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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

writing breakthrough: little darling death toll spikes

For the last several years, I've been working on a novel. The first draft of this novel was about 100,000 words. The second draft was a quarter million. To motivate myself to finish it before I left my two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony this past fall, and to give myself a fresh experience of the work as a whole, I held an open studio for the last three days of my residency in order to read the entire work aloud from beginning to end. I read about a quarter of it, and my fellow colonists read the balance.

I'm now about halfway through my second re-reading of the novel since the open studio, and in the last few days I've made what feels like a major breakthrough. After years of having it pointed out to me, I've finally developed an ear for--and an aversion to--my own overwriting.

Murder is the prevailing trope of good editing. "Kill your little darlings," goes the editorial adage usually attributed to Hemingway. "If you catch an adjective, kill it," said Mark Twain. I've known these useful maxims for years, but nothing taught me ruthlessness with my own prose like the fiction of John Grisham.

I'd never read a Grisham novel before I took "The Rainmaker" on the plane with me en route to MacDowell in October. I chose the book with a positive attitude, respectful, thinking that to have sold so many millions of books this guy must have something to teach me about plot and character development. Two weeks later I managed to finish the book, and its lesson was altogether darker. The salient characteristic of Grisham's prose is the way he insults the reader's intelligence on every page, sometimes in every paragraph. He does this through the needless repetition of information. If you're a careless reader, this style is easier to read, because if you fail to pick up a cue on its first iteration, you will certainly have it bludgeoned into you by the second or third. If you read thoroughly, you just feel the bludgeon.

I put down "The Rainmaker" feeling predictably smug. But then I picked up my own novel, and the more I read the more I saw Grisham's error, and its implied insult, perpetrated throughout my own prose.

(to be continued)

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Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des R├ęcollets.