Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

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7 thoughts on “Revision as Improv

    • I realized while I was writing this that I have at least half a dozen images for writing, editing, and revising: making a cake, kneading bread, walking on ice, building a house . . . One of the most frustrating experiences for an editor is being hired to line-edit a ms. that still has serious problems with structure or content.

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  1. This is so timely, Susanna. I’ve written three romance novels (3 BFFs in small town near big city), and have spent way too much time fiddling with grammar & syntax, instead of with revising and rewriting. Sigh. I’m so glad to have read your post now, because I know I need to chop a character out entirely, and also let one of the characters be much more of a ‘person’ instead of doing what I want her to do for the plot. Still writing as if the plot is writer-driven, rather than plot-driven or character-driven. A newby writer here, learning as I write and write.

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    • I really do believe that your writing will teach you what you need to know if you let it. 🙂 Right now I’m copyediting a novel that strikes me as much too writer-driven: the protagonist is unbelievably dense when it serves the author’s purpose (mainly to move the plot along) and colorless at the same time. He’s got an interesting backstory, but once the plot starts moving all that recedes into deep background, where it has little effect on the (mostly stupid) choices the character makes. This isn’t a newbie’s work either: the author has several novels out already, and this one’s being published by a trade publisher whose name you’d recognize. My guess is that the author lost interest in this one and had to finish it anyway.

      A trick I learned from doing community theater: Try writing monologues in the voice of your characters. Or get into dialogue with them. They’ll tell you things you wouldn’t come up with yourself about what they want and why. It can be eerie, but it’s one reason I keep writing.

      Thanks for commenting — and keep writing!

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    • I’m first-drafting a scene that comes fairly late in draft #2. It refers to a scene I haven’t written yet that will come early in draft #3. My novel in progress seems to exist on several planes at once and I’m wandering back and forth between them. Good luck on your journey, and thanks for checking in. 🙂

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      • I see what you mean. This summer I worked on a new YA novel, writing on binder paper much more than on my laptop. I wrote scenes without following a chronological order. I know what I want to write and where I’m going, but I found liberating to work this way, wandering between beginning, middle and ending. I’ll see in the end if it was a good idea. So far I find it very enjoyable as it allows me to get to know my characters much better. Good luck to you.

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