• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one

I recently had a conversation with a writer whose editor told her that her pages, while well written, lacked emotional suspense. Intensity. How do you put that in, she asked, her voice gravelly with despair. Her editor had looked under the hood and found a clean machine that had no go. How do you give an ailing manuscript the infusion it needs?

Well, in the first place, can you dig deeper? Are you withholding? Protecting someone you love, yourself? Even a story written on the surface of things will make a deeper impression if done right. Ask yourself: why should we read you and not someone else?  Have you compelled your book to say what it still needs to say (that’s a loose Malamud paraphrase)?

Next, do you have stylistic proclivities that dull out emotion. Meaning is it boring? Does your beautiful prose turn into wallpaper because every sentence is delivered with the same emphasis? Have you really looked at your sentence structure, word repetition, (mono) tone? What about your pacing or timing? Is there a clock inside your book meaning does the reader have an implicit understanding of how the story moves through time, or do you purposefully thwart such expectations to even greater effect?

Read your shit aloud. Do it. Use a highlighter and mark all passages that are boring or that even you, the author, want to skip over.

Don’t narrate. Story tell. What does that mean? We, your audience, are all twelve and sitting around a campfire. Don’t disappoint our eager faces.

52 Responses

  1. You’re the second person in two days to offer me the same advice. Even that I love.

  2. Love the visual of a campfire. Those emotionally intense stories are exactly the ones you would want to share to get those hearts pumping out there in the dark.

  3. When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.

    Lisa Kilian

  4. She should write about something else. If it’s not there, it’s not there.

    • Oh, God, no. I’m gonna read Frederick Seidel as instructed, but you’re off on this one, R. My there is never there, and it doesn’t really matter. Writing is lying. She just needs to lie more convincingly, that’s all. (At least, this is true if your answer to ‘why should we read you and not someone else?’ is ‘because when you read _me_, the royalty check pays for _my_ mortgage.’)

      “Lacked emotional suspense” is probably bullshit. The editor felt that _something_ was wrong (and they’re usually right about that) then trotted out ‘lacked emotional suspense’ for the same reason that corporate managers trot out ‘recontexualizing cross-platform technology.’ It’s jargon to cover uncertainty.

      If ‘even a story written on the surface of things’ is good when done right, the writer doesn’t necessarily need to dig deeper. Screw depth and compulsion and all that writerly self-mythologizing: try technique. My guess is that it’s a structural problem, because if the writing’s okay, what else is there?

      It’s impossible to talk about structure without sounding like a hack. Fortunately, I _am_ a hack, so: is there a midpoint reversal? Does the character, in trying to solve her problems, instead make them worse? Does she try and fail, and then try to address that failure and fail again? Is there a clock inside the story, attached to a bomb that will explode when the readout hits 00:00?

      I’m on board with the campfire, because campfire stories are unabashedly cheesy, and so are novels. If the campers are nodding off, put a flashlight under your chin and make spooky faces.

      (But don’t read your shit aloud. Reading a manuscript is like dancing a blueprint.)

      • I agree with you that reading your shit aloud is a mistake if what you are trying to correct is depth. What you WILL do reading it aloud is make it more wrong this way: [Does your beautiful prose turn into wallpaper because every sentence is delivered with the same emphasis? Have you really looked at your sentence structure, word repetition, (mono) tone?]

        I’ve seen writers, very good writers in workshop environments, take the advice to read their shit out loud. Instead of flushing the shit out of their writing it flushed the writer out of his shit.

        Writing, unless it is meant to be spoken instead of read, should develop it’s voice for the inner ear not the outer ear.

      • jargon to cover uncertainty

        like, “it’s not you, it’s me.” only the opposite. right?

      • Reading it aloud is like hearing the clunkit-a-clunk of a flat tire. It means you might want to pull over and take a look.

      • My midpoint reversals keep scaring my little campers away and I’m left toasting marshmallows all by myself.

      • teri. g,

        Correcting a clunkity-clunk you hear when you read it aloud will correct clunkity-clunks for those readers who read your work aloud.

        I try to write things for people who don’t even move their mouth when the they read, let alone read aloud. Actors make their living reading aloud and slurring where slurring is warranted, etc. You must do that for the inner ear with your writing, not the outer ear. Read those things aloud you want to be read aloud when you are revising. For others, read it to yourself.

        Memphis Trace

      • When I read aloud I realize how many words I know but don’t know how to pronounce; certain words seem inappropriate when spoken compared to what you think they sound like. Readers, editors and everyone else can probably hear the difference, too.

        I don’t know about digging deeper. I like a story that’s layered, but I like what you wrote about technique and surface stories; readers fill in the blanks and see more in simple stories than the author probably intended.

        Campfires are cool. So are S’mores.

      • My art teacher used to tell us that to get the most out of a work of art, you should observe it first at a distance, then up close – the idea being that you’d get a more complete appreciation for the work by allowing yourself to see both the big picture and the brush strokes that formed it. I don’t know if there’s an analogy here or not, but for a beginning writer like me, the occasional passage read aloud seems to help.

