Friday, April 24, 2009

Writing a Paragraph

This morning I got an email from a fan saying -- perhaps with a note of desperation -- "How do you actually write, say, an actual paragraph? What is the process?"

It's a good question. For me, the process consists of putting down some words, seeing if I like them, and if not, changing them until I do. This is an actual paragraph I wrote earlier today, with my interposed thoughts. The point of view is first person, and the character is anticipating a fight with his girlfriend, with whom he runs a tavern. The first pass:

"She said nothing until very late. Jee had gone upstairs. When there were no guests, we each took one of the tiny bedchambers, as if we were quality living in a great house. If the two guest bedrooms were occupied, Jee slept on a pallet on the floor of Maggie’s room and I in the tap room, “to keep the fire going.” This night there were no travelers, but the tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news. "

But wait -- I'm now going to dramatize the locals discussing this news, so sending Jee upstairs now is out of chronological order. And since there's a lot of news, I'll have to repeat that Jee isn't present when I actually get around to the fight. So cut the floor-plan discussion (the point of which is that the protagonist and his girlfriend don't share a bed) until later. This leaves me with:

"She said nothing until very late. This night there were no travelers, but the tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news."

Better, but why mention there are no travelers? Irrelevant. So:

"She said nothing until very late. The tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news."

That's the essence, but a lot of the previous paragraph has sentences starting with "the-and-a noun," so I change to:

"She said nothing until very late. All evening the tap room was full with Applebridge locals, discussing the news. "

Better. But the passive voice is usually weak, and was "local" ever used as a noun in this Renaissance-era setting? Maybe not. Even if it was, it sounds like a cop or a newspaper reporter. So:

"She said nothing until very late. All evening local folk thronged the tap room, discussing the news.
"

"Thronged" is good, suggesting the people crowd the tiny room, which they do. But "discussing" could be stronger.

"She said nothing until very late. All evening local folk thronged the tap room, chewing over the news. "

Yes, that will work, especially since a dog, who will be chewing something else, is due to appear soon. I let the paragraph, now just two sentences long, stand, and go on to the next.

All this takes far less time than I just took to describe it. Some of these interim sentences make it onto paper, but many exist only briefly in my head before they are revised out of existence, like those elementary particles that appear for a nanosecond in a supercollider and then are gone. At the same time, I hold in my head the purpose for this scene, which is both to provide background ("the news") and to dramatize the fight (upcoming). This process, repeated tens of thousands of times, gets a first draft written.

And that's how it's done, at least by me.

16 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

Some of these interim sentences make it onto paper, but many exist only briefly in my head before they are revised out of existence, like those elementary particles that appear for a nanosecond in a supercollider and then are gone.Ooh. That's good. I wish I could write good.

Daniel said...

Thank you, Nancy, for posting that. And thanks be to people who ask simple questions that most don't think to ask. You've provided an interesting insight.

Graham said...

Hi Nancy, thanks for the insight!

Mark said...

I don't know if I've got enough years left to get to do what you do so automatically and well.

Cat Rambo said...

Great stuff as always, Nancy. Thank you!

kelly said...

I'm about to teach a fiction workshop with a bunch of eleventh graders. Is it all right if I use this post? It's very clear, and I think the kids will dig it.

Cheers!

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christopher said...

I found your outlook on writing a paragraph interesting. I try to take on writing a paragraph the same way.

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