John Smolens will be joining us at Rally of Writers again this year. He joined us to talk about his latest project and the art of editing.
What is your latest project?
A novel, working title: Day of Days. Based on the school bombing in Bath, Michigan, May 1927.
When you are editing yourself how do you know if you are being objective or over-critical?
Interesting question, as this will be the subject of my presentation: you and your “inner editor”—we all have one. I don’t want to get too deep into it here, but I think this is something all writers deal with, that critical mechanism which can be both a help and a hindrance, often at the same time. I’m looking forward to discussing this with participants at the conference.
How do you move from the ego of hanging on to sentences or story runs that shouldn’t be there?
Probably the most famous line about this comes from William Faulkner, who said you need to “kill your darlings.” Determining which sentences qualify as “darlings,” is, of course, a relative (and extremely tricky) practice. I think that one has to determine a clear idea of the tone and style of a given piece of writing. If you’ve achieved that, you should be able to identify the sentences that don’t seem to fit or enhance that tone and style. In many cases, there’s nothing “wrong” with the sentences—they may indeed be quite “darling”—but if they don’t fit within the piece then cut them. But don’t throw them away. One sentence might eventually lead you in another direction, one very much worth exploring.
What is the best tip you have to do a strong edit of your own work?
There are so many. Because writing is a solitary endeavor, I think it’s helpful to find another set of eyes—find a person (or persons) you trust and ask them to read what you’ve got. This is the central purpose of writing workshops, seeking readers who can provide you with a critical response that is honest, fair, and well-articulated. It’s the first tentative step a piece of writing takes out into the larger world.
There is so much conversation about the use and overuse of commas. How do you weigh in on this?
Clarity, clarity, clarity. Punctuation should do for prose what sheet music tablature does for music. Good writing establishes its own “music,” employing a sense of meter, augmented by a full range of pauses and sustains and stops; so too with punctuation, which can help the reader see (and hear) a prose piece the way the writer intended.
Out, a new novel by John Smolens. Other titles include Wolf’s Mouth, a Michigan Library Notable Book, published by Michigan State University Press.