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Sometimes I have a great idea of sentence (usually for a dialogue) and it is just so nice, beautiful, epic, badass, powerful, or whatever other positive impression. However, sometimes I read it again in the next day(s) and it is just flat, cringey, contrived, life-less, or any other negative/neutral impression.

So I don't know if I keep it (some kind of "remember your first laugh" for any positive impression) or if I remove it (because the positive impression was actually momentary and I realized it's actually not that good).

So what to do? Does "remember your first laugh" can also kind of be applied to this or should I trust my inner editor's impression about it when I read devoid of any of the emotions of the moment when I wrote it?

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    If it doesn't look right the second time you read (or third, or fourth), my advise would be to remove it. This is part of the process of maturation. As you write, story, characters, circumstances, and situations will begin to take shape. What seemed epic at one point, will sound cheap the next. Loose the fear of wasting ideas, its only holding you back. People tend to get better with experience, not worse. If you don't believe me: put your current document aside and rewrite your story it in a new one. Compare both and be amazed. – armatita Oct 10 '17 at 15:28
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    Please write this as an answer - answers should not be posted in comments. Apart from other things, your answer appears above everybody else's answer. – wizzwizz4 Oct 10 '17 at 18:41
  • @armatita - I agree with wizzwizz4 --this comment would be a good and valuable addition as an actual official answer. Posting answers in the comments breaks the SE model. – Chris Sunami Aug 15 at 19:05
43

I believe it's better to steam through and finish your first draft without constant editing and second guessing everything you've written.

This is because you will learn so much about your novel during that process, and will settle into a style and rhythm. If you reread everything immediately then you are at risk of what you've described - not seeing it with fresh eyes.

As you say, it's like any good joke - it's so funny the first time it sticks in your mind, and the impact can never be had twice. That doesn't make it less of a good joke.

Of course there will be times when your epic, genius sentence actually isn't any good, and does need to be cut. However, I would argue that you, the next day, will be a poor judge of that.

You, sometime later, reading the text with fresh eyes will be a better judge. Members of a writing group will be even better, and a professional editor also.

So my advice would definitely not be to cut it prematurely. Move on, finish the novel and come back to it later to see how you feel about it.

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    On the other hand my line of "and the uttermost west rose up and contended with Rosh and Tubal" was more impactful the second time around. – Joshua Oct 11 '17 at 21:21
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Delete it ruthlessly. As writers, we are often addicted to the clever phrase (or the phrase that seems clever at the time). But we succeed or fail not as crafters of phrases but at tellers of stories. The storyteller in you has to keep the writer in you on a short leash or your story is going to get lost in clever phrases that are, in the cold light of story, "just flat, cringey, contrived, life-less."

Now, when you delete them is a separate question. The cult of the reckless first draft is strong in the writing community at the moment -- plow on at all costs without pausing to edit. That's fine if the result is a story that just needs the prose cleaned up. Some writers are perhaps fine intuitive storytellers who can get the story right the first time and just need additional drafts to clean up the prose.

But if the love of clever phrases is letting the writer in you rides roughshod over the storyteller in you (as it frequently seems to do in me) then the reckless first draft approach seems to produce only a tangled mess of clever phrases that don't add up to a story. In this case, I think you have to squash the clever phrases as soon as you detect them, go back and fix them before you move on because the chances are that they cover up a lack of proper storytelling that is going to come back to bite you later if you don't fix it.

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    Agreed. If something doesn't look good the second time I read it, I remove it. No matter how epic it is. There is a time and place to apply a floral literary style but that should be a creative option not a feature. – armatita Oct 10 '17 at 15:15
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    I usually remove it to a 'scrap' document for possible use later, rather than trashing it wholesale, if it actually struck me as good at any point. I don't end up reusing the vast bulk of that scrap, though, so shrug – Please stop being evil Oct 11 '17 at 4:44
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    @thedarkwanderer Yes, I often do that. Not that I ever actually use any of it later. The point of the scrap document is to soften the blow of killing your darlings, not to actually save it for later. – user16226 Oct 11 '17 at 11:11
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    I think your point about "softening the blow of killing your darlings" is spot on. – storbror Oct 11 '17 at 12:15
  • Hrm. I save those scraps because I work as though everything is a piece of beauty waiting to be fully uncovered; if it looks bad, then I failed to reveal it rather than it failed to be beautiful. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 9:50
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+1 Mark, delete it. Make sure you have a backup of your manuscript for the day, you won't lose it. Then delete it and try something else.

