We’ve all gotten that feeling, regardless of whether we are writers or not. It’s not a nice feeling and it’s rare that we can get around it, fix it, etc. Fortunately, writers can actually get away from it a little more easily than most people.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Okay, okay, I’ll describe it as it happens to writers. You sit down to write, maybe happy to write for the first time in a while, or possibly even still riding that last burst of enthusiasm. It starts out well, words pouring out, sounding just right. Then………………..something shakes loose. The going is still easy, but you’ve entered that terrifying place on the map, called It Just Doesn’t SOUND Right.
This horrible place has never been fully documented. All we know is that there is an impassable desert on the one side and a sea filled with author-eating sharks. The only way to escape is to climb the dizzying Cliffs of Hard Work. Unfortunately, since we authors are often overly pudgy from sitting around all the time, (just kidding, none of the writers I know fit this description), the land of It Just Doesn’t SOUND Right is littered with authorial corpses.
Fixing this problem can be done is several ways, none of them fun, but all of them necessary to your peace of mind and the quality of your story. The drasticity (yes, I just made that up) of the fix depends on how severely your writing has shaken loose. While working on my newest story, Breaking Empire, last night, something shook loose. It came undone several times in less than an hour, but it was not very severe.
The “shaking” happened in a single sentence each time. I would be writing out the sentence and stopping 3/4 of the through, thinking “Man, this sounds AWFUL”. And, by golly, it did. You can always tell when it’s just authorial perfectionism getting in your way and when something is actually in need of repair. You can lie to yourself, but you WILL know if something has gone bad.
Now, my problem was simple. The story is based in a medievalish, renaissanceish type of era, so people’s speech needs to fit. The dialogue isn’t particularly archaic, but some of more modern words I wanted to use broke up the atmosphere. The my system for the suspension of disbelief failed IN ONE SENTENCE. It sounded WRONG! So, after trying various fixes (ie, tacking different words on), none of which sounded any better, I completely erased the sentence and reworded it.
Voila! Problem solved. The meaning was exactly the same, many of the words were similar or identical, but the sentence SOUNDED right. I could read it aloud, in the context of the rest of the paragraph, without wincing. Victory! Sound the bells, blow the horns, YES!!!
Whoo, okay, sorry bout that. Got a little carried away. At any rate, solving this ubiquitous problem is easy in theory. If it doesn’t sound right, reword it until it does. Unfortunately, theory is massively different from reality, as we all know. My version of the problem was small, localized, confined to a single sentence. If I hadn’t noticed it, though, or had decided to continue and fix it later………………
The problem could have grown. I might have had an entire paragraph, dialogue, or even a chapter, that didn’t sound right. Sound is important, since it helps create the atmosphere; if it’s not consistent, it WILL throw your readers out of the story. Bump. Right on their heads. You can’t get around it, so you have to fix it. (or not, thus ensuring that you’ll DEFINITELY not get that place on the New York Times Bestseller list)
Some “sounds wrong” is inevitable and less dangerous, the stuff that just creeps in randomly all over the narration. This can be fixed fairly easily in the second or third draft. You’ll be reading it, skimming merrily along on a sea of words, then you’ll hit a phrase, word, or sentence that feels like fingernails on a chalk board. Fix it. Not hard.
But the you have the tougher stuff, the places where whole paragraphs or even chapters sound bad. In these cases, the fix gets tougher. It could be just bad wording, something you can fix with a little reworking. Unfortunately, however, if a chunk of writing this big has gone bad, it’s usually due to a bigger problem.
In my first novel, Every Blade of Grass, I had a scene where the hero meets an old wizard, who tells him a very interesting story about a forest. I loved the scene, which was about a chapter and a half long, total. It was historical, folkloric, adventurous, and helped the plot along. (well, the original plot, anyway). But by the time I finished the book, the plot-line involving the wizard had become next to unnecessary, no longer really fitting the story I wanted to tell. That wouldn’t have been enough to make me rewrite or scrap the scenes, except for one thing.
The wizard’s scene didn’t sound right anymore. The atmosphere was “off”, suited to a much more lighthearted narrative than I had developed. Though the story the wizard told was very dark, the narrative wasn’t dark enough. The old man was amusing, chipper, and unconcerned, at least compared to the urgency and threatening air of the rest of the story. The scene belonged in a “modern” fairy tale, one of those that critics call “a fun read”. Every Blade of Grass wasn’t supposed to be “fun”, not like that.
So, I had two chapters that didn’t sound right. I had two options. Rewrite, with all new wording, while keeping the basics. Or scrap completely and build a completely new scene for the forest the hero travels through. Despite my first inclination, urged both by laziness and my liking of the old wizard, I chose to completely rebuild the scene with an utterly different story. The original complemented a plot-line that had become secondary, almost unimportant. The new scene complemented the new plot-line, the one which the rest of the book and the sequel are based upon. Best of all, the entire scene SOUNDS right.
So, while you may not need to be as drastic as I was, odds are you’ll stumble across a place where your writing has shaken loose. Learn to recognize it, to determine what needs fixing, how to fix it, and then to muster up the courage to actually implement those repairs. You’ll be happy you did, no matter how much work it was.