        Maybe more experienced writers have this part figured out? My work is all Jackson Pollock at this point. What do I know.

      • Gotta agree with Betsy. I come from an acting background, and for me, it’s essential to read everything out loud, especially with the different narrators that I use. To me, it’s the true test of voice. I can also understand the arguments against it, but for me, it’s the only way I can tell if it works.

      • Now isn’t that interesting. Some find that their work is damaged when they read aloud, and others do not.

        I find that my work is always improved by reading aloud. I’m a storyteller and my writing is always a story, so reading aloud always makes me hear where the story had gotten sand in the proverbial gears or where it has flatlined emotionally or where it has become all purpley in the soft dewy light of the morning sun than dances in the dingles and the dells.

      • Honestly, I feel like there’s too much mediocre, boring crap out there already; heroic measures to save another blah memoir are a waste of everyone’s energy. “The writing is good”? Yeah, right. If it was good, she wouldn’t have this problem — you can’t separate “the writing” from the emotional intensity; it’s the same thing. So often people say “the writing’s good, but it just doesn’t interest me” when they really mean “this totally sucks for reasons I can’t put my finger on.” As if writing is “good” just because it’s competent.

        Though I certainly go back and forth on this subject, today I say: if it bores you, throw it out.

      • As for reading out loud: don’t you hear it in your head as you’re writing it? My nasal squawk certainly doesn’t add much.

      • Your nasal squawk? I sound like Luna Lovegood. When strangers call the house they always ask to speak with my mother.

  5. Great post (per usual). Holding back to protect either a loved one or oneself is, I fear, the brick wall I often run into as I try to move forward.

  6. I remember a director saying to an actor wary of going over the top with a portrayal: Go for it. It’s always easier to pull someone back than it is to get them there.

    As a writer, I always worry about staying on the windy side of melodrama–but sometimes you have to let things get overwrought. The worst that happens is you pull it back, and most often I find I haven’t gone nearly as over the top as I feared.

  7. Not sure if it’d apply here, but Dwight V. Swain wrote that one of the best ways to increase tension is to drop a corpse through the roof.

    But really, great advice here, and I’ll add this from Arthur Miller: “The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

  8. “Well, in the first place, can you dig deeper? Are you withholding? Protecting someone you love, yourself?”

    Oh my, I think I love you.

    This is exactly what I had to go through. I didn’t know how to put it into those words exactly. (I know – SHAMEFUL for a writer not to have the words, right?)

  9. For pete’s sake. A reader freaks out and tells me my manuscript is too bitter and downright libelous…I was supposed to run towards that conflagration instead of pouring my salt lassi all over it?

  10. I used “exactly” twice, which is weak. Please don’t hate me. I blame the fact that it’s pretty early and my eyes aren’t pointing in the same direction yet.

  11. Wait. Isn’t it strange that the m/s has gotten this far — through beta readers and the agent — and is now getting this kind of feedback?

    And yes, read out loud. It’s shocking in a “Holy Shit, that’s painful!” way.

  12. What about the flip side: “these emotionally charged overspills obscure meaning ” and “You’re sensitive and in your desire to capture the complexity of your character’s emotions you often over-reach”

    Where’s the f’ing middle ground???

  13. This post is so good I could cry. I’m going to read my manuscript with this all in mind. Thank you!!!!

    • “this post is so good i could cry”

      me too

      (only it makes me want to run screaming from my manuscript instead of read it again!!!)

      i’m hoping for more of your perseverance today

  14. Damn, but you’re good. A lot to think about and boy did you nail it.

  15. Clean machines have their place in the bookstore and they make plenty writers a half ass living.

    Thing is when the economy sucks the words have to sing wholehearted and strong.

    You can hear the difference whether you read it aloud or not.

    Thanks Betsy. Best post ever.

  16. Did I ever tell you about Tim Stuckley’s ghost? No really, a friend of mine knows this guy who knows someone who saw him.

    Stuckley died long ago, before you were born. He was a hunter and a trapper who roamed the north woods during all seasons. He’d be out in the day and even out on a night just like this, a night when you’re not sure if the sound you hear is a squirrel, a bear or an unhappy spirit in the night. And Stuckley had every reason to be upset.

    It had long been his wish that when he died his ashes be scattered in the woods he loved, but one day he started chiseling out his gravestone, carving out not only his name, date of birth and an unfinished date of death, but a beautiful rendering of a deer bounding over a fence near a meadow. His wife was confused,
    -I thought you wanted your ashes spread in the woods.
    -I do.
    -But you’re carving a tombstone.
    -That’s right.
    Tim Stuckley was a man of few words and when he died a few days after finishing his final carving, Julia, his wife, wondered what to do with his remains. Finally she decided to separate his ashes into two piles. A part of him was buried in the ground beneath his gravestone and the second half was scattered in the woods near his favorite hunting spot. What I heard about his ghost, though, is it’s only half a person. Yup. Uh-huh. No, I don’t know if the top half is looking for the bottom or if the left is looking for the right, but that’s the ghost you’ll seein these hills, a man looking for his other half.

