Thoughts on revision

Three days ago cryslea  asked me what I’m sure she thought was a simple question: "How do you start revisions?"  Initially, I thought it was a straightforward, simple question, and I was sure I had an answer.  The fact that I have been attempting to answer the question since she asked it and am just now able to make an attempt is everyone’s first clue that it is not.

The trouble, I think, comes from the fact that like almost everything regarding writing, the answer is, "It depends," and the other, far more important phrase that goes with it is, "on you."  I think revision is as personal an undertaking as drafting, and in many ways, it’s a lot harder, even as it’s also easier.   On the one hand, the work has already been done.  It’s already there.  On the other hand, now you have to make it make sense: first to yourself, which is hard enough, and then, terror of terrors, you must show it to someone else and then you find out if you did it right, or not, but even there you still have to make judgment calls and sort things out–yeah.  Revision.

Except I really do like revision better than first draft writing.  I like both in their time, but revision is so much better for me, because it is so much less of a runaway train.  It’s methodical and painstaking, and it’s tons and tons and tons of work, but hello, I’m a Virgo.  No problem.

But how to revise.  That’s tricky, because how do you lay down rules for something that needs to be personal?  That’s what I’ve been mulling over, and at this moment, this is my best answer.  

The biggest, most important concern: What is my story saying, or, alternately, is my story saying anything?

I strongly believe that the first draft of the story should be written in some sort of altered state of consciousness, or as close to a state like that as the author is capable/comfortable achieving.  I think this is why NaNoWriMo works so well for so many, and, sadly, why drugs and alcohol have always been popular among writers.  From a technical standpoint, you’re trying to access parts of your brain that are almost dangerous, so you do whatever you need to do to shut up the part of your brain that wants to make your work make sense or to drive or to keep it from being what it needs to be, which is that you delve into your own psyche as well as some nebulous well of public consciousness or even magic, and you bring out a big fat fish.  Or, for a metaphor which will segue nicely into revision, you dive into a wreck or a well or you scavenge a dump and you fish out anything and everything that looks and sounds good to you.

And now, in revision, you look at that mess and you make it make sense.   And you start by trying to figure out what it already says, organically, and then you shape it up and give it a bath and cut its hair so that it can be presentable to others.  

I forget where and when and under what circumstances she said it, but Jenny Crusie is the one who said that the Girls in the Basement (the muses, your creative inspiration, whatever you’d like to call it) give you the good stuff, but they do not send it up necessarily in the format anyone else can understand.  And really, this makes sense.  If we as conscious human beings are the medium either between some magical field or force or whatever or even just our own subconscious (which is magic enough, really), then it’s ridiculous to expect that what we bring up from the depths will be inherently okay without any work.  Some people are able to revise as they go, and some people are just naturally good at it and shouldn’t mess with what is working.  Most of us need to work, and we probably have to think about it.

So you start with asking yourself what your story says.  You look at is and try to figure out what you’d tell someone it’s about.  You probably started writing with this in mind.  Very, very likely it’s changed while you weren’t looking or were high channeling the creative woo.  That’s okay.  But now you need to figure out what it is you just said.  This is the part where I, personally, get paranoid and upset, because I want it to have a clean, tidy logline or some sort of summary that I can tell other people, also known as the elevator pitch.  If you were in an elevator with someone and they asked what your book was about, what would you say?  You only get a line or two.  Another popular technique is to think how you’d list your novel in a TV Guide or maybe a Yahoo movie listing.  Practice by trying to encapsulate your favorite books or movies or TV shows.  You will likely find your own work a lot harder.

And this is where everyone will start to depart on technique, so I can only talk about what I do, which is to say that I wrestle.  A lot.  Because I never know.  I usually finish euphoric, high as hell, and then I try to figure out what I just said and I am fantastically depressed, because I don’t know, or it sounds really, really dumb, or both, and I can’t find it.  This is when I pull out the white board, a big huge six by four foot thing that I scribble over, where I make Curio pages and mind maps, where I make notecards with main points, where I turn into John Forbes Nash and try to solve my story’s main idea by turning 150,000 words into two zillion notecards and summaries.  I collage.  I knit.  I pace.  Frankly, I act like a complete twit, but I just keep working at it, and suddenly, I know.  I can’t really describe this part, because I just fight, fight, fight, reading and thinking and thinking and reading and usually drinking and occasionally smoking.  Because for me this part is really hard.

Now, sometimes I skip to this next part first, because it can help lead you back to the answer, but I do think it’s better to start with "what is my story about?"

The second step is to find your acts: find the three (or four, or five) beat mini-story within your novel.  This usually freaks a lot of people out, but I actually truly love it, and I’d be very happy reading other people’s manuscripts to point out to them where their acts are if I could get paid to do it.  I can unfold a story very easily, because I can hold it up in my head. I see it like a net, and all the bits and pieces just make sense to me.  If there’s a story there, I can find it, which is good, because mine hide.  I had to quit trying to write a first draft in tidy acts, because it was holding me back, because often the first draft has messy acts.

