On Writing #4 Revisions: Not so terrifying as you thought

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TAKING THE FEAR OUT OF REVISIONS

Some writers love doing revisions. Now they’ve taken care of the basics they can have fun filling in the details. Others regard the process as sheer drudgery after the purely creative phase where ideas were flowing freely. Most are intimidated by the amount of work ahead, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

One way to avoid being overwhelmed is to remind yourself that you don’t have to fix everything at once; you can do this over successive drafts. See this as an opportunity to deepen your connection with your world and characters, not just a time for cleaning up the boring technical details like grammar and overuse of the passive voice.

On the first pass, it’s best to concentrate on the most serious problems. Look for places where you went completely off-track in terms of the plot and/or characters. Do your characters act in a manner consistent with their own needs and desires, or do you think that readers will see your hand manipulating them? Do things happen in ways that are all too convenient for the plot you envision but are not really plausible given the characters and the context in which they move? Are there flaws in your worldbuilding?

Make the most drastic revisions first, because they might require more substantial cuts, more sweeping changes than you anticipate. There is no use polishing a scene or chapter to perfection if it going to be cut or largely rewritten, and not least because it will make it that much harder to find the gumption to cut it out later.

But before you make those drastic revisions, consider this:

When a major problem first comes to your attention, the task ahead may seem daunting, as you imagine that the only way to fix it will involve ripping out large sections and rewriting them from scratch. It could mean that, yes, but often small changes can achieve much. A sentence here, a paragraph there, sometimes a rewritten scene or chapter, may throw an entirely new light on what you already have. As all parts of a novel should work together to tell the story, subtle changes in one area may impact others in unexpectedly effective ways. It’s like the ripple effect when you throw a stone into a pool of water.

Surprisingly often, it’s all a matter of managing readers’ perceptions, rather than making substantial changes to your plot and characters.

How does this work? Well, in the first chapters of a book readers are forming impressions that might (probably will) prove indelible — like hating a character you want them to like. At the beginning of a book, in the absence of other information, they will take the only details they’ve seen as representative of what that character is really like. So suppose that your protagonist makes two or three cutting, sarcastic remarks in the first chapter. All through the rest of the book, he is kind, understanding, sympathetic, but readers have already made up their minds that he has a sharp tongue and a malicious sense of humor. They are looking for sarcasm in everything he says, and because they are expecting it, of course they find it. You love the dialogue in the first chapter: it’s clever, snappy, your writing group gets a big kick out of it. But it gives a false impression of your main character. Change those three lines and you alter readers’ perceptions. They can see that character for who he is. Instead of sarcasm, they read sincerity into everything he says. Yes, sometimes it can be just that easy.

So the first thing you should do when faced with a problem is determine whether you can fix it with just such small, subtle changes, or if major surgery is required. The catch, of course, is that even when you know in your heart that surgery is indicated, the sheer amount of work involved may send you scuttling for a box of bandaids instead. You need to be honest with yourself. Never leave things as they are only because it is the easiest way, and don’t keep scenes, subplots, or characters that no longer work simply because you think they are clever or well-written, or because beta readers tell you those are their favorite parts. (If people are liking best the parts that don’t really work with the rest of the story, you are either in big trouble, or you need some new betas.) Learn to be ruthless. You may be pleasantly surprised by the result. I once had to throw out and rewrite an entire third of a book. I’ve never regretted doing so, because in completely rethinking that part of the book I came up with something I liked far better than what I had before.

Try to think of changes that will be organic to the story.

Before you attempt to invent your way out of a problem, look to see if the solution is already there. Frequently it is. Suppose that you are writing a mystery novel. You have devised a fiendishly clever way for the murderer to poison his victim, and he pulls it off. But when revising the novel you are dismayed to realize that he has made a serious mistake, one that will inevitably lead to another character putting the evidence together and accusing him of the crime long before you want any of the other characters to so much as suspect him. To avoid this happening, the murderer must claim another victim, but lacking time for the meticulous planning that went into his previous crime, he uses the first weapon that comes to hand. There is absolutely no reason for you to invent an antique dagger of oriental design (along with an elaborate history to explain why it is there), if you have already placed a loaded revolver on the mantlepiece in an earlier chapter.

Your job, when this kind of problem comes up, is to search through your book for that loaded revolver. If it isn’t there, then, yes, it may be necessary to introduce something new, but look for the revolver first. Sometimes you will find that your subconscious mind anticipated your needs and gave you exactly what you require long before you realized you would need it.

Plot holes

You can’t fix plot holes by patching them; you do so by weaving loose threads back in. A plot hole occurs when there is something you haven’t thought out sufficiently, usually something much earlier in the story. Inventing new characters and elaborate scenarios to cover up the problem rarely works, as the hole in the fabric of the story is still there and discerning readers will detect it despite your best efforts at disguise. It’s better to take a hard look at your story, pinpoint the exact place where things went wrong, fix the problem at its source rather than the point where you first became aware of it, and rewrite everything that comes between. (This can also work when you’ve lost your forward momentum and stalled. When you can’t go forward, go back.) This may seem like a lot of work, but in the long run it usually involves less work because it fixes the problem for good. Otherwise, the loose threads continue to unravel, requiring more and more fixes. As above, whenever possible look for a solution within the story. Very often it’s already there; you just haven’t seen it yet.