  17. reading out loud works for me for edits. i’m in the midst of a painful edit and i need to remove the entire first page of a short story and, goddamn, it’s hard. i do not want to cut the father from the story. oh, i’ve tried avoiding it. i’ve been fucking around trying to write a 100 word story prompt off janet reid’s website but, i ask you, how in the hell do you use dauntless, abnegation, erudite, amity and candor without sounding like Vampire Bill in True Blood?

    reading the intro aloud informs my choice to delete because it’s flabby and, yes, when i start the story later, it’s a hell of a lot more dynamic.

    it’s not like anyone is listening when i read aloud; at least, i don’t think anyone is listening.

  18. RE: the cutting of words –

    I am so with you there! I was challenged by my editor/mentor to cut 20% from my short story. I swore I couldn’t do it – but I cut even more, and made it a much tighter story.

    And I hear you on the revising of the opening of a story. I have a novel where my first chapter absolutely has to go – but I don’t want to let go! I recognize that it’s weak and flabby, but as it’s the genesis of the rest of the novel, I want to keep it around because I’m fond of it.

    I don’t envy you in your work, but you know, it will probably work out to be a much better story when you’re done.

    Good luck!

  19. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I started this book. I have the story, I have the characters, I have the words. But do I have the depth? I still don’t have the answer, but I refuse to stop.

  20. “Read your shit aloud.”

    “Have you really looked at your sentence structure, word repetition, (mono) tone?”

    Just dragged myself out of bed & am already laughing…

  21. Adam Phillips, psychologist and writer said something like some people (me) love their bad sentences because they make their good ones stand out. Truth is it’s hard to know the difference. Are the ones you hear the good ones? And the ones you make the bad? Is it intuition over structure? In a novel, I tentatively say yes. But in the play I’m writing, structure is king…that’s why it is slowly devouring me…

    • If you read McCarthy’s The Road you’ll see the Phillips notion in action, I think. What McCarthy did, it seemed to me, was to set up a fogbank at the beginning of the book, with beautiful landscape imagery, repetition of the word grey and other words, and then he proceeded to write just very straightforward plain sentences interrupted every couple or few pages with stunning idiosyncratic sentences that hit hard–their vividness was cast in high relief against the surround of smooth grey skies.

  22. “Is there a clock inside your book?” This is a fantastic question.

  23. I often test a chapter by imagining that I’m up in front of 40 women at a book signing and I have to read this chapter out loud. Would they laugh, would they want to read the rest of the book? Is the chapter emotionally compelling, or is it too gooey etc. I do need to actually read my ms out loud…but I gotta wait until no one is around…eek…

  24. Betsy and all– Thank you very much for this thoughtful post and comments. Very useful! Though I look forward to the return of Betsy’s lively, funny and tension-filled poestries too (combination of poetry, post and pastry, what could be better?).

  25. P.S. I don’t mean to hijack the thread or anything. However I am starting up a writing group in San Francisco in April. Thought we could use Betsy’s book to guide us. Thinking we’d meet once a month. Reply to this if you’re interested and we’ll figure it out. Thanks!

  26. Bullshit, bullshit, and for emphasis – bullshit. I stopped reading the entries at ‘don’t read your shit out loud’ and zoomed down here to post. What the hell do we think we’re doing here people? Being ghost writers for dean koontz? Get a clue and while you’re at it get some audio books – yes i said it, fucking audio books; preferrably ones read by the author. Listen to it how the author intended it to sound. The best books i’ve ever read – the words fucking melt off the page. I’ve re-read out loud what i’d just read silently so the god damned world knew i’d gotten the point (the end of The Road). Read it outloud or burn it. God damnit.

  27. “How do you give an ailing manuscript the infusion it needs?”

    Throw it out and start anew. Find the most difficult place, the place that scares you, and start from there. See what happens next.

  28. Quoting Jay-Z and giving out some of the best writing advice I’ve heard in a long time- Read your shit out loud. I love it…love….love…love it.

    Read your shit out loud is right up there with something one of my first writing group teacher who was young and African American said to one of the student in the class. ” That’s really nice writing but where’s the mother fucking story.” I always try to remember that when I’m trying to get too fancy in my work.


  29. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Johanna Harness, Muriel Reyserhove and others. Muriel Reyserhove said: "Don’t narrate. Story tell. What does that mean? We, your audience, are all twelve and sitting around a campfire" http://bit.ly/hkKE2x […]

  30. “Do you have stylistic proclivities that dull out emotion?”
    That sounds almost elegant! Terrific advice, thank you.

  31. I love the image of entertaining twelve-year-olds around a campfire with my story. Thank you! I’m definitely going to use it to shape my future manuscripts…

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