by Matt Salesses
I am amazed that the good and wise Steve Himmer has let me have the run of the place for a month. I am going to mess this house up and only talk about how to clean it. For July, I have decided to play History. I have decided to launch a war on first drafts and erect the memorial to edits. Revision is where we do our most important work as writers, or at least where we can. And yet, for as much as we love and hate it, for as much as we talk about it, we don’t really talk about it. (See: What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision, which I’ve revised right out of this introduction.) I want that to change. I want us to teach revision up front when we teach writing, to demystify it, to make it the first thought rather than all reaction. One downside of workshops — which I love, don’t get me wrong — is that we only address the issues that come up. I think we can offer tips and strategies and experience and frustration from the beginning. I think we can say, this is where we’re going, and this is how we can make sure we get there.
When Steve asked me to “reside,” I had the grand idea to create a sort of Rolodex for revision methods, fears, hopes. Something we could come back to as writers every time we needed to be picked up from a disappointing draft, every time we were wondering how to find the heart of a story. Have a piece that loses momentum halfway through? Look under M. I asked some of my favorite young writers to talk about revision with specificity. More than: keep editing and editing until it’s done. Instead: how they edit, what they look to cut or add, tips or tricks, how they know it’s done.
Sometimes I had to pull teeth. Sometimes I had to ask for revisions of revision essays. I wanted this month to be as helpful as possible, on the most practical, or practicable, level.
So I thought I would start off by putting my money where my mouth is (online, mostly).
Hopefully, over the next month, as we all revise our manuscripts — and I’ll be talking about how mine has changed over 8 years, as I make a last ditch effort to “finish” it — we’ll all be able to take away one new strategy, we’ll all be encouraged to do better. I know I have found a few new tricks to try. Hopefully, our first drafts will be a distant memory. This month, you’ll find some of us talking about the same things again and again, because they can’t help but be talked about. You’ll find little gems like how to use the computer to your advantage. I’ve even asked poets for help! (No offense, poets, you’re the best.) You’ll find love and hate and math and intuition. You’ll find something for everyone, and, with luck, something just right for you.
Here are 20 thoughts to start:
1. To me, the most important question to ask as I revise is: Am I bored here? The best “advice” I’ve ever heard on revision was from the wonderful teacher and writer Margot Livesey. It was something like this: if you are bored, it’s not because you’ve read that section so many times, it’s because it’s boring.
We tell ourselves all sorts of excuses — and that our writing would be interesting to someone else, reading for the first time, is one of the worst. Good writing is always engaging, even after reading it over and over. We reread favorite books. If it’s boring to you, then why would it interest your readers? Just about the worst offense a writer can commit is to be boring.
2. It’s hard to revise because you know what you were intending, and you might read that into what is there. Sometimes it helps to change the font, change the margins, change the medium. Do something to divorce yourself from the text before you read it again, anything to trick yourself into thinking it’s something you’ve never seen before. To revise, I have to will myself to see my work as someone else’s.
3. Rewrite. You’ll see this one mentioned several times. Type the draft out again in a new document, in this way making sure you are using the words you really want to use.
4. Read out loud. A similar idea. Your ear will hear the points that ring false.
5. Cut up your story.
Specifically, cut it up so each scene is on its own piece of paper, each section of narrative summary, each description of a character, each flashback, each memory, each flash forward, and so on. Then lay out all those pieces on your floor — I use columns. Is each piece in the right place? Some things to think about: The order of information contributes to tension/suspense. (If you have relevant backstory that would increase the stakes of the present situation, that backstory should come before it. If the mystery of what happened in the past is adding suspense, then the backstory might come after. But don’t cheat.) Character descriptions usually come as soon as we meet the character, for good reason (not obvious — I once took a class in which where someone asked why Michael Chabon kept describing his characters as soon as they were introduced). Also, flashbacks can be broken up. They don’t have to be all in one piece. So can scenes. Also, think about the length of each piece. This is contributing to the pacing and rhythm: don’t put all the longer sections together, or the shorter; intersperse.
6. Write down the gist of each scene on a sticky note. Then line them up, again in columns. If there are two scenes on one page, then put those two sticky notes in one column. One over three pages, then put that sticky note over three columns. Now take a look. For visual people, you might see where a scene is starting to drag, or where it ends too quickly.
7. You can do the same for what the reader learns on each page. Ideally, we should continue learning things (which increases stakes, desire, conflict, etc.) until we know enough for the story to start moving toward an ending.
