• Bill

Revision: Killing Cockroaches

In a prior life when I lived in an old apartment in Boston, whenever I turned on the kitchen light, a host of not so wee beasties scurried under the refrigerator. It's somewhat like that when one starts to revise a piece of writing. You may see a couple of cockroaches on the page, but the more you look, the more you see. And after you've completely spent hours/days/weeks cleaning up that page/short story/novel or kitchen, when you look a week later you see more! It's as if your computer breeds them while one sleeps.

To work this metaphor some more I needed an expert. My friend and now blog coauthor, Jeff Camhi, professor of neurobiology, provided the following: The natural urge, when you see a roach in your house or on your page, is to swat the little bugger. But this isn’t so easy. Over the roughly 250 million years of their existence, they have evolved some remarkable life-saving feats. For one, they are among the fastest runners in the animal kingdom (as measured by the number of body lengths they traverse per second). They achieve about 2/3 the speed of a cheetah, the king of speed. Second, while they’re running, when their long antennae perceive an obstacle, they swerve away. With numerous obstacles in their path, they swerve repeatedly, and the rate at which they can swerve is greater than for any other known animal—about 25 swerves per second. When one tries to swat them, they make a remarkably fast evasive maneuver —a combined turn and run; this behavior begins about one hundredth of a second after the swat begins, which is among shortest stimulus-response sequences in the animal kingdom. Accept that these bugs are wired to outwit us and admire them; some might even say love them, but that may take some doing.

We all have our pet cockroaches. For me the order of frequency and eliding difficulty:

1. Was and is. Note in the above--I hide an 'is' in 'it's'.

2. Clichés. Note in the above--wee beasties may qualify.

3. Clunky sentences, never to be found in Chabon, Updike, Amis fils, and rarely, the Bible--and those could be from translation. Here's one I pulled out of an early chapter of DiBene, the next novel that follows Baby Doe, And the clunker is: "I told Ms Munin, 'Dr Odininski asked me to get an introduction from you to Thad?'"


I have no need to perseverate about revision at this stage--just get the first draft of DiBene shaped first. Baby Doe is published and I forgot to remind you that you can BUY IT HERE.


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