Some Thoughts on Revising a Novel

Ready to revise? Has at least 7 weeks past since you wrote the last word? If not, tsk tsk tsk . . . not yet. If so, print yourself a paper copy of your manuscript or (if you have a new-fangled Kindle edition, which is easy to order) download it NOW. Reserve a quiet space in your favorite chair. Get a notepad (not a big one, mind you; just a jot pad will do). Put on your readers' hat . . . you know the one, because you use it 50% of your waking hours, if you’re a writer . . . and then start reading your work. This read-through is to assess just how good/bad your work really is, and can be a frightening experience. If you're a self-doubter (and every true writer is), remember that Stephen King suggests that you: Outrun your fears. To me, it's more frightening to declare Revision 1 (the Draft) the finished work, and then send it out into this world . . . alone and shivering without the benefit of revision.

First: You are really starting the second Revision. I always call my Draft, Revision 1, because on some level a small amount of revision work has been applied just after the words fall onto the paper . . . not much, but some.

Read your work with your readers' hat on (75%), and your Critic's hat on also (25%). Use your self-doubt to outrun your fears by being your best critic and . . . be brave about it. Writing a novel is a lonely affair. Here's your chance for company, although it's of the schizophrenic kind. Look for the BIG problems, and these are always:

Structural Imbalance:

Somewhere along the line, your novel got off track. You forgot it has to have a beginning, middle, and end. You forgot that this is equated to Act I (Exposition), Act II (Development) and Act III (Resolution). These three parts have their own inherent pace. Perhaps at the end you decided not to resolve, but to introduce. That will throw the reader a left upper cut and may put your novel down for the count. Maybe you resolved key issues in Act I. You didn't mean to do it, but we are all in a hurry to reveal. We had no clue about Chapter Ninety-five when we wrote Chapter Seventeen. Perhaps you broadcasted your punches too much in the development, so much so it undercut (anti-climaxed) your Act III. Tag all of these.

Redundant chapters and sub-chapters:

Some chapters should have never been written. I shouldn't say that. They needed to be written, but now that the work is complete, they become excessive or redundant. Tag them for trimming or cutting. (I wish I had listened to an editor of my epic novel, The Jade Owl, who reviewed one of my favorite chapters in one word: ‘Why?’ I was offended. Seven revisions later, the Chapter died a graceful, but permanent death. She was 100% correct.) Always listen to professionals who try to help you, even if they are delivering tough love.

Flat Stretches:

Be sure the writing still engages you. Don't worry about tightening the work at this point. Concentrate on those moments that make you nod off. And they will be there. This means that your writing is flat. Hopeful these lapses are few and far between. It could be a mismatch of style with local genre. (You’re using passive mode for an action sequence) or it could be talking head syndrome. (You have a single character droning on without a sense of time or place or even tone). Or it might be sense disengagement. (Your setting is dull, hasn't a feel, a stink or even a touch of color).

Consistency:

Does your story start one way and end another? This is normal, especially when it comes to characters and sequeling (reactions to actions). In Chapter Three you have a character who decides to cut off his right hand. In Chapter Twenty Six, you have this character wave a machete with both hands. Story and motivations change, so consistency needs to be tracked in this read-through. Also note the spelling gnomes. These are character names or objects spelled differently in different places. I use Chinese names and often get Lin Ling-po in one place, and Ling Lin-po in another.

Major Cut Candidates:

Decide where the novel could improve with major cutting. Your goal is always to cut one-third of the work. You might never get there, but you MUST try; so, do a what-if as you go along. This is hard. It might mean killing your darlings, but remember, your best-loved writing will remain in Revision 1. I enjoy reading stretches of my Revision 1’s against the same stretches in Revision 4. It measures my growth as a writer. Screw the darlings. Having darlings is nothing more than a writing pretension. Readers read novels for the story and not for the pretensions of the author. BTW, don’t confuse style with writing pretension. If you've grown, what emerges is your stamp, and if you sell that stamp it will be renamed your brand. Another contender of the Major Cut type is:

Material Overshoot:

Did some great research, did you? Are you an expert in sewing and have one of your characters quilt using every known stitch in the book over a five-page stretch? Remember that self knowledge and researched knowledge are like an iceberg. Only the tip should be given to the reader with the knowledge (credibility) that there's lots more beneath the surface. I am a sinologist, holding a Master's degree and doctoral credits in Chinese History. I often need to cut back on detail overload for my reader's sake. The little I impart is enough to establish the elements needed for a good story, and yet there's lots more that stands behind it. In my novel The Dragon's Pool, I needed to describe a Tuscan feast. So, I read a cookbook and spent hours preparing dishes, sniffing the aromas and noting the tastes. It took a month. All that for what amounted (and correctly so) two paragraphs in the novel. But my readers are there, at the table, but are not distracted by the food. The feast enhance s the characters as they reflect on the events and, in this case, become organic to the scene. Be an expert. Write from the character's point of view. When you go overboard, tag it for cutting, and paste it in Wikipedia.

