Thursday, January 2, 2014

Soft Spots? In My Manuscript?

You first heard the expression "soft spots" used in relation to a story when you were retained by Sol Stein, a man who had been a publisher and editor as well as a writer.

His instructions to you were to read only for soft spots, places where, as you came to think of it, a professional reader such as a literary agent or book editor would set the manuscript down with no intention of continuing.  No line editing.  No copyediting. At the most some notes about possible changes in the order of progression of the story, or indications of obvious gaps in logic or vital information.

You'd long since come to understand through your own revisions of your own work, editorial responses to your own work, and your own activity as an editor and teacher how the author takes certain elements for granted that the reader might not readily see.  An exaggerated example would be your own understanding that a character in a story of yours is left-hand dominant, yet you have given the reader no cause to suspect this much less see clues.

Stein was willing to "accept" notes from you on such matters of taking things for granted in both extremes, the exclusion or inclusion, an exaggerated example of the latter being, "He raised his right hand, which was his dominant hand, to ward off the blow."

Soft spots are meant to be places where story falters due to passages that carry too much or too little narrative information, where descriptions become too encyclopedic or general as opposed to direct and specific.  Soft spots may also be seen as places where characters spend too much time thinking things through, where the author tells readers things they already know, where figures of speech such as metaphors proliferate like bedbugs in a thrift shop sofa, and where motives are spread out like items of clothing in a yard sale.

You've had many assignments since then to conduct a search-and-destroy mission for soft spots, including, to the degree you are able, to detect such places in your own work.

A proliferation of soft spots may have been the motivation behind a common exhortation to beginning and intermediate writers, "Kill your darlings," which is to say, get rid of things you've included because the effect attests your love of words and the decorations associated with rhetoric and stylistic bravura.

You in fact have become suspicious of any such tropes that seem to appear as if from nowhere and which, on sober reflection, do nothing to advance the story or in some way shade its thematic implications.

Soft spots are ruptures, causing the skin of the story to distend or extend where it would not do so under more ordinary conditions.  You can understand why any writer, yourself included, would allow them to happen in early drafts, where you are, in the face of all your previous contemplations, learning to listen better to your characters and the off-the-wall potentials for the story taking hold in fresh, sparkling, convincing ways.

How easy it would be to say, Each moment, each beat in a story must have some resonant importance, then let the matter alone in hopes that the writer--you, if you are the writer--will understand.  Not so fast.

A beat is a given moment in a particular scene.  When delivering a line of dialogue, a character may pause for a beat midway through a simple observation, imparting an emotional tone or quality that raises the effect of the observation.  Again, an exaggerated example.  A Native American in an historical Western, saying, "This is a good day--"  pause for a beat, "--to die."
Before the battle of The Little Big Horn, General George Armstrong Custer was rumored to have looked at the scene, then said, "The odds look pretty good from here."

Every beat of action or inaction must be intense, must seem appropriate, authentic.  There is also the matter of the cumulative effect of beats.  Consider the first four notes of the famed "Fifth Symphony in C minor,"  dah dah dah dum.  The "dum" is essential; without it, the first three notes sound--well, they sound soft.  And silly.

John strode to the window, where he spent some time, checking to see if there were any movement in the street below.  "I wonder," he says, after a beat, "if they're still out there."  Little softness there.  In fact, some potential for menace.

Every story, including many nonfiction narratives written in dramatic format, has a narrative intensity.  Soft spots are speed bumps that disrupt the sense of the reader being not only inside the story but a partner to the apprehensions, goals, and strategy of one or more characters.

Soft spots can also be considered the places where the writer has lost interest, grown bored or desperate or defensive.  When you think you've been severe enough on your own work to have questioned and somehow resolved the soft spots in your own work, there comes the heady rush of thinking, this time you're on your game.  Bring on the pros.  Let your agent or some editor find anything of vague resemblance to a soft spot.  Not this time.

Weeks, sometimes months later, the email arrives or the hard copy of the manuscript arrives, with the pages of notes.

Before members of the Hopi kachina clan leave the ceremonial kiva to participate in a dance, they are anointed about the eyes with sacred corn meal, a part of their transformation from humans to the messenger spirits they are about to impersonate.  After the ritual dance is concluded and the dancers return to the kiva, the clan chief smudges the corn meal, then tells the dancers, "Now you are mortals again."

When the email or snail mail containing your edited manuscript arrives, you open it, then consult the notes, remembering at all costs that now, you are a writer again.

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