Thursday, October 7, 2010

Killing Hamlet: Revisions and the Writerly Eye

I have noticed that when I'm reading a novel, not only am I attempting to actively engage with the narrative and enjoy myself, I'm also sort of on the lookout for things that I would consider failures of craft. I can't help it; it's just the way I read.

Every novel is in part the result of decisions the author has made and most of the time, I am sure, those authors have made different decisions than I would have made had I been writing their book. Sometimes this results in my surprise and delight as a writer comes up with something much more cool than I ever would have stumbled into. Most of the time these decisions are invisible to me and I'm just caught up in the narrative.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking along the lines of, "Gosh, I wish he hadn't done that. I hope there isn't going to be a lot more of that as we go along." This is what I think when, for example, the author telegraphs a punch or gives a clumsy explanation for character action or lays out a slab of prose that doesn't flow well with the surrounding prose or just uses a word I dislike (for not all words are created equal, and some words are just ugly in the ear and invoking them destroys the poetry of the passage).

Anyway, this is what I think of as reading with my writerly eye: remaining vigilant to lapses of craft in whatever prose is before me. It's an irritating way to read and frankly it's caused me to read much more slowly than I did in the past. This writerly eye is, I am sure, a by-product of my own writing and revising, because it is the way I read my own works.

This doesn't mean that my inner editor is my primary reader, though. I read first and foremost for pleasure, like any other sane person. Reading just feels good in my head, and I love the simple process of converting graphics into concepts and stories and gosh, but whoever invented the alphabet and writing is my best friend forever. I also read for surprise, for the delight of character and plot and theme and all the other values I have learned to appreciate in fine writing. The writerly eye is more like a separate and parallel process that goes on in the background while I read. Sometimes I think of a narrative as a river through which I am wading upstream and my inner editor is like a hand trailing in the water and sometimes things that don't belong in the river get caught by the fingers of that hand. If it's my own narrative, I pull the seaweed or tin cans or other junk out of the river and throw it to shore and then admire the clean sparkling water flowing around me. If it's someone else's book, the junk remains caught in my hand until--if it's not a well-written book--too much of it collects and I decide to shake all the crap off my fingers and go find a different river to wade.

What I'm doing here, of course, is searching for the proper metaphor for the process of revisions. Some of it is like trailing your hand in a moving river, but some of it is like untangling a knot of string, and some of it is like taking in the waist of a pair of pants and some of it is like patching a hole in a wall and some of it is like planting bulbs in the fall and hoping they'll all bloom beautiful flowers in the spring and some of it, of course, is like trying to decipher Linear B when you have no knowledge of ancient Minoan.


  1. If I were given to swooning for any reason, let alone over writing, let alone over another male writer's blog, I would have been a goner when you invoked Linear B in your metaphor.

    That aside, I envy you, Mr. Bailey. I haven't been able to turn off my writerly eye for years. Sometimes, it comes in handy; I learn a lot about the craft. Most times, it's a royal pain the neck. I haven't been able to simply read for pleasure in eons. By your implication, that makes me insane, or at least not like a sane person. I think you're probably right.

    That aside now aside, your complex string of metaphors captures the various aspects of revision with suitable near brilliance. I usually fall back on archaeology and forensic metaphors when I think about it for myself, but those don't communicate very well to most others..

  2. I shall consider you as having swooned, sir. So there. The writerly eye usually just means that I'm cranky a lot when I read, but often enough the books I pick up are written so well that either the annoying mannerisms become just an aspect of the writer's style, or something that is overwhelmed by the other forces in the writer's prose. Which must explain why I have the urge lately to read more D.H. Lawrence, because he could be difficult and clunky.

    Revising prose is exactly like repairing a brick wall or praying the Rosary or making love with an unpredictable partner or preparing a meal with strange and unknown ingredients. Or, revising prose is exactly like revising prose.

  3. Curses. Me and my open self-commentary.

    My writerly eye constantly has me thinking about alternatives, or how something the author tried is new and interesting, or else wishing I'd been the editor...

    Revising prose can be like cleaning up the walls on a test pit, or it can be like realizing your test pit was off-grid and having to wave five meters west and try it again, or it can be like scraping the fat of cold, human flesh just so you can see the actual muscle tissue, or it can be like macerating a mummified body to get the tough leathery hide off, or it can be like just picking the last lingering tendrils of fascia of a skull that you have freshly boiled.