What I Want to Say Vs. What I Really Want to Say - Going Beyond Clarity
Am I nailing it when I fullfill what I want to say?
This thought came to me while contemplating a critique on someone’s story ( not here ) and then working on my own. I found myself doing what I was shaking my head at. Guilty! During the dialogue exchange, the physical reactions had been reduced to stock motions; he laughed, he grinned, he raised an eyebrow, he looked. Simple phrases that in the end dragged the story down an ordinary path. The occasional interesting event or phrase would catch my eye, but for the most part the author coasted on ‘what I want to say.’
Using ‘What I want to say’ is not necessarily a bad thing.
In the paragraph above I used vague phrases like ‘occasional interesting event’, ‘catch my eye’ and ‘coasted.’ I grabbed for them like a cook grabbing for familiar ingredients.
In fact a good many writers feel relieved - I know I do - just by discovering what they want to say and getting it down or paper ( or word doc. ) But ‘what I want to say’ can often lead to cliches. In one self published story that I read recently, I found a cliche and a tired phrase in nearly every sentence; greatest idea since sliced bread, without a hitch, out this jam, truly wished a loved one was there ( during a moment of crisis ). And on and on. The writer was saying what he/she wanted to say without going deeper. By the end of the story, I felt as though someone had written it with a Mad Libs, fill-in-the-blanks form.
Can a writer write a novel and publish it by saying ‘what I want to say’? Definitely. But should he? Are you finishing it or did you you nail it ( get it right. ) Why not go deeper and discover what you really want to say.
I’m going to pull apart opening sentences to two well-written books, Lolita and Z is for Zachariah, to show you what I mean.
Let’s start with Nabokov, now, imagine he’s a newbie whose first drafts could be posted for critique. Here’s the end result, what he’s striving for -
Lolita. Light of my life. Fire of my loins. - Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
But, lets say he starts by putting down a sentence that gives his opening chapter the general idea he needs -
Lolita was the most important person in my life.
No snickers. Whose to know genius doesn't start this way. And this could be his ‘what I want to say’ moment. After all it does what it’s supposed to. But then he thinks about it and admits, okay, it’s to the point but rather drab, and it feels familiar. Everyone has someone important in their life so why should the readers think the mc feels something special? And by its vagueness Lolita could be a mother, a sister, an aunt or a friend. I need to clarify the relationship. See, by continuing to ask questions - Why is this revelation special? How does Lolita affect the mc? The writer is really asking - is this what I really want to say? He’s going deeper and deeper until finally, he tweaks the sentence -
Lolita had me, body and soul.
Maybe this is the author’s ‘what I want to say’ moment, or as it’s clearer than the previous sentence, maybe it could be the author’s ‘what I really want to say moment.’ Then again he could think meh, body and soul is an ordinary phrase I want something special. He goes deeper, asking more questions. What am I trying to convey? The mc’s obsession/ focus for Lolita and his lust. What is a symbolic focus? Light is an element, a focus point. It’s also a spiritual symbol. Aha. And lust begins in the loins. Fire is also an element. Lust is a heat. Light and fire create an echo by their similarities. Now, echo the sentences to highlight that connection.
Lolita. Light of my life. Fire of my loins. - Vladimir Nabokov.
I’m not saying this is how he did it, heck these lines could’ve been the first thing he wrote down, but it makes for an interesting experiment.
Going deeper is not just about swapping vagueness for clarity. It’s about finding what you really want to say by how you want to say it. It’s the very conception of your writer’s voice.
If Lolita’s not your thing lets try the same go-deeper experiment with an amazing Ya book. Here’s the end result -
I am afraid.
Someone is coming. That is, I think someone is coming, though I am not sure, and I pray that I am wrong. - Z is for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien.
A great opening. But let’s say Robert in his first instinct types out his general idea -
I’m trembling like a leaf because I saw someone up on the ridge.
Perhaps he looks it over and tweaks it -
I’m trembling like a leaf because I thought I saw someone up on the ridge.
Maybe he’s having a ‘what I want to say’ moment. After all it’s showing fear and the cause of it. But he’s not satisfied. It’s not really what he wants to say. Often what you really want to say has to challenge convention to truly nail it. He cuts trembling like a leaf, it’s cliche, plus, he wants to use the telling word 'afraid' so there will be no doubt in the reader’s mind.
He reworks it.
I’m afraid because I thought I saw someone up on the ridge.
Still unsatisfied, he asks himself what is wrong with the sentence. He reads it out loud. What do I want to convey? Fear. But also confusion in the reader. I want to draw it out. How can I do that? I have to chop up the sentence.
Still not right but what’s wrong with it? She’s afraid, that’s serious business. Aha. He’ll remove the contraction -
I am afraid.
I am afraid. I thought I saw someone on the ridge.
Now the following sentence doesn’t mesh well. It must be reworked. He asks himself questions about fear, and why she’s afraid. Because she saw someone/ thought she saw someone. Keep it simple. Let’s focus on the person and remove the ridge as unimportant. Now she’s just spooked. There in is the truth. Fear comes by movement, being certain you saw something first before the doubt. The next sentence has to be as assuring as the first.
I am afraid.
Someone is coming.
I won’t go deeper on the rest as you can see where it’s going.
These exercises are mainly for fun but they do allow writers to see, by breaking it down, just how the author came to craft these amazing sentences. Going deeper, asking questions, is something to keep in mind even when writing the first draft as it will keep it clearer, cleaner.
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