Psychologically speaking, a major problem for writers is our own short-term memories and a heavily biased "moment" of how we perceive the real world and the world and characters we are writing. So when a phrase seems brilliant to us, it is often because we are relying on a state of mind or remembered circumstances that is NOT produced by the writing on the page.

It is kind of the "inside joke" phenomenon, without realizing you are telling an inside joke: The context of the brilliance was in your head, not on the page, and by the time you came back and read it: The context inside your head had dissipated, replaced by a series of others. So you read it as readers would have seen it.

It isn't like a joke. The first laugh at a joke means the punchline really did punch you. The next time you don't think the joke is complete garbage, you just aren't surprised a second time because you learned what is coming. With a joke we can still think it a clever twist, interpretation or reversal, there can even be another laugh in it, if it is good enough. But you laughed and that is all the evidence you need the joke delivered an unexpected but logical punchline.

A powerful phrase that no longer seems powerful, or seems trite, is different. Now what you thought was good seems bad, and the reason is the power was in the mental context of when you wrote it, and after a nights sleep that context is gone.

Truly powerful phrases grounded in the context provided by the writing leading up to them will still "read right" after a few days away from them, you will still be proud of them.

Be warned they can get stale if you read them again and again and again in a sitting. That is ALSO a mistake, you are memorizing the scene too much.

Write your scene. Go through it once, and fix any problems. Put it away until you have slept a night (work on something else) then read it and fix any problems. When you can read it through and like it all, consider it done (and do it all again in the future, of course, to make sure the whole story is properly connected).

And pay attention to your mind. Not everything in it is on the page, but everything in it can influence what you personally get out of the page. You have to take measures, through repeated "cold reads", that your mind is not helpfully filling in a bunch of gaps, and making poor writing feel good to you.

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    Unless the excision is small or trivial, I save almost everything I cut to a special file. Maybe it doesn't work in one place, but will guide or inspire me with something else. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 4:33
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    @can-ned_food That's a good idea. I'd also say that disk space is free, or costs about a millionth of a cent to make a copy of what you are working on every day. Without even compressing it, so it is still searchable for keywords or whatever. I have a script that just adds the date and time to my file name and it runs every morning. But yes, there is no reason to vanish anything when it costs nothing to keep everything, and special purpose files abound in my writing, too. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 12 '17 at 9:21
  • At risk of chattiness, I will add that the only reason I prefer to excise rather than simply preserve the whole periodically is because It simplifies later review and assessments. I save backups, but those are only for accidents with latest work and not for historical record of changes. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 9:36
  • +1 Great answer. This phrase alone seems to sum up something of crucial importance in writing: when a phrase seems brilliant to us, it is often because we are relying on a state of mind or remembered circumstances that is NOT produced by the writing on the page. – Chris Sunami Aug 15 at 19:02
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I seems to me that it is your state of mind which changed, and not the written phrase itself.
There are two possible causes for this.

  • Many writers use certain tricks to establish a useful state of mind for developing ideas; often, those states of mind are too right–brain to write very well, however — music, brainstorming, e.g. Then, they need to review, embellish, and compile their mess of text and story germs with more left–brain efforts.
    A joke may seem hilarious in the prior state, but not as written in the later one.
  • Sometimes you simply failed to transcribe what the muse gave you, though.
    If, when you were initially conceiving the scene of which you wrote, you imagined something that was later omitted in the actual writing, then a re-read could indeed be lacking.
    Perhaps you need to add more literary stage-setting so as to empower the delivery of the certain phrase. In such a situation, you augment rather than delete.

    Compare

    She had only reached halfway for the sword when it was tossed to her hand. She was quick to adjust: the sword did not drop.
    The reality of everything intensified as this thought grew in her: The wait is gone; I have it; I have it now.

    to

    Anxious expectations tingled the palms of her hands. She had only reached halfway for the sword when it was tossed to her hand. Like the crack of a whip, it interrupted her reverie. Reverie was broken, and the old habitual reflexes appeared in the mental space thus vacated. She was quick to adjust: the sword did not drop.
    All the others in the room were silent and still. Now that the sword was resting in her hand, she should be calming — she did not. The reality of everything intensified as this thought grew in her: The wait is gone; I have it; I have it now.

    Okay, cheesy example.

  • Amadeus's answer detailed that second point better than did this. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 9:50
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I'm going to echo the leave it for now finish your story crowd. It might actually work later if you can work it into some payoff in the future. I always like to point out things like "Hot Fuzz" which is a very boring opening with a lot of odd dialog... the payoff is in the second half where the dialog becomes funny because it provides a better joke... in some cases, the dialog is only funny on re-watch because you're aware of the way the movie is going to play out.

0

Samuel Johnson said

"I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"

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