Monday, May 2, 2011

The second best word, or the best second word

Second-guessing oneself is a writer's nemesis. 

There are always words and mostly they're good words.  Mostly they do what the writer wants them to do, which is to tell the story.  Even those old chestnuts like "It was a dark and stormy night" get the job done.  The reader knows what's going on.  It's night, it's dark, and it's stormy.  It works.

As a writer, though, there's a temptation to think that one word is better than another, and so begins the hunt for The Best Word, the single word that does exactly what the writer needs done.

Remember "Throw Momma from the Train" and how Billy Crystal's character just couldn't get past not having the absolute right word?  While the movie exaggerated that need to a comic extreme, it's possible for a real writer to experience the same creative paralysis.  That's what made the whole movie so hilarious for me.  I don't remember hardly anything of the rest of it, but that desperate search for The Best Word hit home.

So this evening I had some free time from the day job and rather than troll around other blogs and get myself in trouble, I thought maybe I'd better do some writing.  I knew which book I wanted to work on -- I had plenty to choose from and that will be the subject for another blog entry sometime in the future -- and it should have been just a matter of opening up the file and picking up where I'd left off. 

The problem was that I didn't like the opening line.  The more I read it, the more it felt wrong.  Worse yet, I knew why it felt wrong.  For the life of me, however, I didn't know how to fix it, how to make it right.  And I wasn't going to settle for anything less.  The opening might seem fine to someone else, to anyone else, but it didn't seem fine to me.  Second best simply wouldn't do.

The opening to any piece of writing is the most important.  Whether it's called a hook or a thesis sentence  or whatever, it absolutely has to work.  Way back in 1982, an article by Shelly Lowenkopf published in The Writer warned,

"There is nothing to match first the outrage and then the dismay of the beginning writer who discovers how much of a book-length manuscript an editor or agent will read before reaching the decision to send the manuscript back to the author.  Three pages."  (Shelly Lowenkopf, "Creating a 'Rejection-Resistant' Novel," The Writer, February 1982)

I took that warning to heart in 1982 and I've never forgotten it.  The beginning is paramount.  And the opening line of this book just wasn't . . . . enough.  Was that why the novel stalled back in 1997 and really hasn't been touched since?  No, I can't blame my voluntarily quitting writing on the lackluster first line of a historical romance.  Though all I've done in the intervening 14 years is add seven or eight pages, I've never lost confidence in the story itself.  In myself, yes.  I've lost confidence in myself repeatedly.  But not in that story.

Therefore, it deserved the best opening line I could give it.

Was I second-guessing myself?  Sure.  And I was using that second-guessing as an excuse not to write.  Absolutely.  (Excuses not to write are plentiful.  I'm hoping that as I throw more and more of them out here in public, the action will be kind of like tossing them in the garbage.  Not that you, gentle reader, are exactly the trash can, but well, you get the picture.  Don't you?)

Now, I won't say it was an omen or anything, because I'm really not superstitious, but this evening as I looked at that first paragraph for the bazillionth time, I knew what was wrong, knew what it needed to be right, and suddenly knew how to make it right.   I made the change that I knew it needed.  Just changing a few words shifted the focus of that opening paragraph to where it needed to be, altered the mood and settled the point of view.

I found The Best Words.  Or at least better ones.  I think.

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