Nice and neat is the enemy of good writing.
I am talking about, let’s say, neat sentences and paragraphs, or a lovely symmetrical structure with the action spread evenly across the length of the work like Sheridan linen on a bed in a good hotel, so there are no air bubbles and nothing is bunched up anywhere. I am talking about everything being rounded off at the level of a paragraph, a chapter, or a whole manuscript.
I wonder what happens when you are no longer beholden to this unconscious idea that each chapter should be roughly the same length and carry more or less the same weight in a book-length manuscript? Perhaps you can then rethink the whole thing and have a couple of shorter chapters and one or two longer ones? Or perhaps you don’t need to have chapters at all, you can have parts or sections or text-breaks. Something good and free gets unleashed when you loosen the structure this way.
If your each chapter starts with a richly conjured ‘significant episode’, which is meant to set the tone for the rest of the chapter and/or to suggest the big themes to be explored, perhaps you could have one chapter start with a thought, or a song, or a small encounter that isn’t oversaturated with meaning? Or perhaps you could start with an excerpt from a newspaper article or a TV show of the time, a dream, a 50-word description of the way women wore dresses and men wore suspenders in those long-gone days when your parents were young?
If your voice throughout your manuscript is elegiac, reflective, pastel-coloured or breathless, confessional – mess it up. Vary the temperature and speed of your writing. The proximity of your reader to the action. Have sections of increased velocity. Have bits of thinking-aloud too.
If your each sentence has roughly the same rhythm (so if you were to sing them la-la-la–style, they’d sound roughly the same), break them up.
Observe your (often) unconscious habits in writing – ‘I’ at the start of each new paragraph, or a smug little ‘we’ every time you get to the human condition, an adjectival trifecta to describe a person or an emotional state, rhetorical questions whenever you get to the tricky bits… Do you finish each chapter with a nice symmetrical loop to the chapter’s start?
Once you work out what your default settings are, mess them up. Don’t let yourself write out of habit. The vital energy in your work is drained away if you do.
I don’t suggest you mess everything up for the sake of it (although that in itself can be important and liberating), but to stop you from sleepwalking through your work – also, because if your readers have you worked out, they’ll leave and go somewhere else. (And you would too if you were them.)
Once you’ve messed things up, you can start re-ordering and re-structuring them again if need be, but this time out of a sense of deep necessity, not out of habit or some anal voice in your head that says, ‘This is how it’s done.’ Nothing is done one way only. And certain things most definitely should stay all messed-up. You’ll know them when you see them.
About Maria Tumarkin
Maria Tumarkin writes books (three to date, fourth on the way), reviews, essays (included in ‘Best Australian Essays’ 2011, 2012 and 2015), and pieces for performance and radio. She teaches and translates, and collaborates with visual artists, psychologists and public historians. Her work has been published, performed, carved into dockside tiles, and set to music. Maria holds a PhD in cultural history and teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne. For more on Maria, visit www.mariatumarkin.com.
Update: You can catch Maria's (More) Hard Bits in Literary Non-Fiction workshop in October 2016.