Monday, February 28, 2011

MFA Monday: Surprise Me

One of my favorite quotes from the residency was from writer and faculty member Claire Davis, who said in her lecture on revision: "There is nothing a writer likes better than a page that is not blank."

I laughed out loud at that, because that is so true for me most of the time. Staring at a blank page, even if the previous ones are full, is sometimes crippling. I can stare at a page for hours and write next to nothing, or write paragraphs that I write over and over, just to erase and start again. Getting something down on the page that is good enough to then scrub and scour and tweak is hard for me.

That's why I love revisions. The story is there. The words are there. All I have to do is make them better.

One of the things I'm working on is creating surprising language. I admit I'm not very good at it yet. More than one faculty member pointed out in their classes that great writing should surprise the reader. Ask yourself how often a reader can guess what you're about to write. If you cover the first half of a sentence, can the reader fill in the rest? If they read the first half of a scene, can they guess the rest?

Think about all the descriptions we use that we think are beautiful but are really cliche:

crisp Autumn leaves
creaky stairs
fluffy clouds
the ground littered with...
the ground blanketed by...
filled the nostrils with the heady scent of....
twinkle in his eyes
the wrinkled lines of his face

I've been helping a friend edit her new YA novel, and on one page I found the following phrases:

The curtains billowed...
Her mother bustled around the kitchen...
The smell of turkey bacon wafted...

Billowed, bustled, and wafted are great words. They are crisp, specific, and not overly-used words. And maybe if she'd used only one on a page, I wouldn't have noticed. But by the second paragraph, I had to note that these were all cliche phrases. If you'd asked me what curtains do in the wind, I would have said billowed. If you'd asked how a smell moves from downstairs to upstairs, I would have said wafted. The words themselves are not the problem; the problem is that they are used in a way a reader has come to expect.

On the next page, though, my friend was back to her brilliant writing, and blew me away with a phrase that mingled words together I'd never have expected. THAT is what every line should be like.

It's a lot easier for me to pick these things out of someone else's writing than to see it in my own. And harder, still, for me to create unique and surprising phrases and scenes. In truth, I think even the end of my novel is predictable from the start. To some extent, there are only two real choices, and the reader is going to know this pretty early on.

Which makes it all the more important for me to create a reading experience that isn't predictable.

Just this morning I was revising and came across in my WIP:

Kat's heart...

What do you think I finished it with?

Originally I had "skipped a beat."  I think somewhere else in the book I have her heart fluttering. I probably have it beating wildly, too. All cliche.

After a few minutes of thinking, I decided on "Kat's heart stumbled over its next beat."  It's not beautiful, but its more unique. I'll probably keep working on it. Funny how long I can spend thinking about one sentence, one visual image, one word.

The next phrase I'm working on is her description of the city. Loud? Crowded? Busy? I have all these things, but I think they sound too common. Time to think of a good replacement.

Think about this as you write this week:

How often in your writing could a reader guess what you are going to say?
How often do you pair words that have never been paired before?
How often will a reader find a statement that startles them?

And have you ever come across a sentence in a book that stopped you in your reading just to enjoy the surprise of language? 


  1. Definitely something to think about when I start revising - thanks!

  2. Really great post :) It's easy to get caught in the cliches. With regard to the blank page, my strategy is to come up with some sort of basic starting point, start pounding away and keep going for awhile, trying not to worry about how it all sounds. After a few days I'll come back to it and see how it sounds. If I try to judge what I just wrote, sometimes I hate it, but I've come back to the same piece a few weeks later and thought is was the next best thing since sliced bread. :)

  3. I've been going over what I've written doing exactly this. It's amazing how things can change. AND if I can't find a way to see it more uniquely, I cut it, or keep it simple.

    LOVE Sarah Ockler for new and interesting ways to say things, if you haven't read her books, you should. She's a YA author and her books are smart, full of emotion, beautiful imagery and unique ways of saying the simplest things.

    Start with fixing Delilah - I fell in love with the boy she wrote and the interesting way she described the girl's feelings was lovely.

  4. I think when we first start writing we use those cliches thinking others do and that must be right. Then we dig deeper and describe our unique way. I've been working on this very thing!

  5. Aaaarrrgghhh! You're killin' me, Heidi! This is SUCH good advice! Thank goodness I'm only on page 24 of my first round of revisions. I'm afraid to look back now, though, I just know I'm cliche!


    Thank you. (I really mean it!!)

  6. The hard thing when you're revising is that your not reading your book all in one sitting like a reader might, so you don't often catch those cliches, because it's been a long time since you read the first one.

    So that's great advice to try and do away with them all together and try to surprise the reader and ourselves with better choices of words.

  7. I love, love reading unique prose. My favourite writing exercise in school was describing a scene using all five senses without moving forward the action. I need to do this again! Whenever I read Annie Proulx I often have to pause, soaking in the unique beauty of her writing.

  8. That's why I love revisions. The story is there. The words are there. All I have to do is make them better.

    You and me both. The hard part is filling up all those blank pages. Revising is a pleasure.