Friday, December 7, 2012

Where Magic Meets Manuscript

In The Plague by Albert Camus, there's a character who is forever writing and rewriting the first sentence of his book. If he can only get that first sentence right, everything else would fall perfectly into place thereafter. Without spoiling the book if you haven't read it, let me just say what you've already guessed. It doesn't quite work out that way. It's also not what any of us want for our stories. I hope.

Revision, to me, is more art  than skill. Certainly, you need a specific set of skills before you can begin to revise - but actual revision, turning the dross into gold, is tough to categorize or list out in ten easy steps. Look through this week's posts. KAK talks GMC. Linda talks show, don't tell. I'm going to come at it from yet a different angle, which I'll get to in a minute.  Revision is an art because every writer has to find his or her own way into (and subsequently back out of) the forest of words and story. You get bonus points if you emerge with your sanity intact. How do you figure out when mucking around in the innards of your novel has accomplished something useful? By having made the twin mistakes of:
  1. Sending an MS out before it's time 
  2. Revising the life and breath right out of your novel
Once you've done those two things and realized you've done those two things so you can go back and look at them for comparison, you have a much stronger sense of how fine a line you have to walk as you revise. I'll fess up. I had to do these two things twice each before I figured it out. But honestly? I live to revise a book. First drafts stab me repeatedly in the heart. Revisions? Those are easy.

So how do I talk about revision? It's all in the word. Re-vision - looking at a story with fresh eyes. Anytime I finish a draft, I put it away for at least 24-48 hours. During that time, there's no looking at it. No reading. If I think if something I messed up or missed, I make a pen and paper note - a running revision list. And let me tell you, there's something about closing up the first draft of a story that will bring the 'Hey, stupid, you forgot...' voices right out of hiding. The point of taking a break is to give the creative story portion of my brain time to settle down. It's a little like taking a day off from the gym right after you complete a marathon. Give those muscles some time to repair torn, stressed tissue. You story brain needs that, too.

This break also gives the critical-thinking and logic centers of your brain time to wake up. Into the silence of the enforced story blackout, the quiet voices start popping up. "Did you tie up that thread from chapter three?" "Did you remember to put the clue in on that one chapter where. . ." These all get added to the revision list. No opening the document to check.

After the day or two of rest, I pick up my revision list, open my document and I start reading with a set of questions in mind.

  1. Do my characters sound and act like themselves?
  2. Can I up the stakes or make things worse? (while keeping things believable)
  3. Does every scene drive the story forward?
  4. Do my hero and heroine have a complete character arc and does the conflict drive each of them into that arc (willing or unwilling)?
Once I have the answers to those questions, I'm still not likely done. I haven't addressed my revision list that I've kept. I address those. My favorite way to address revisions? Deletion. Reason being that if a scene has several revision notes, either it's a key, pivotal scene that needs to be crystal clear or (and more likely, because just how many pivotoal scenes does one novel have?) the scene isn't necessary at all.

This is also my opportunity to go back through the story and rewrite bits of dialog with the brilliant and witty things my characters SHOULD have said to one another. And that only pop into my head after I've given up for the night and crawled into bed for some sleep. I'd like to tell you that I keep a running list of that stuff, too, rather than going back in each day and revising what I'd written the day before with the new dialog bits - but I'd be lying. So I won't.

When I stop getting revision notes from inside my brain and I've read through the story without any further flashes of snappy dialog accosting me when I should be snoozing, that's when I know I'm done.  I'll send the story out at that point. And within an hour of sending the story to an editor somewhere, I'll discover at least four more typos that spellcheck and I somehow missed. That's just the way it goes, I guess.

The hard part is learning to trust your instincts. Not your knee-jerk defensive reaction when someone suggests that perhaps you could cut the backstory dump in chapter one. Your instincts. Those are the voices inside that pause and consider, but then say 'no, that's not going to work for that character because her drive for self-acceptence hinges on that one feature' when an editor asks you to make your brown eyed heroine's eyes blue. Honing instinct is hard work. It takes practice and it takes making mistakes. But once you do, you won't need to ask when you're done revising. You'll know.

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