It’s that time again.
Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.
Nobody else can tell your story, but that won’t stop them from trying. The advice you get from other people will always be a risk to your own voice and vision. And if you lose your own contribution, you lose everything.
But forcing you to learn everything on your own is also wrong. Without any guidance, you’re sunk.
What you could really use…is a hint.
“Hints: because you only need a little help.”
The Dreaded Knot
“Help! My writing is bad, and looking at it only drives home how bad it is.”
Oh, come now. I’m sure it’s not at all like that. You writers, always being so hard on yourselves, trying to convince everyone how difficult your job is. It would be funny if it weren’t so childish.
Alright, let’s see what the fuss is about. Show me the part that’s giving you trouble.
Ahem, I of course mean that it really isn’t as bad as it looks. The good parts are all there. We just have to clarify and liberate the best points of the passage. That’s not hard.
If I just move this bit around, and disentangle these two parts, and twist this bit here…
There, now let’s look at it again.
Obviously, there’s room for improvement, but we can still fix this. Just gotta realign this logic, center the idea, delete this line, and voila!
HOLY CARP, WHY ISN’T THIS PARAGRAPH COOPERATING?!?!?!
“I’ve tried absolutely everything to get this passage into fighting form, but it just keeps sucking. Mom was right: I should have become a drug dealer. Writing is impossible. The words refuse to get better. What am I going to do now?”
Alright, I admit it looks bad. But we are still a long way from giving up. It just so happens that there is a secret weapon for dealing with troublesome prose like this. Admittedly, it’s the nuclear option, but it works like absolute magic.
Recasting is ALMOST a universal panacea for writing problems. As much as I might draw criticism for making such a bold claim, it is one billion times safer to overstate it than to understate it.
Recasting is one of writing’s ultimate cheats (I’m sure you remember the other ultimate cheat I already gave in a previous hint—and these are related, but more on that later).
But what is recasting, and how does one accomplish it?
To answer that question, we must first understand what casting is.
Casting is magic.
When you first cast a paragraph (and I am using “paragraph” as the example, though the same might apply to “page” or “chapter”), you conjure it out of the aether. A moment ago, it didn’t exist. Now it does. How else do you propose to explain that?
But when you first cast the paragraph, you don’t just conjure static words. Instead, you give voice to the feeling you were trying to convey. This practice of “giving voice” to the wordless ideas and emotions that underpin a scene is what writing is.
It’s such an important development, in fact, that we actually call the practice Voice, with a capital V, and when evaluating a book we never stop talking about it.
But Voice works on many different levels. For example, each character in a story has a different voice. But when discussing Voice with a capital V, we mean not the voices of individual characters, but the Voice of the Book itself
Now, that Voice is not going to be the same on every page of the book. Just like a person’s voice may sound different at different times of the day, a book’s Voice will have variations from page to page and paragraph to paragraph, yet still recognizably belong to the same speaker.
The reason why your paragraph looks wrong, and looks worse the more you look at it, is because it was cast with the wrong voice. That paragraph may have violated the overarching Book Voice, or it might just be the wrong variation of that Book Voice for this particular scene.
That’s why you can’t fix the problem by reworking the vocabulary, or the logic, or the order of events. None of those things are actually broken in this case. The problem is the personality presenting the words—the voice of the paragraph.
And that is why the only way to fix the problem is to recast the magic.
What That Entails
To recast the paragraph, you must throw it back into the aether.
Delete it. Or, if you can’t delete it, find a way to keep yourself from seeing it. It is an obstruction. And if you have to cut/paste it into its own file, or push it down a few pages using the “Enter” key, then so be it.
In any case, make sure the space it once occupied is now blank.
After that, all you have to do is go back to the thought or feeling you were trying to express, and give voice to it again—but this time, you deliberately choose a different voice. Make it grimmer, or snarkier, or sadder, or even like it’s coming from a completely different person. THAT is what it means to recast. You perform the spell of paragraph creation again, but better this time.
And, if I may expand this Hint just enough to get you started, then I have a suggestion for you to try.
Recast to Humor
It works 90% of the time. And I ain’t jokin’.
Through difficult experience, I have learned that almost all problematic paragraphs are the result of a voice that is taking itself too seriously. There is a tendency, especially among amateur writers, to give a stiff upper lip to a book’s voices, or even its overarching Voice.
And, through joyous experience, I have found that recasting the paragraph with a humorous bent fixes all problems and clears a path forward.
You don’t always have to go so far as to make the paragraph’s voice sarcastic or start cracking wise, but you should at least get it to crack a smirk. It lets the reader know that he is allowed to enjoy himself here, and keeps the prose from antagonizing his natural desire to have fun with the story.
“But what if the current scene is super serious?” you wonder. “Surely I can’t inject levity into, say, a character’s death scene or the final battle between good and evil.”
And you’re right: you usually can’t inject humor in those places. But ask yourself: do you normally encounter problematic paragraphs during those climactic scenes?
For most writers, the answer is no. You probably won’t get awkward paragraphs when you’re writing the really juicy parts of the story. Instead, they appear in the earlier “setting things up” scenes where levity is better warranted.
Recasting to humor is true magic. And once you try it you will agree.
Secret Hint Combo Move
If you bring together the two great writing cheats—embodied by this current Hint and by Hint #8, you can amplify your writing game 100 times.
I won’t elaborate too much. I’ll just say you should use Hint #8 to find the problematic paragraphs and then use Hint #11 to fix them.
You can thank me later.
Go Forth and Make Magic
You now have a chainsaw for cutting your way through one of writing’s biggest stumbling blocks. You no longer have an excuse for letting clunky writing stand in your way anymore.
Recast your way to better writing, to a state where the words come easy, and where everything fits together without struggle.
It doesn’t have to be impossible anymore.
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