Saturday, May 29, 2010

Down in the weeds with the sentences

An Army public affairs officer I worked with in Alaska was particularly fond of the phrase "down in the weeds" to describe nit-picking the details of the task at hand--as in, "This 853-page annual report really gets down in the weeds when it comes to counting the wrenches in the motor pool;" or, "Good God Almighty, that four-hour staff meeting would've been three-and-a-half hours shorter if G-3 Operations hadn't got down in the weeds with that PowerPoint lecture on training schedules."

He used "down in the weeds" like it was a bad thing.  But when it comes to writing, and especially the process of re-writing, spending some time hunkering low in the grass is a very good idea.  As I move through Fobbit sentence by sentence, I'm forced to question each adverb and judge the fate of every dangling participle.  I cut, I slash, I bind.  Leaning in this close, I'm examining the narrow lens of the sentence, and temporarily forsaking the wider aperture of the novel as a whole.

It's tough to amputate and even tougher to re-build.  But sometimes, I hit upon something that seems to work, a new image that arrives unnanounced on the scene.  I had that kind of moment this morning as I was working my way through a chapter where an infantry company has set up a security perimeter around a failed suicide bomber in a crowded Baghdad intersection.  The would-be terrorist crashed his car into the back of an armored vehicle and no one is certain if the explosives are inert or active.  An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team sends a robot out to investigate.

Here are the sentences as they appeared in the first draft:
Without warning, the half-dead man came to life. The whir and grrr of the robot had roused him from his stupor and now he was agitated, yelling at the robot, which stared back at him without blinking, despite the curses invoking Allah the terrorist hurled at it.
 After spending nearly half an hour in the weeds with these two sentences, they emerged as:
The half-dead man came to life. He coughed and a rope of blood spurted from his lips. The whir and grrr of the robot had roused him from his stupor and now he was agitated, taking it out on the robot, which stared back at him without blinking despite the curses invoking Allah the terrorist hurled at it.
"Without warning" seemed like too much fat, as if I needed an introductory build-up to what was about to happen with the next seven words.  Highlight, ctrl-X, and poof! they're gone.  I like the fact that "half-dead" is more prominent now, punching up the irony of the guy coming back to life.

Then it occured to me that we moved too abruptly from the terrorist regaining consciousness to him yelling at the EOD robot.  I thought hard, picturing the scene.  What would he do?  I saw him sitting up and coughing blood from the effort.  The image in my head suggested that word "rope" and once it was there on the page, I really liked it.

Next, I wondered if "yelling" wasn't too strenuous at this point.  The dude is weak from loss of blood (not to mention the fact that his skull is fractured and a half-dozen ribs are broken).  Would he really be yelling at this machine?  Better to let the hurled curses suggest the volume of his anger.  I decided to add "taking it out on the robot" because elsewhere I give the T-271 robot anthropomorphic qualities and this fit right in with the machine having its feelings hurt.

As with everything else at this stage, there's a good chance even those re-written sentences won't survive future pass-throughs with the editing weed-whacker.  But, at least for today, it was productive to spend a couple of hours crouched down among the sentences.

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