Why They Call It “Polishing”

Posted: November 3, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , ,

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I’ve noticed something pretty significant about this latest revision my daughter and I are doing on our middle grade manuscript.  With every revised paragraph, we are tying together tiny loose ends that previously dangled.  Many of these were not noticeable or even an issue, but in the process of writing any story things get invented and added on page 157 that you hadn’t considered on page 3.  And nobody expect you to go back and reference every nuance throughout the book in the first chapter.

But there is something very … mature … about a manuscript in which it is clear the writer clearly knows what’s coming.

It has always been my practice when writing to make every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, and as many individual words as possible accomplish more than one thing.  Why use a sentence to just describe the weather, when with that same sentence you can also establish a mood, give a glimpse of the setting, tie in the character’s motivation, or hint at some detail that will be revealed in full later?  Beginning writers often have difficulty smoothing out info dumps in their writing, because they can never figure out how to bury that information in the rest of the text.  This is how; you spread it out and dribble it into your text little by little.

Here’s an example: On the first page of our book (in this new revision) our hero thinks she sees an ogre hanging out at the fair.

I sat perfectly still while my heart thudded. Ogres were the ones that ate children, right?

Except that nobody in the crowd seemed to notice him. Magic dust or something sparkled all around him, but everyone else walked by like he was just some random guy hanging out at the fair. I didn’t know what was scarier – the fact that I was looking at a real live ogre, or the fact that I was the only one seeing the freaking ogre. Was I a few crayons short of a full box? I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut … then looked again.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was just a guy. No sparkles or anything.

I blew my breath out slowly. Get a grip, Cat. Rose told you not to read those fairy tales right before bed the other night. Right. Like I’d ever actually do school work at a sleepover at my best friend’s house.

Which was why I was doing my homework now. Feeling guilty, I looked down at the paper in front of me. I was homeschooled, so Mom would be the one reading my report – and the only thing I’d written so far was, “Catherine Brökkenwier, age 12.”

Look at the paragraph in red.  In these two lines, while ostensibly describing Cat’s reaction to what she’s seeing,  we also introduce Rose, the fact that Cat reads fairy tales, the fact that she was at a sleepover, as well as transition into the next action — her homework.  We also introduce Cat’s voice and the way she talks to herself in her head.  In the final paragraph, above, we give you Cat’s age and full name without “telling” it to you.

Okay, so with this tool in hand, what’s so significant about this latest revision is the fact that we can now do this with full knowledge of what’s to come — not just plot, but emotional arc, little details, jokes that need to be set up, hints about things that won’t be revealed until the end, and details to support conclusions that Cat draws about her circumstances later in the book.  And we can fold them in subtly, almost invisibly, as we smooth over the manuscript.

And that’s why it’s called “polishing.” All of this smoothing.  Instead of unsightly lumps of info dumped her and there, we can level them out and at the same time tie up all kinds of tiny loose threads poking up everywhere.  This is the part where we make the manuscript even, silky smooth … where we make it shine.

If you know anything about woodworking, you know, you can’t sand your table to a mirror-like finish before you attach the legs.  Polishing is the last thing you do.  And it only works when all of the pieces are already in place.

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Comments
  1. bethaman80 says:

    “Polishing is the last thing you do. And it only works when all of the pieces are already in place.” YES. Continuing with this metaphor, writing the first draft is just cutting down the tree. 😀

    Like

  2. Rick Ellrod says:

    Love the part about making each passage serve as many purposes as possible. That’s building a work of art, like the craftsman in the picture.

    Like

  3. Bobbie says:

    Some quality writing there.

    Like

  4. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    Excellent post, John! I can see you at some point conducting seminars on writing. And I can sure relate to the polishing process, as every time I do a drawing or write an article I get into full-fledged “tweak” mode and often there is very little resemblance between the finished product and what I started out with. I think of the original concept as a clothes hanger upon which I drape garment after garment in different combinations until I come up with something that looks right. As always, my best wishes to you and your daughter on the book, can’t wait to read it!

    Like

  5. Amira says:

    I agree that this opening is stronger than the version I read. However, the mention of the sleepover is very confusing. I still don’t know where she is, and it makes me think she’s at a sleepover right now, and then get confused because she isn’t. I would get rid of that part because it is not clear.

    Like

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