You can go here to see how to deconstruct a novel for acts; you can also consult Ms. Debra Dixon’s fine bookGoal, Motivation and Conflict (three important points affectionately known as "GMC").  If you’re of an analytical mind, try Robert McKee’s Story, which is for screenwriting but works well for novels as well.  This book scares most people, however; the more accessible version is Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger.  Usually most of these books are available at public libraries, too.

DO NOT TRY TO APPLY THESE PRINCIPLES DURING YOUR FIRST DRAFT.  DO. NOT. EVER.  It’s a fantastic way to creatively constipate yourself.  First drafts should always be written alone and with an abandon you cannot believe you even possess.  Bring Seger and McKee and Dixon over for tea only once you have the first draft done.  You have been warned.

The third step is to note where your story does not line up, and make a plan for fixing it.  This part, again, is very personal.  It needs to begin with you looking at what your story says, and acts, and then YOU and you alone need to make judgments on what needs to be changed, where, and how.  Depending on your preference, you might seek beta readers at this time, which is to say people to read it and tell you what they think.  However, here I think the greatest wisdom belongs to Neil Gaiman, who said something like  almost every time someone points out that something doesn’t work in your story, they’re right.  Almost every time they tell you how you should fix it, they are wrong.  The thing is, it needs to be your idea, or it isn’t your story, and if you ask five people what your story should be about when it isn’t saying something very strongly, you will very likely get five different answers.  And the thing is, it will say different things to different people anyway.

Remember the contract with the reader.  This is probably the best advice you’re going to get, and the easiest.  You can skip the acts and all that stuff if you can do a good job answering this question.  If you can say what your story is about and can answer this one, you can skip everything else.  Since I can’t ever answer #1 until the very last, I can’t get betas until I’ve done a lot of work, and I can’t skip to this part.  But this is really all you need.  When you write a story, beginning on page one, you make promises to the reader.  By your tone, by your conventions, by what you include and what you don’t, you are saying to the reader, "This is what this story is going to be about."  And they will read or leave because of what they see here, but important is that you stick with it.  Betas for TWA pointed out to me that while my initial opening scene was great (though some also stopped reading because they hated it), it introduced a story very different than the one that came after.  They adjusted their expectations, but that was not so good.  So I worked and worked to rewrite the opening to make it fit the rest of the story better, and finally I got it.  

If you say your story is about Gina the Amazing Wiener Dog, make sure that the story is always about Gina the Amazing Wiener Dog.  This is the five paragraph essay all over again, really.  Figure out what your main idea is, who your protagonist is, and then make damn sure you stay on her like white on rice.  (Or brown on rice, depending on what flavor of rice you like to eat.)  If you have subplots, make sure they illuminate the main character in some way.  If you have multiple points of view, if you have multiple stories in one, make sure they come back to the main story. 

When you wrote the first draft of your story, you were discovering.  You were playing.  It’s like a little kid dressing up in a drawer full of clothes.  It’s great, and it’s fun, but the effect is usually not quite what we hope for.  Now that you’ve picked out a dress and two different pairs of shoes and six scarves, a wig, and a hat, decide what you want the outfit to really be, and start making some hard choices.  If you get married to a pink boa, then you can only marry a pink boa, and if it doesn’t work with it, everything goes.  If you love the dress, then that is your base.

One protagonist.  One story.  There should be one character whom the story is about, and they should have an antagonist who pushes against them and keeps them from their goal.  They should not be able to reach their goal in the first act, and things should happen that change the protagonist and keep her from succeeding until the end.  She should be active in her own story; that is, the changes should come because of choices she makes and things she risks and decides, not because other people decide things for her.  DON’T WORRY ABOUT THIS IN A FIRST DRAFT.  But now that you have one, look at it, and analyze it.  Decide what works, and what doesn’t.  Do not fix what works.  If it doesn’t work, try to decide why.  If you can’t decide why, read the above books or ask the questions about the protagonist.

Above all, do what works for you and your story.  Your goal is to tell the story so that other people can understand it.  That’s all.  You are not trying to make it perfect, much as I always try anyway.  You aren’t trying to write something no one can deconstruct–trust me, someone always will.  Someone will always hate what you say.  Always.  ALWAYS.  Sometimes many someones.

Say it anyway.  Your defense is making damn sure it is what you mean to say, or at the very least, that you’re fairly sure you know what it says.

That’s revision to me.  Your experience may vary.  

ETA:  If someone really wants me to attempt a more clear explanation of acts, I will do so sometime if you holler.  But that really needs its own post, and I’m not doing it unless I’m asked.  Which it is just fine if no one does, so don’t think I’m fishing.

2 Comments on “Thoughts on revision

  1. I should know better than to expect a simple answer. 🙂
    I like what you’re saying here, and it helps (especially about the contract with the reader stuff) though I have one question: WHY is figuring out the acts so important? Is it about pacing? About flow? Why?

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