I did a word-count on my current work in progress and was partially gratified to find that I have 95,000 words, give or take. Partially gratified? What’s up with that?
What’s up with it is that not all the words are the right ones. I’m not talking about finicky word choice (although I’m a fan). Instead, I’m talking about the parts which are, for want of a better term, “placeholder-writing.” And what the hell do I mean by that?
“Placeholder-writing” is when you sketch something in and know you’ll go back later. Words that you believe, while writing, describe what you had in your head, but don’t. I’m willing to bet that the most accomplished writers in the world have these little bobbles. Sometimes you’re in the white-hot heat of composition and just want to get it all down on the page/screen/stone tablet. Sometimes you know at the time that you’re not saying it right, but don’t want to spend an hour trying to find the mot juste when it’s just your brain not serving up the correct image or description. Sometimes you need connective tissue between scenes or troop movements and need to figure out what that connective tissue is, but not right now when you’re all inspired to write the next major scene.
Sometimes my placeholders are baldly placeholder-ish. I can’t remember the name of the household manservant who is holding the reins of the messenger’s horse. I put in an XX to remind me to slug the name in later. There’s a medical procedure I need to look up, but I don’t have the book with me. XX. Need something translated: XX. All perfectly valid use of placeholder-technology.
But the stuff I really need to look out for is the writing where, at the time, I thought I was capturing what I meant, and, on re-reading, realize I didn’t capture it at all. Those 95,000 words? Some of them, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, don’t mean what I thought they meant.
Purportedly, when asked about a passage in “Pippa Passes,” Robert Browning said something along the lines of “When I wrote that, only God and Robert Browning knew the meaning of it. Now that privilege is reserved to God alone.” Finding the right words means making sure that it’s you, God, and the reader who are in on what’s going on.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, and Petty Treason, as well as many short stories (mostly available on her bookshelf at BVC). She is currently finishing a book and trying to digitize her Regency romances, which date from a World Without Computers…