One of the biggest challenges for me as a writer is knowing when a chapter is right.

Those combinations of words, rhythms, progressions, meaning: Sometimes they sing on the page. Sometimes, from the tape recorder, they sing to my ear as I play them back in the dark.) The combinations of ideas that progress from one to the next is musicianly, melodic, airtight. Not one note could be or should be different.

When it’s right, it’s right. Then it’s easy.

Sure, that sense of writerly perfect pitch becomes somewhat instinctive after a while; a result that’s not necessarily the product of something you planned (although you would love the world to think so.)

But (and this from a writer whose past works had to pried from her fingers to prevent her from making more changes to the galleys) knowing where you’ve fallen short in the pages and passages that don’t fall gently to the ear: How do you figure out what the problem is? How do you know where you’re going—or how to get there?

I’m dealing with exactly that issue now; a chapter that has all the elements, but none of the oomph. This early section  is not what I’ve coined a “landing chapter” in which a plot point is finalized with a big “ta-dahhhhhhhh”…rather it’s a transitional chapter that introduces some new ideas, reinforces others, and propels us to where we need to be. And that, in its way, is trickier.

First place to look for the problem: The progression of information. Are the paragraphs leading from one idea to the next in a way that creates maximum impetus and impact by the end of the passage? What order of information tells the story best? What progression withholds knowledge…and which reveals it in a way that raises the “ahhhh” factor at the end? (The solution for the chapter in question actually came to me whole, an outline in the middle of the night.  I’ve yet to test it on the page, but it feels right so far.)

Another landmark in the inner critique: a close examination of the words themselves. Words placed under a microscope. One word is not the same as another, any more than red is the same as green. That’s the beauty of it. And the fun. Is the problem not in what you’ve said, exactly, but in the way you’ve said it? Sometimes, just jiggering with the style of a passage can untangle a seemingly impossible knot.

Another mental check: Am I just trying to do too much? Having everything and the kitchen sink in the chapter doesn’t just delay the gratification—it smothers it. Sometimes a sentence-ectomy is the only fix. Identifying and throwing away bits you like—even if they’ve seemed right through fifteen readings—is often the only remedy. The fact is, those bits are not necessarily as clever or unusual as you’d like to believe…sometimes they’re just self-indulgent. The good news here is that an interesting turn of phrase is sometimes good enough to save for later, an approach that uncorks some fascinating ideas down the road.

Here’s a good one: leaving it until the morning. Or the next morning. Or two mornings. Amazing what can come clear in the light of day.

And the most drastic measure: Oddly enough, it’s the one that’s most obvious. Abandon it altogether for now. If you know basically where you need to be but not how to get there, come back to it. You might find yourself less lost when you’ve walked around your own roadblocks.

Finding the way to the music. Tough. Sweat-making. Sometimes, downright frustrating. And, once the answer is discovered, the best gift ever to a good night’s sleep.

Advertisements