Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Breaking Down the Two Choices

I want to thank everyone who commented on the two possible openings yesterday, and I especially want to thank people for being civil when we do things like this. I know there can be a real temptation on the internet, with its famous anonymity, to tear into work and forget that there's a real person behind every line of type. But for the most part, we manage to keep things focused on the work in a non-snarky way, and I'm proud of us for that. Keep it up, folks.

There were a lot of smart observations made about these two openings. It's clear that personal taste plays a key factor in deciding which we "like" better, but we also heard some solid analysis of these two openings. There's no clear consensus on which is the stronger opening, but people's opinions seem to be driven by two factors:

1. The narrator in the first piece is less offensive, but most readers experienced her as distant or cold, primarily because the list of statistics is a bit clinical, but also because they don't get her jokes.

2. The narrator in the second piece is much more immediate and emotional, but some readers were alienated by her anger, which also struck several people as being a little too on-the-nose.

So. What's a writer to do?

Well, maybe before we get into that, we should take a closer look at the two options.

Option One:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average—and I’m not talking about my height. I didn’t start out this way, mind you. At birth, I was actually below average.

That em dash is a real fulcrum point, at least insofar as I read the paragraph. What comes before the dash seems fine to me, assuming we want a certain impression created of this narrative character. That impression? Analytical. Informed. Someone who ponders issues of personal interest to her. The list of statistics doesn't bother me much because the narrator shifts very quickly out of the list and into something chattier. That Let's just say has an almost dry tone that leads me to hope we'll find a dry wit. What follows -- that I'm above average -- plays with our assumptions that being above average is a good thing. I like all of this. I haven't warmed up to the character yet, but up to this point, I'm willing to do so.

But after the em dash, it loses focus. Before the dash, the text is driven by two things: this analytical, dry character, and the notion of average/above average. After the dash, the first thing we get is a strong dose of defensiveness: and I'm not talking about my height. Like some of you, I assume this was meant to be a funny line that just fell flat. This doesn't sound like the same character. I'm hoping for dry, analytical humor to match the character so willing to toy with notions of averageness, but instead I'm getting defensiveness and a sleight of hand -- she talks about what she's not talking about in order to draw attention to what she is talking about. This ought to feel clever, but I can't shake the feeling that a character with such a precise grasp of statistical knowledge wouldn't back off from her personal truths like this.

So now I'm questioning my understanding of this character. Is she dry and clever and informed? Or does that list of facts come from obsession rather than from general knowledge?

And then we get hit with that next line. I didn't start out this way -- more defensiveness, followed by the prim, mind you. By this time, my impression of this character is transformed. I no longer hope to find a dry wit and a lively mind. Instead, I expect someone who is defensive, almost hostile, someone who is being very literal about her discussion of averageness.

So. She defined the average in numerical terms, and then identified herself as above average in everything except height. And then she says, At birth, I was actually below average. I suspect this is also meant to be funny, but because of the parameters at play, my mind wanders to the suspicion that she was born an anorexic adult. From the comments, I think I'm the only one who ended up here.

Remember that for the most part, the commenters experienced this narrator as distant and clinical. If her jokes worked after the dash, if the defensiveness was stripped out and replaced with a running tongue-in-cheek examination of averageness that's set up before the dash, then some of that coldness would be alleviated and we'd have a character we could possible get behind.

Consider something like:
The average American woman is 5’4”, 164 pounds and wears a size 14. Let’s just say that I’m above average. I come from a long line of overachievers with high expectations. Summa cum laude, double major, and extra whipped cream on top.

I'm not sure that works, either, for other reasons, but now the character is clarified as the analytical, self-deprecating wit, instead of as the defensive obessive. She might be more appealing even in the face of all those numbers. It's still a mild opening without a huge emotional punch, but it's a little more focused. If this is the opening the writer chooses, I'd recommend taking it in this direction.

That might not be where the author wants to go, though. Which leads us to her other choice.