Headliners:

Note the Big Picture items. Is my title good, and efficient? (Is it unique? Google it). Does a titled character or object show up within the first 20 pages? In my novel The Jade Owl, the title bird doesn’t get mentioned until page 120. My agent noted that one for me, and now, with the insertion of a two-paragraph addition on page 23, the title object gets coverage.

Also consider the opening chapter, and the closing – the denouement. Both areas prove to be the crux of many structural problems. Both need to sweep the reader along. We generally acknowledge this aspect in openings, but closings sometimes get perilously bumpy. The reader has stuck with you this far. You must be sure to deliver the promised goods, and it must be the fireball of your piece. The work has peaks and valleys. Tag those too long valleys as potential "goodbye reader" points, and be sure the peaks crest like a tsunami, whereby the last one is the most devastating.

Mini-nods to Pacing:

Pacing is something that changes as you revise. When you cut something (or add it), it changes the pacing to areas you never touch, which means you’ll need to touch them too. It’s like working with watercolors that never dry. There's a great deal to be said about pacing as it concerns poetry (rhyme, rhythm, sound and sense); however, when things feel too abrupt or too swift, when events come up too fast, tag it for pacing revision. Usually you’ve forgotten to sequel and/or play it forward. Easy to remedy, but you need to note where the rocks are, so you can cross the river.

Motivation:

If you’ve been true to your art, you’ve only written as well as your best character has directed you. Since I never force a character to do something, it can’t do (but often force it to do something it doesn't want to do), motivation usually tracks well. But sometimes a character is made to say or do something for the sake of that evil word "plot." This stymies character development and squelches that reflection the characters need to project. This causes a contrivance. Find them and tag them during this read-through.

Theme:

Think about what is being said in the daft (Revision 1) and, more important, what could be said. Then, begin to say it. Come up with a major theme. Fill in the blank: This work is about ­­­______? It might not be about that in the draft, but it will be when you revise it. Some call this cheating, but I (and thousands of authors alive and dead) call it reason d'etre. Novels that begin with an upfront theme generally wind up unsuccessful pretensions. It is near impossible to be theme-cogent when writing the draft. Themes are for the revision process. So now’s the time.

One misconception about revision is that it involves massive and wholesale cutting. How else will you get your word count down by a third? Easy. An agent put me on the correct heading. She said, “Revising is like shearing sheep. You clip a bit here, snip a bit there, but always you’re shaping the final product until it emerges as an aesthetic whole.”

By rights, after you initial read-through, tagging, and note-taking, we should discuss "change control," which is defined as affecting those cuts and modifications that you have tagged, all of which ripple throughout the work. For example, if you change your ending to include a stronger motivation or a punch on your grafted theme, you must now discover where the end starts. Endings do not start at . . . the end, but are set-up. So you need to pre-position the ending somewhere in the body of the development. This is one of several important change control items to be considered, but . . .

Instead, I note more tactical items, the first ones consider - "Tightening.” Tight writing has many friends, including the jettisoning of fluff, bad imagery, redundant phrases, clich├ęs, and a host of other things, but here I'll talk about the most tactical and ongoing task.

After you complete your read-through, roll up your sleeves and start revising chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence . . . and yes, word by word. There are a number of tasks, techniques, and tricks, you should consistently apply to revision that you do not normally notice when writing the draft. This first I call — Concise Inference.

Here’s a fact that most writers do not consider: Reading and writing are different. Huh? What’s he, nuts! Think about it. When we write and read it back, we never considered the physics of these two acts. When we read back what we have written, we fire up the same gray matter that we stimulated when we generated the writing. We therefore fail to notice that, when someone else reads what we have written (for the first time), a different set triggers fire. When we recall our own writing, it travels across a roadway that's already paved, while when others read our words, they are paving for the first time.

What the hell is he trying to say? Well, simple. When we write a sentence with multiple thoughts, ideas or actions (a perfectly logical and grammatically correct concoction), the effect on others is lessened when they read it. For example:

John ran from the building and Emily sought the fire hose.

Perfect: except, these are two actions that have been logically run-in (not run-on). The reader might understand both, because the clauses are short enough, but the sentence is loose. Given four such sentences in a paragraph, and ten such paragraphs in a sub-chapter . . . and your writing has sagged. So:

John ran from the building. Emily sought the fire hose. In John’s haste, Emily was left to fend off the giant tarantula with two heads.

