Telling It Slant

Telling It Slant

This essay was originally published in the January 31st edition of the WriterHouse Newsletter.

In 1993, the movie Groundhog Day was released in cinemas. If you’ve forgotten the movie’s premise, here’s a recap. Phil Connors, an arrogant Pittsburg weatherman played by Bill Murray, is assigned to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—home of the famous Punxsutawney Phil. The next day he finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same miserable day over and over. And, because it’s a comedy, hilarity ensues.

I enjoyed Murray’s irreverence and the director’s use of the radio to cue the time loop. But what I remember most about the movie is that while each day was a repeat of the one before, we as viewers perceived them differently based on the details.

In Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir Sue Silverman writes, “you’ve all heard the cliché ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ but it’s also true—maybe more true—that one word is worth a thousand pictures if it’s the right word.” She says we need to tell it slant—as in not just rendering what happened, but flavoring what happened by choosing precise sensory details that create the right emotional tone.

Silverman’s book is full of helpful exercises, such as writing about a first (as in the first day of school, a date, a love, or house) and slanting the details to reveal how you feel, or writing a physical description of yourself that reveals the inner you.

My favorite exercise on telling it slant comes from Dinty Moore’s book The Story Cure. He suggests writers choose a house they once lived in and describe it from the perspective of a character who’s just returned from war. Once you’re done, describe the same house from the perspective of a character who’s just fallen in love. Read both pieces and pay attention to how the light, color, and sounds differ? Which items are emphasized? Which ones are ignored?

You can modify this exercise by writing or revising scenes while listening to music. Many writers find lyric-free movie soundtracks work best. If you’re not sure where to find them, try iTunes or Spotify. Just for fun, take a scene you’ve written, (perhaps about one of Silverman’s firsts) and re-write it while listening to the soundtracks for Manchester by the SeaStar Wars, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When you finish, examine the details in your drafts. How did the music influence your writing? Which soundtrack seemed like the right fit?

If you’re not sure what soundtracks might work best, consider the following suggestions:

 When it comes to telling it slant, experimentation is key. Rarely do writers find a detail worth a thousand pictures on their first try. Often, our work looks like the movie Groundhog Day—drafts of the same day written again and again. Rather than thinking of these drafts as failures, see them as opportunities—each version a tuning fork you’ll ring to your scene’s perfect tone.
Ruthless Editing (Or Loving Your Work to the Next Level)

Ruthless Editing (Or Loving Your Work to the Next Level)

On October 1st, I started the fourth draft of my memoir by channeling George Saunders. I’d recently watched his interview on Late Night with Seth Myers. During that interview, Saunders explained how his editorial process shows respect for his readers and love for his characters. He sees each revision as an act of love.

I need to cut 25,000 words from my fourth draft. That’s a lot of love.

Over the past few months, I’ve read The Story Cure by Dinty Moore, attended Hippocamp, and read a number of blog posts on making good writing great. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned.

Examine your character arc: Good memoirs are about transformation. Many writers outline the narrative arc for their books and have a good sense of how the plot moves forward. But it’s also important to outline the character arc, or how the character changes over time. Outlining the character arc will help you refine your plot and delete tangential scenes.

Drop the backstory: As a teenager, I loved Stephen King’s novels. But there was one problem. Every book contained between 50 – 200 pages of backstory on his main characters. Talk about skim city. Modern readers are impatient. And let’s face it, few of us are Mr. King. In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly,” Folio agent Jeff Kleinman says, “In almost all cases if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.” My new rule of thumb: if it doesn’t affect a character’s decisions or reappear in the story, it goes.

Examine the weight of each scene: All scenes are not equal. Some contain vital moments that hold the essence of your work. Others just move the plot forward. Consider the work each scene is doing. Compress essential but undramatic scenes so you can make room for the ones that really count.

Replace adjectives and adverbs with active, strong verbs.

Nix Useless Words: Diane Urban has a blog post that contains 43 words to remove from your work. While you can make a case for keeping some of these words, each one you keep should earn its place in your manuscript.

Read your work out loud. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get to work. There’s no substitute for doing this, no matter the length of your work.

Find a second pair of eyes: We all become blind to our manuscripts’ flaws. Talented beta readers and editors can help you kill your darlings so your stars can shine.

George Saunders is right. Since October 1st, I’ve cut over 7,000 words from the first two sections of my book. I already feel more loving toward my characters and the scenes I’ve decided to keep. With some persistence and a lot of tea, I’ll scrap the next 18,000 with ease. Imagine the love I’ll feel for my work. Imagine the love you’ll feel for yours.

This post was originally published in the November 2, 2017 edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.

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