Did you ever write something you really liked – but deep down you knew it wasn’t really working? Perhaps it resonated with you to the point you dug your toes in and refused to cut it – preferring to perform major plot surgery to keep it in? Maybe you told yourself a few lies about how well it worked and took every suggestion it wasn’t as a personal attack? It might be a turn of phrase or a whole subplot, but sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to precious prose.
Identifying Precious Prose.
I once read about a woman at a writing conference who was publicly critiqued by an agent. When he was part-way through the reading he stopped and said to her: “You really like this sentence don’t you?” She had to admit she did. It was a little piece she was particularly proud of. It sounded good, and the imagery was good. It just didn’t work in the scene.
You can often recognise precious prose, if you get a little thrill about the words you’ve chosen or the imagery you’ve sketched. You like it because of its stand alone merit rather than because it bolsters up the story. However you want your reader engaged in the story, not pulled out of it by self-indulgent word-smithery.
It might well be brilliant (I’m sure yours is), but it never hurts to ask a few questions. Is the language consistent with the rest of the piece? Does the passage drive the story forward? Does it contain information crucial to plot or character development? Will it engage your reader? If the answer to any of these questions is no – you may be dealing with precious prose.
Part of the difficulty is being objective. If you feel you’re too close to the piece – ask someone else. Preferably someone you can trust to be blunt.
Dealing with Precious Prose.
The best way to deal with precious prose is to slash and burn and start with a clean slate. It’s harsh but effective.
But before you start protesting (and I can hear the collective intake of breath from my writing group even as I write this) or trashing your entire novel – there is a safety protocol to follow.
- Cut the potentially precious piece out of your text and paste it into another file. (Maybe the piece is brilliant).
- Consider the original body of work – does it read better without it?
- If not try redrafting without using the same phrasing. I’ve wasted many hours trying to re-work a favourite paragraph. But if you’ve saved your piece, you have nothing to lose.
- Move on. Sometimes you just need a little bit of time and a fresh perspective before you take another look.
I wrote a piece a few months ago that I believe falls into this category. I liked it. A lot. A few alarm bells sounded though when I realised it had no time frame. I even talked to my writing group about where I could slot this into the novel. A word of advice: If you even think it could be slotted in somewhere – it doesn’t need to be there at all. It certainly captured my character’s voice, but I should be doing that in the story anyway. It’s not long so I’ve included it to give you an example. This is in Josiah’s POV:
Some days are so full, so bright and powerful they sear themselves into your memory. So when everything else dims and fades they remain as clear and as crisp as the day you lived through them. In the course of my lifetime there have been only a few, yet those days seem to define the whole better than all the rest of them put together.
The day Alyssa agreed to be my wife is the brightest. I can still see the soft flush on her cheeks when I asked her to marry me. The way she lowered her gaze and how long that second felt before she looked up and I saw her answer reflected in her eyes.
When I think of that moment I can still feel the echoes of joy resonating through time. Touching me even now. Sometimes I like to take that day out and hold it. To remember what it felt like to be the man I was then; when my future was untold and full of possibilities.
But it is impossible to capture even a moment of time. No matter how hard you try, it is always flowing forward. And all memories of her are bound to the one that overshadows them all.
The day she died.
Joy is overtaken by the weight of loss. The breath-stealing, unacceptable truth that she is gone and I am powerless to bring her back. Even now my heart is speeding up, racing towards it, as though this time it might end differently…
I tossed up the idea of using this passage as a prologue. But I’ve read the prologue warnings – and The Fall of the Kings is not about Josiah and Alyssa’s past. I also thought of using it as the introduction to a new section, but even then it isn’t consistent with the way Josiah narrates the story. So it’s been cut.
A beloved piece of writing, however, is never wasted. This piece has at least gone out to the world as an example. It also lives on in my character folder for Josiah and in my culled-favourite file. There are all sorts of little treasures in there that I re-read when I need a pick-me-up, and which one day may be resurected in another form.
All of our prose is precious, whether it makes the final cut or not. But as a good jeweller knows, a gem will shine brightest in the right setting.
Have you ever written something you’ve become precious about? What do you do with those unfinished pieces of writing you just love? What do you think of Josiah’s little narrative?