Of course, the act of creating multiple single sentence clauses can create a choppy effect, which in some cases is desirable. However, another secret of the brain comes into play. The reader can infer meaning. This is a key accomplishment to help aid a writer in the detection of redundancy, however, for tightening purposes, it allows us to defy the rules of grammar and use that object, known to grammar and spell-checks around the worth, the Sentence Fragment.

The Sentence fragment is our friend. Why have something like this:

Steve’s eyes bugged, the blue turning red. He felt queasy. There was a sense of falling. Soon, he felt the ground spinning about him and he tumbled earthward with a pitiful howl.

Despite the flagrancy of passive sentences in this example, we have managed to track Steve’s fall in a slush of loose goosey writing. The sentence fragment to the rescue:

Steve’s eyes bugged. Blue became red. Queasy. Falling. The earth spun him to the ground. He howled. Pity.

Not exactly poetry out of context (if such context was ever needed), but tight, concise and most of the grammatical syntax is inferred. You might challenge this and say: "What’s queasy – Steve or his eyes?" but ambiguity is sometimes a happy accident; sometimes not. So, what is being inferred must be considered and discharged correctly. Remember that the Classical Chinese language infers 40 % in every written measure. Nifty, but takes advantage of the reader’s innate capability to interpret inferences.

Here’s a real life example of applying this tightening in revision (from one of my works – blush):

Before:

I should leave, Rowden thought. I should just head back to the airport and go home. Why should I give them any satisfaction? He sauntered to a bench and cracked his knuckles almost dropping the balled up paper. He loosened his tie, wiped his hands on his gray slacks, closed his eyes and spit. Where would I go? All these years waiting for this or something like this, was shattered like the telegram he mashed; was shattered by the telegram he mashed. Years of proper research and classroom application. A sea of bored faces cropping his mind — students without interest, without aptitude; nothing to reward the serious scholar; the passionate expert in things Chinese. Here it was, before these doors, the opportunity of a lifetime, the reward that comes to the worthy. Only now that reward lay tarnished in words ill met by downcast eyes. I wish they hadn’t led me here. But they had. He had; and to Professor Rowden Gray, that made the telegram burn as if it had teeth biting into his pa lm, eating his composure to the marrow.

After:

I should leave, he thought. I should just head back to the airport and go home. Why should I give him any satisfaction? Rowden sauntered to a bench and cracked his knuckles almost dropping the balled up paper. He loosened his tie. Hands wiped on his gray slacks. Eyes closed. Spit. Where would I go? All these years waiting for this or something like this, was shattered like the telegram he mashed. Shattered by the telegram he mashed. Years of research and classroom slavery. A sea of bored faces cropping his mind—students without interest, without aptitude. No reward for the serious scholar, the passionate expert in things Chinese. Here it was, before these doors, the opportunity of a lifetime, the reward that comes to the worthy. Only now that reward lay tarnished in words ill met by downcast eyes. I wish they hadn’t led me here. But they had. He had, and to Professor Rowden Gray, that made the telegram burn as if it had teeth biting into his palm, eating his composure to the marrow.

Big differences? No, subtle tightening, starting with using a pronoun instead of the character’s name in the internal dialog tag, and then transmuting ‘them’ to ‘him.’ We’ll talk about the pitfalls of plurality later. At the tie loosening, we have an example of chopping things up and using fragments as concise inferences. Notice that they are regimented for better pacing. Short. Shorter. Even shorter. Shortest. This intensifies the action. "He loosened his tie" is a complete clause. “The hand wiping” drops the subject. “The eyes closed” is actually a passive sentence, but this is a case where passive scintillates. Then "Spit" infers action and is a de facto punctuation word. This is followed by a long measure, which in turn goes into a stretch of short clauses, each firing a new exasperation. (No change here. I got it right in the draft.) The rest flowed okay and needed no tightening for my purposes, although one can tighten until the words become as tart as lemons and unattractive. Note the use of the word "downcast,” which is archaic, but I soon establish that whenever I narrate in this character’s point of view, I will use archaic language. He’s a professor and highly educated, but he’s also Brooklyn-born and can curse like a trooper. The juxtaposition of archaic words and here and there a f**king-A, adds interest, development and anchorage to this character.

You might ask: Why such analysis of this simple paragraph? Answer: This is what revision is about, not wholesale annihilation of your work, but a careful analysis, testing and deepening of your understanding of what you wrote. Your subconscious meets your conscious allowing your creative mind to work its magic, shining to high luster things you never knew you said; and flushing things you wish you hadn't said.

Balance sheet – example 1=182 words. Example 2=177 words. 5 words down 30,000 to go.

Copyright © Edward C Patterson

Many thanks to Ed (who is this?), for his post. More of his works will be coming in the future. If you liked the post, please subscribe to the blog.

History Today

Katherine Ann Porter, Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and journalist was born in 1890.

Thanks,

Lenin Nair.

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