You can also do this for the themes on each page. This can help you see what the story is about and whether everything is working together thematically.
8. For problems with plot, it can actually help to write out a movie-like treatment: write out all the action (book-length) in four pages. Just the action. “Hamlet sees his father’s ghost. His father’s ghost says he’s been murdered.” Is there at least one big thing happening by the end of the first page to start us down a path that we can’t turn back from? Is there something new introduced after the second page? Is there a turn at the end of the third page, that will lead us to the ending?
9. List all the decisions your protagonist makes. The same for everyone else. Who makes the most decisions? That might be your true protagonist. Or try to have the protagonist make more. Also, make sure each character is making decisions that get in the other characters’, esp. the protagonist’s, way.
Related: Who is moving the action forward in each scene? Is it the protagonist? If it’s not, can it be?
What does the character want: _________
What stops the character from getting it: __________
What makes it easier: _________
That which fills in the third blank, should probably go.
10. Style guide (this is mine, and might not be for everyone, but I’m thinking music and readability):
- Value nouns and verbs over adjectives and especially adverbs.
- Value consonants over vowels.
- Value hard consonants (e.g. k) over soft consonants (e.g. g).
- Value words of one syllable over words of two syllables over words of three syllables, etc. Though precision is important, and sometimes the right word is the longer word.
- Each sentence should include more stressed syllables than unstressed syllables (a la Lish).
- A sentence with a masculine ending (stressed syllable) sounds stronger than one with a feminine ending (unstressed syllable).
- Avoid using the word was when possible. A lot of this has to do with using the right action verb.
- Avoid introductory clauses (e.g. Closing my eyes, I smiled) except when used as time or location markers (At five o’clock, When I got back from the store, In the supermarket).
- Using common words, or colloquial words, in new ways, is more interesting than using uncommon words in normal ways.
- Avoid “begin” or “start” or intermediate actions (e.g. I began to sing. He started walking. He got up from the couch and went to the door. Just write: I sing. He walked. He went to the door.)
- Value consonance and assonance over alliteration.
- In almost all instances, use “say” or “ask” instead of other dialogue tags.
11. Try this: Cut the opening paragraph. Cut the last paragraph. Do that for each scene. Now rewrite the ones that have to be there, let the rest die.
12. In each paragraph, look at opening sentence and last sentence in particular. It is important what goes where. Things that will come back in the future should go in the middle, generally. Important things in the moment should go at the beginning or end. A good last line is a good last line, but often only an okay middle line.
13. I would never say showing is better than telling, but it’s important to get it right. Should this be a scene, is a good question to ask. Does it need to be dramatized? Or can it be summarized? I am of the mind that emotions should be shown, not told.
Related: Ask yourself: Am I telling right after or before showing something? Am I explaining what I mean right after saying it better and more directly? (See what I did there?)
14. Indirect speech for voice. Direct speech for drama. Indirect for information, usually. Indirect for things like: “The car is that way,” which should probably be: She pointed him to the car. Or: She sighed and pointed to the car. Or: She walked to the car instead of answering. And so on.
15. Backstory: can it fit into the dialogue somewhere, where someone else’s interest in it can bring it out, increasing our own, as well as making it a direct concern in the present of the story?
16. Is this metaphor relevant to the story? Is it right for the POVcharacter? Does it do the job better than a concrete description. I am starting to gravitate more and more to the concrete, in revision, over metaphor.
17. Write a scene taking the protagonist out of the main conflict. Write an unexpected visit or phone call. Sometimes, we need to be broken out of the tight coil of the plot.
18. Use recurring images/objects to ground the reader. A birthmark or deformity or dyed hair or simple dimple that we can be reminded of, can bring up the entire picture of a character we had when we first met her. An object in the story can be used to remind us of various storylines, or to remind us of theme. Objects can be attached in the reader’s mind to these things, and when they come up in the story, they can point us in the right direction or keep us aware of something that might otherwise fade into the background.
19. Change the point of view. If all else fails and it didn’t already seem obvious, you might try changing the point of view (whether it’s needed or not). Even if you change it back, the shift might be enough to see the story new.
It occurs to me that a lot of these thoughts are about seeing. Remember: re-vision.
20. Does the length match the reach?
The authors we’ll be hearing from this month:
Laura van den Berg
Christine Lee Zilka