Option Two:
If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate to throw up.

People had very strong reactions to this. I did, too. We have to give the writer her due here -- love it or hate it, she's generating a strong response in her readers. This is a good thing and the mark of raw talent for a fiction writer.

The emotional pop comes from the first sentence, which is exactly where we want the pop to be. I like the casualness of puke. I like the juxtaposition of rail-thin with all-American girl in quotes. My image of an all-American girl is more athletic and wholesome, so I think the use of quotation marks and the addition of rail-thin works to shift my awareness in a slightly new direction, away from the tennis player with a big white smile and toward the awkward thinness of a fashion model. I think it works precisely because of this distortion. We're dealing with a character who sees the world through the particular lens of her own viewpoint. Even stereotypes are pulled into a different focus by this viewpoint. (One caution about rail-thin, though -- it is a cliche to call someone as thin as a rail.)

The impact of the first sentence is diluted by what follows, of course. I'm not wild about the cupcake, and it seems that the readers who voted for Option One also didn't like the cupcake in Option Two. Some called it a cliche, and maybe it is. Or maybe it's a mark of this character to use a juvenile treat, with all that symbolic weight, to describe her coping skills.

See, the thing about that cupcake is that it could still work if the last line was different. Look at how the paragraph plays out. The cupcake breaks up the two sentences that talk about vomiting. I think that the puke in the first sentence is colloquial enough that we don't think the character is talking literally about emptying her stomach. But using throw up as an end note jars me into thinking maybe we're talking literally about a character who might make herself vomit.

The progression is:
- colloquial, non-literal use of puke
- introduction of food with the cupcake
- confession that she hates to throw up

You see, she doesn't admit to anything other than a hatred of throwing up. She doesn't say, "OK, I don't mean puke literally, ha, ha." She doesn't say, "The truth is, I will do anything to avoid puking." She says she hates doing it. Which implies doing it. Which casts a sort of nasty shadow over her decision to eat that cupcake, right?

That's why I'm not wild about the cupcake. Consider what happens if we remove the implication of that last vomit:

If I have to look at one more picture of a rail-thin “all-American girl”, I’m going to puke. Or eat another cupcake. Okay, the truth is I really hate cupcakes.

Do you see how changing that end note changes the resonance of the entire paragraph?

I said yesterday that the paragraphs were roughly equal in terms of writing quality. Each starts off well but skids off course. Each is ambitious in its own way -- I see evidence of a real writer at work here, despite the flaws. Each is portraying a character with a strong world view, though the first option is a little more muddled and the second is a little less approachable.

I also said yesterday that the key difference between them is tone. The first is defensive and clinical, the second is angry and (maybe) self-destructive.

Finally, I said yesterday that I had a strong preference based on something other than writing quality. As much as I'm willing to be charmed by the (I hope) clever narrator in the first, my preference is for the second, but only if that final sentence is fixed. The second option has such a powerful sense of presence and character -- and, despite the anger, I think her anger is understandable and relatable in some ways, and that when coupled with real humor and humaneness, it could be very effective. It's just not quite there yet.

Fiction writing and editing require the constant application of critical judgment. We won't all always agree on what we "like" in various pieces. But, as I think we've seen, we can usually all agree on what works or doesn't work.



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

This was a very cool exercise, and I'm glad you let us do it. Thanks. And thanks to everyone for keeping it civil and focused, too.

(btw, Natalie asked if there wasn't a size 12 book. She's good -- Meg Cabot wrote Size 12 is not Fat.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to analyze my openings. The feedback was invaluable!

Patricia W. said...

Excellent exercise, especially because you chose opposite what I expected. But your analysis supports your choice.


Natalie Hatch said...

You don't like cupcakes? Who in the world doesn't like cupcakes? I agree though that with that ending the second paragraph gets my vote.
I've been re-editing my first manuscript and have been watching my paragraph structures as instructed, I'm wondering though if you can guide us on how to speed up the saggy middle. Thanks in advance.