Friday, June 01, 2007

Different Approaches To The Same Destination

Some of my recent postings and interviews have dealt with writers getting help from outside sources: readers, editors, and crit groups. I’m convinced that, with very few exceptions, works of fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter) are not written in a vacuum. Suggestions are made, words changed, sections are rewritten—and generally the resulting product is improved over the original form. But who decides what to keep and what to throw out? Ultimately, the decision belongs to the writer.

Let’s play a little game. I’m going to give you the opening lines of a suspense novel on which I’m working. The first version is my first draft. The second is the same material as rewritten (during an encounter at a writers’ workshop) by a well-known author. The third is a sample suggested by a professional editor, Ray Rhamey.

In my first scene, I wanted to hook the reader immediately, and it’s apparent to me that both revisions help do just that. As you can see, the author prefers short, punchy sentences in the scene. He wants to interject action, help the reader feel the flow of the work. He likes lots of "white space." The editor had a different idea. Although his version doesn’t exactly match my character’s name and situation, it illustrates setting the scene and involving the reader from the very beginning.

My point? Things can always be improved, and there’s more than one way to do it. Take constructive criticism for exactly what it is: a suggestion. Then use the best ideas to rewrite it in your own voice. That’s what I did, but since it’s still a work in progress, you’re going to have to wait to see the final result.

"Don't turn around. Keep your mouth shut and don't move a muscle."

If the unmistakable prick of a knife against the side of his neck weren't convincing enough, the voice behind him was. The guttural sounds, more spit than spoken, sounded like they issued from a throat that was rinsed each morning with broken glass instead of Scope.

Ben's head remained immobile, but his eyes flicked left and right looking for help and finding none. At 2 AM, there were at most a half dozen cars in the area of the doctor's parking garage where he stood, with no other human inhabitants except him and his attacker. It seemed that all his colleagues were asleep, having left Dr. Ben Merrick to deal first with a ruptured appendix, and now with a mugger. If he'd had time to spare, he would have breathed a "Why me?" into the air. As it was, he was having trouble breathing at all, since an arm now encircled his neck, adding near-asphyxiation to the menace posed by the continued pressure of the knife.

"Don't move!"

The guttural voice came from behind him. The prick of a knife against his neck served as punctuation.

Ben's body froze, but his eyes darted right and left.

Suddenly, he felt an arm around his neck, pulling him back, almost choking him.

"Look…," Ben croaked.

The pressure increased, cutting off his words.

"OK," he managed to whisper, "you win." His pulse pounded in his ears, almost drowning out the attacker's next words.

"We hear you don't want to cooperate. This is to convince you." Three vicious blows rained onto his kidneys.

Ben's cry of pain echoed through the darkness of the hospital’s empty parking garage. He slumped forward.

The restraining arm brought him up short, cutting off his air.

PROFESSIONAL EDITOR (with comments):
Dr. Ben Cooper pulled his car keys from his pocket, glad for the quiet of the hospital parking garage at three a.m. after a night of cries and screams in the emergency room. The teddy bear he'd bought for Becky grinned up at him from the passenger seat, and he smiled at the thought of how much she'd love it. Then a hand flashed in front of his face, steel glittered, and a sharp line of pain pressed against his throat.

(Editor: I don’t have the details about your hero, so this may not be accurate. This is just meant to illustrate how, in a few lines of narrative, you can place the character, set the scene, give the reader meaningful, sympathetic characteristics, and then thrust him into jeopardy. With an opening paragraph such as this, I think a reader will be more likely to read on than with a "sharp prick" at the neck of some anonymous guy named Ben.)

Now, how would you have written the opening? I hope this illustrates for you that there are many different ways to write the same thing. That's why editors assure neophyte writers that no one is going to "steal their ideas." Plot is one thing. Execution is another--and I think it's much more important than any single "idea."

Good writing.


Anonymous said...

Hi there, and blessings to you. Followed your link via Alton's and thought I'd tour your blog. Very nice. Good to meet another Christian writer. God bless you (and thanks for the tour. I'll be back).

Anonymous said...

What Vicki said . . .

Honestly, Richard. I liked yours the best.


Nicole said...

What Vicki said . . .

Honestly, Richard. I liked yours the best.