There’s a trend on Facebook just now, one that affects writers only and one that I tend to approach, if I approach it at all, with extreme circumspection. If you’re a writer, or even if you only follow writers, you’re bound to have come across it.
It goes something like this. “Go to page 7 (or whatever) of your work in progress. Then post 7 lines/sentences from paragraph 7.” There’s something similar on Twitter, too. On #1lineWed you’re encouraged to post a single line from your current work, picking up on a specified theme or including a certain word.
They aren’t promotional posts; just a bit of fun, with the added bonus of showcasing your work. (But no buy links, okay?) Nobody comments, nobody criticises, nobody suggest improvements. They just repost them or retweet them or ignore them. No stress, no strain.
So why don’t I jump at the chance? Why, when I’m tagged in one of these, does a little bit of me die inside? Could it possibly be because the seventh sentence on the seventh page of my latest book (I’d love to say it’s my seventh, but it isn’t) isn’t exactly world-shaking. It’s: “Tom, let’s go”.
The reasons I like and dislike this little game are not just related: they’re the two sides of the same coin and the currency we’re dealing in is a writer’s insecurity. The craft of writing requires attention to every single word. To get it right, each syllable has to be spot on; and the words need not only to be the right ones but they have to be in the best possible order.
A single sentence picked at random from your novel can expose you, horribly. And even if you have a sentence that doesn’t just work but you’re proud of, the sentences before and after it can let you down. Most of the sentences I see are pretty good. Some of them aren’t so good. But taking a sentence of your own in isolation? That can hurt.
That makes it a good thing. It means I have to look at anything I post with an intensely critical eye. More often than not I end up changing it before I post. (There aren’t many rules in this game so I think it’s okay to post something edited.) By the time I’ve wrestled with seven lines (or whatever) I can have spent a long time getting it right.
That’s the down side: it makes me realise just how difficult it is to get every single word right. If I spend an hour on 129 words over seven lines, how much time do I need to spend on 70,000 words over 200 pages? I don’t have that time. I don’t spend it. But maybe I should.
Maybe, after all, I’m turning out slack, sloppily-written work which would benefit from hours of polishing. And maybe, if I had to polish to that level of gloss…I’d never finish anything.