A funny thing happened on my way to editing my novel Free Souls. Funny-ironic, which is midway between funny-haha and funny-peculiar. I don’t like how I’ve written Chapter 19 and 20, in which my heroine reflects on the mess she got herself into her freshman year in college and how its aftereffects might destroy her relationship with the hero. I’ve reworked and edited them two or three times before, but they still make me want to kick their little butts. They simply won’t behave. From a writers’ forum critique site, where I posted them, I got responses that dealt more with theme and content than with method and style. That made for some stimulating exchanges but didn’t get me much forrarder on my quest to whip the offending chapters into shape. So to cut off the flood of “she’s probably feeling like this” (when she wasn’t), Sunday night I posted Chapter 18 to show what my main character is really reacting to. And Monday one of the previous responders posted a comment that went, in part, like this:
Personally, I could not tell it was the same writer who wrote both chapters.
Oh. My. Gosh. I have heard that before. Nearly twenty years ago. The end of my third year at Oxford. Up to then I’d been writing my final exam essays the way I always write expository prose: Think of a metaphor that illustrates the topic, establish the relationship in the introduction, and develop the matter organically from there. I’d done pretty well with that, but I needed three or four more leading-Alphas (α to αβ grades) to finish up with a first class degree. Boy, I wanted that First. I had enough tests to take that I didn’t have to ace them all. If I could raise my grade on enough of them I’d have it. So when my advisory tutor told us we could improve our exam essays by outlining first, I thought, “Well, he’s the expert, he knows what he’s talking about. I don’t like outlining, but I need to be humble enough to try.” Sitting down to the first exam on the first morning of finals week, I took his advice. I outlined. I included everything I thought would cover the question, in the right order. The subject was Missions, and man, I knew a lot. I was on fire. I started writing and scorched the page. A leading Alpha for sure. Imagine my shock when William, my Missions tutor, told me I’d failed that exam! Unthinkable! Impossible! I knew so much! I was sure I’d done so well! William, who was also my college’s vice principal, went to bat for me. He launched an investigation. Unfortunately, the Oxford system forbids the student from seeing his or her test essay booklets after they’re handed in, so I couldn’t look at the grader’s marks and see what he or she had complained of. And at Oxford, all the students from all the colleges taking a single course/major get the same test which is graded anonymously by a faculty board drawn from the entire University. Without breaking the rules of confidentiality, there was no way for William or me to question my grader on his reaction to my work, or even to know who that grader was. But eventually an answer emerged. The head of the examination board told William something like this, and William told me:
“Her Missions essay ran like a disconnected list. It had no organization or structure. We dug her previous examinations booklets out of the vault and compared them. If it hadn’t been for the handwriting, we wouldn’t have believed they were written by the same person.”
Oh. The only reason I didn’t plough the rest of my Third Year exams was because outlining was too much work and I’d gone back to my usual style the rest of the week. I didn’t get enough more leading-Alphas and I didn’t get a First. But that’s what I got for taking advice that didn’t fit. In the case of the guilty chapters, it’s more the result of rejecting some advice then taking other advice in an attempt to make up for it. And simply not knowing what to do. According to Jack Bickham, I think it is, a writer should never leave her characters by themselves to think. But in this case, I had to. My MC is a cerebral person, it’s natural she should think through her problems. And her focus on her work (and on the hero) has isolated her from her friends, a state that will be important to the plot later. I couldn’t have her calling up a friend to talk it over. How to compensate? By producing an extended internal monologue, with occasional verbalizations addressed to the four walls. But yer nawt suppozed 2 doooo that! I tried to compensate. Dialogue is more interesting, everybody knows that. So why not break it up like that, like she’s talking to herself (in a sane way), with quotation marks to set off her inner debate? But instead of making it more interesting and immediate, it affected my test readers like this:
“I find the quoted self-talk to be distracting. I don’t think that the quotes are needed, and the first set, at least, feels like an actual error.”
” . . . what’s with the speech marks? Who’s she supposed to be talking to? Is she speaking out loud? It’s very distracting because I’m never sure whether now I should expect dialogue or if I should expect narration, and the tone of voice for each should be different. As yours goes, everything’s kinda blurred and not in a good way. “
“I would suggest a closer third person point of view, without the quotes. Rather than swapping back and forth between the narrator’s observations to the character’s thoughts, I’d suggest sticking with her thoughts.”
Aaaagggghhhh! There is no external narrator in these chapters, or if there is, he/she/it only puts her oar in when my protagonist is moving about the room! Obviously, It Isn’t Working. The comments are still coming in, and I’m working to integrate what they advise into my own style. Maybe I’ll take some of the material in Chapter 20 and put it into Chapter 46 instead, which is why the latter isn’t written or posted yet. Will I be able to rewrite 19 and 20 so readers will receive without hitch both the style and the content? I hope so. And if something funny’s going on, I better have caused it to happen on purpose.