Thursday, November 22, 2007

Masterclass - Prose Stripping with Jim Crace - Part One

So, finally, I've had my prose stripping session with Jim Crace, author of 9 books (and only 2 left to write - allegedly).

S, first off, what is prose stripping all about?

Essentially, it's about analysing the final draft of someone's work and niggling at the word use. This comes after planning, critiques, and draftage, but, as Jim says, before at least two more edits (the editor's editing and then the line editor's editing). There can be more drafts before that; obviously dependent upon what the prose stripping brings up.

But, before I give a run down of what happened to my manuscript, I want to cover some of what Jim discussed with us.

He began by talking about redundancy of words - the main focus of prose stripping. In a previous group (some years ago) one of the students began a story with:
The Black and white magpie flew across the empty field.
Obseving thusly:
  1. Everyone knows magpies are black and white
  2. Everyone knows that magpies fly
So, what is this sentence really telling the reader? Nothing. Jim advised that not every sentence has to work to multiple effect, giving colour, subtext, description, narration, etc, all at the same time. Were every sentence like that the reader would be overwhelmed. But, a sentence can't be so brazenly loaded as the magpie one above with the most obvious elements that do nothing to inform the reader.

The same student also wrote something like:
Whenever the two of them fought there seemed to be a bonfire always there in the backgarden, emitting smoke.
Top marks to those of you raising your hands to say, emitting smoke? What else is a bonfire going to do? Exactly! Apparantly in Jim's group at that time, the entire class flapped their hands like magpie wings to signify the redundancy.

The student was sent away with the text to reconsider and rework - a difficult, sometimes anxious, time for any writer, but, as Jim says, an essential time. We must all spend time going over our work like this after the final draft, considering our purpose. When the student came back, she'd changed nothing... but two letters. See how much this alteration changes the meaning (whether it's an obvious meaning or a personal one provided to the reader):
Whenever the two of them fought there seemed to be a bonfire always there in the backgarden, knitting smoke.
The reader now has a domestic image of knitting set against the argument. The notion of someone hunched over working furiously at their needles. An idea of the branches and twigs on the fire acting like needles, and the smoke becomes a scarf reeling off into the air.

"Metaphor," says Jim, "never works unless the reader is on your side." The metaphor needs to be easy for the reader to grasp; which is to say (as Solvejg has often pointed out of my own writing) that a metaphor is usually better stated with regard to a concrete noun/verb instead of abstract ones.

Jim says that once he's done with his book he heads off to a stationers in search of a cruel pencil - a pen or pencil that looks vastly different from the usual kind one might purchase for normal use in writing or editing. Something tactile, colourful, oddly shaped; anything that can help the writer put on a different head - the head of cold objectivism towards their own work.

"Don't set yourself too many tasks at once with your editing," says Jim. "Split the work up. Go at it first to identify the faults, but don't repair it until a second pass. First mark up what doesn't work, then once that is done, go over it again; so that you're not doing too much, trying to change hats."

We touched briefly upon different authors and how they layout their manuscripts differently - opting for different ways to attach characters to dialogue, to separate passages of time, the way their characters think, etc.

Jim says that the author's ability to change the layout of their manuscript is their unacknowledged armoury - it's a great support in helping narrative flow and reader understanding, and should never be undervalued. It is interesting therefore that today I am reading the charity book - The Book of Other People (edited by Zadie Smith) - and in the introduction she comments on these features of layout in respect to the many writers that have been involved in the project (a bunch of short stories solely about characters):
There is, however, an element of their character that has been removed: the fonts. Publishers standardize fonts to suit the style of the house, but when writers deliver their stories by e-mail, each font tell its own story... There are many strange, precise and seemingly intimate tics that disappear upon publication: paragraphs separated by pictorialsymbols, titles designed just so, outsized speech marks, centred dialogue, uncentered paragraphs, no paragraphs at all.
In response to the beginning of one of the other students' opening lines we then went on to discuss attributing dialogue to the character speaking. Some people attribute using he said/she said, but others, for example, Iris Murdoch in The Green Knight, chooses not to attribute much of what is said at all. There seem three ways to do it - and though this is by no means didactic, writers should consider using each sparingly:
  1. Naming a character in dialogue (in two way conversations this allows you to deduce the speaker by who they are speaking to)

    "Why, thank you, Marie, I'd very much like to get out of this wet dress."

  2. Attributation (in these days of avoiding he growled/she simmered, he said/she said can become really monotonous)

    "I don't think I like where this is going," said Harold.

  3. Adjacent action (forgoing he said/she said in favour of the character acting)

    "Count me out. I've never been so humiliated in-" Karen turned away from the table and stared at them all in the dark reflection of the city, her hands balled in her lap.
Really great writers can of course develop a rhythm in the language of different characters that the reader knows for certain can't be anyone speaking. And of course, in a conversation that goes on for more than a couple of lines the author can omit any reference for a period because the reader should be able to maintain their own knowledge of who is speaking - though they do need gentle reminders from time to time to prevent having to go back in search of who said what!

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