The truth About tightening

Tightening, you may be surprised to learn, doesn’t always mean making things shorter. It means taking out all the boring and irrelevant bits and replacing them with material that engages, that adds interest to what you already have. Often this substitution does make the word count shorter, but occasionally it ends up actually being longer though it seems to read much faster. A gripping novel of 120,000 words may whisk right by, while a much shorter but less involving novel seems to inch along. Tightening means that everything in the story should serve a purpose, perhaps two or more purposes at the same time. For instance a line of dialogue that advances the plot while also providing background information and illuminating character. Tightening may mean eliminating a minor character and giving his lines and assigning his actions to another minor character. Or it might mean eliminating that dagger and using the revolver instead—or vice versa.

Information that seems irrelevant in one chapter may become of vital interest to readers in another, when they understand its importance, or when when you’ve brought them to the point where they are dying to know all about it—perhaps because you have paved the way by dropping hints to arouse their curiosity. Under these circumstances, the solution is simply to move it rather than cut it. This is especially true where there are expository lumps or infodumps. Backstory or background that seems too much when readers are expected to swallow it all in one gulp may be just the right amount when fed to them slowly, a bite at a time. But even an infodump or a flashback may work if it is entertaining, relevant, and satisfies (at least in part) readers’ curiosity. However, don’t take this as an excuse to be self-indulgent.

Look for rambling dialogue, and ask yourself if the characters could have said what they have to say in fewer words. In real life, people do ramble before getting to the point—and sometimes never get to the point at all. But you do not have the luxury of writing that kind of dialogue, not if you want to keep readers interested. Make every word count. On the other hand, you aren’t writing a movie script where actors can take meager dialogue and add extra meaning with the way they deliver it. Make it eloquent and specific. In the end, that can save you extra words.

And while we are on the subject of dialogue: if you have characters of a higher class than the others and are meant to be better educated, don’t try to demonstrate this with wordiness, tortured syntax, and vocabulary you barely understand yourself. These characters are the ones who should be the most clear and precise in the way they use words. People who are accustomed to giving orders tend to be concise because they feel no need to explain themselves. (And if you think you know the meaning of a word but it is not one you would use yourself, consult a dictionary. It may not mean what you think it means, and it never hurts to make sure. Sometimes a shorter, more common word better says what you want your character to say.)

Watch out for cheap melodrama

By this I mean arguments, tantrums, and other emotional explosions that do nothing to advance the plot or to reveal anything useful about the characters, but are merely there to spice up the story and provide conflict in scenes where nothing particularly exciting is happening. These tactics get old fast, and can cause readers to lose sympathy for otherwise appealing characters. They can also dilute moments of genuine drama—if your characters are hyperventilating and striking poses on practically every page, how can you expect readers to be impressed by the same behaviors when the real action begins? Save such things for the big moments, when they’ll have more impact. If you need cheap melodramatics to make a scene interesting, consider whether the scene is even necessary.

But the worst thing about this kind of histrionics is that they are so easy and obvious they may distract you from searching for and finding the genuine dramatic possibilities that already exist within the scene.

Say that you have three girls walking down the street in order to get somewhere that things are going to happen. They come from different backgrounds but have been friends since early childhood. Girl A is wealthy. She is always dressed in the latest fashion, wears designer clothes, and always has the best of everything—all the best and most frivolous electronic devices, etc. Girl B’s family is middle class. She dresses well, but her clothes are knock-offs from the local department store. She has most of the same things that Girl A has, but always in cheaper versions. Girl C is poor. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. She shops at the local thrift store or wears hand-me-downs from her older sister. Since she will never be able to dress like other girls, she makes a point of being eccentric in what she wears, and has her own style somewhere between punk and goth.

Now this is a transitional scene, basally meant to get your characters from here to there, and you could skip it entirely except that they are meant to casually notice something of later importance along the way. The scene as it stands is boring, so you think you need some conflict. You invent an argument about a class assignment. It’s rather a silly argument and it does nothing to advance the plot but … well, you need something, don’t you?

And yet, there a plenty of opportunities for genuine conflict between the characters, without the manufactured drama of the argument over report due for history class. which will be forgotten as soon as the characters move on to the next scene. Since I am giving an extreme example here, I am sure that you can see what some of those opportunities are. Girls B and C, no matter how much they like Girl A must at times be envious of her. A chance word could set this off and B and C can verbally gang up on A. Or A and B can tell C that she should dress more like “a normal girl” because sometimes they are ashamed to be seen with her. Or A and C can argue and B get stuck in the middle and her efforts to calm things down may cause both the other girls to turn on her. Or … there are undoubtedly other possibilities. And any of these, unlike that paper for history class that you pulled out of your hat, can feed future tension between the girls later in the story when you need it. Even if the girls have made up by the end of the walk, memories of that argument and the tensions behind it can be simmering beneath the surface until you need them to break out again.

So don’t let conflict you manufacture on the spot blind you to possibilities already built into the story and characters.

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If you keep these things in mind, you may find the revision process goes more quickly and easily. You may even find the process becomes enjoyable. If nothing else, I hope these tips help you to move ahead more confidently and effectively, by removing some of the mystery and confusion from what is not really a mysterious process at all.

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