives a sense of the vibration and its direction, from the ground up. I considered reinserting “the soles of”—it sounds good, but that added detail might compete with the rumble.)

Now for the next line, to see how it fits.

There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole tunneling under his feet.

I like the alliteration of the uh sound (rumble, rumbling, up, tunneling, under … there are actually nine uh sounds in these two lines)—it enhances the uh-oh—something’s-about-to-happen sense I want to convey. But I have a problem with the prosody the word tunneling creates. It has too many syllables that make the sentence drag at the end. So I consider some synonyms and come up with a few possibilities: burrow, grub, and bore. Bore is a little odd and calls attention to itself (besides lacking the uh sound), and burrow/ing is no better than tunneling. So, grub it is. Grubbing—two syllables. And I like the scariness of it.

There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole grubbing under his feet.

But, being a finicky writer, I think it still drags. So, I do as they say: I’m killing that darling grub.

There’s a rumble again, rumbling up through his shoes. Louder it grows, and stronger, like a mammoth mole under his feet.

I think that says it. It might be even scarier.

—Troy Howell

*middle grade defines fiction specifically suited for readers ages 8-12

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