Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dumb. Down.

Back in the day of the typewriter and such niceties as yellow second sheets or foolscap paper, on which early drafts are written before the final draft on some rag-content bond paper, you could compromise the life cycle of many trees writing about what comes first when you are possessed by the idea that ultimately becomes the story.  This is still the case even though a good deal of your work gets to the screen much earlier than it used to.  A concept ranks high as the potential egg that morphs into the chicken.  So too is the vision of a project, which in many ways is your favorite first step.

Ever since you as a teen-ager came into ownership of Margaret Nicholson's Americanized version of Fowler's Modern English Usage, you wanted to compile such a book, having written all its component parts.   You have done so.  Your first notion was to call it The Fiction Writer's Tool Kit.  Your literary agent sent it forth that way, but came to like better your alternate name for it, The Elements of Fiction.  Although you still like The Tool Kit, because it is, you believe, a tool kit, you have no problem with Elements because it is also that.

Today you have discovered that among the places to have passed on it, the one publisher you did not want to claim it has also passed on it.  You have never been a great fan or Writers' Digest nor their book division, and so when you hear from them that it does not speak to their audience, you are not only not dismayed, you are relieved.  One of the adjectives they used in describing it was professorial, which you have been.

"What's your vision of this project?" you were once asked by a producer who was considering seriously your notion of assigning you the first draft assignment to dramatize F. Scott Fitzgerald's minor masterpiece, The Cut-Glass Bowl.  When you told him you saw it period he countered with a suggestion that you try seeing it contemporary, which didn't work for you because you felt the story needed a link to the past to make it work.

You mention this event because there has been thrown into the pot the concept of dumbing down the level of Elements.  You said you'd entertain the notion and have been thinking about it off an on for a few hours, which were hours enough to lead you to the memory of a time when some of your students asked you to supply them with examples of dangling participles so they could readily identify that trope and subsequently avoid it.  You recall the great effort it cost you to be able to dangle a few stray participles.  This exercise would not have taken you so long had you been a more orthodox grammarian, but you are not.  You do not, for instance, put commas where you know them to belong as the result of knowing grammatical structure in a formal way; you place your commas and semi-colons where you wish the reader to pause, the comma being a one-beat pause, the semi-colon a beat-and-a-half.  It follows that the colon is a two-beat rest.

Therefore, as you used to say in the spelling out of a geometry proof.  Therefore, you will not fucking consider dumbing down your text, because you don't think you know how.  You can and will rewrite it, revise it as many times as sound editorial query will reveal ambiguity or anomaly.  You can't dumb it down because it will not sound like you and it will not reflect your vision.

1 comment:

Storm Dweller said...

Dumbing Down was exactly the reason I dropped my journalism class. Apparently it's too much to expect the American public to have a high school level vocabulary, and to expect them to read through an entire aricle to the end. So the information must be delivered all in one huge horse pill at the beginning of the piece. It was too much for me to swallow.

I would love the Fiction Writer's Tool Kit, proffesorial or not.