Sunday, April 10, 2011

Overpolishing the Prose

tinker tinker tinker....word out, word in...tinker more...look for passive verbs...tinker tinker tinker
That's the sound of me editing a manuscript after I've gone over it so many times I'm simply fiddling with the words. I think as authors we often reach a point in our manuscript where we aren't sure where to go next. Maybe we've been too close to it for too long. Maybe we don't want to send it out because we know something's off but we're not sure what it is, so we'll tinker with the things we can see. Or maybe we've read that adage that the manuscript needs to be perfect before it's submitted, so we are determined to make it perfect.
Guess what? It can be too perfect! If it's "perfect," according to all the rules we read, it might have lost its soul or that nebulous thing called "voice."
Agent Marlene Stringer was over at my Preternatura blog on Friday, talking about this very thing in the submissions she's receiving. She's always frustrated when she gets a fantastic query from an author, requests a full manuscript, and then finds it doesn't live up to the query.

Maybe the author just learned how to write a great query but hasn't gotten the novel-writing knack yet--two different skill-sets.

But sometimes, she finds, the manuscripts are simply edited to death. "The [problem] that saddens me most is also the one that reflects the most work on a novel: the over-polishing to a point where there is no voice left whatsoever," she says. "The story is there, but it is sterile and flat. It is written in monotone, with the same emotional impact as reading directions. In a quest to get it right, the writer goes over the edge and eviscerates the writing."
I've heard this overpolishing problem called "critique group syndrome," and I had it at one time. I like a flag in the breeze with my first book. I had friends read it, entered it in contests, had an online crit group read it. Every piece of advice, every comma, every passive verb someone pointed out, I felt obligated to change. Everyone knew more than me, after all. I didn't know how to write a novel.  Thankfully, with subsequent manuscripts I learned to take the advice that made sense to me and leave the rest.

"A writer seeking publication cannot write in a vacuum," agent Marlene acknowledges.  "Feedback is essential, but it needs to be educated feedback.  Taking advice from the wrong source can hurt a lot more than it helps. And the hardest part: each writer has to learn when it’s time to step away and let the work go. Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s impossible to fix what isn’t there."

Writing rules are good, but they aren't gospel. Sometimes, an inactive verb works better. Sometimes, fragments help give voice and tone. Voice is a nebulous-enough thing for writers to grasp. Scary to think we can work so hard that we lose it!

For me, a good yardstick to know it's time to step away is when I've reached the point in my editing where I'm just tweaking words, looking at comma placement, second-guessing things I originally thought worked just fine.

Any of you ever have the "overpolishing" problem? How do you recognize when to let your manuscript go?

1 comment:

  1. I think it's sometimes hard to figure out when you're overpolishing, especially when you're getting rejections that don't really specify what should be changed or if there are conflicting rejections.

    Great post, Suzanne! I read the post from Friday at Preternatura as well. =)