Writer in Residence · 07/23/2012

Finding the Clues Within Your Story

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

We’re moving into the last week of Revision Month, and with that the last week I’d given myself for this latest novel revision. That deadline is just not going to happen, at this point. I’ll have to extend it, but Revision Month has a deadline of its own.

Some things I’ve read recently around the web: Chip Cheek on when to reimagine your draft/start over and Edan Lepucki on writing transitions between and within scenes.) Both of which seem in keeping with this month. (My own thoughts on reconceptualizing: the earlier the better; and on transitions: zoom out — i.e. weather, time, surroundings, other concrete contextualization — and get out of the scene before it seems to “end.”)

Today we have Gabriel Blackwell, author of the forthcoming books Shadow Man and Critique of Pure Reason, talking about the detecting involved in revision, the looking at what you have and seeing what you really have.

How important it is to SEE — Blackwell nicely ties revision into thoughts on Oedipus.

I often find when I am revising that what I am missing I am not missing in the sense that it is absent or lost but in the sense that I am overlooking it. Often I have done the subconscious work I needed to do in earlier drafts, but I have left that work too much in the subconscious of the story.

Missed opportunities, I call them in workshop. How can such-and-such do more for the story than it is doing? How can you utilize what you have already invented to its fullest potential? Sometimes a writer can include everything a story needs, instinctually, without showing the reader why those things are included. Like a villain who hides in the background instead of directly menacing the story, or a person facing a decision and saved by the proverbial bell.

I was working more on my opening novel sections over the weekend, and finally they have started to click. How I was missing what I had: skipping over a moment when two characters touch knees, which could have been suspenseful and dramatic but was instead left only as a clue the reader couldn’t fully put together. How I was missing what I had: mentioning a disagreement between two characters that in the foreground could have added tension and set up a future conflict. How I was missing what I had: letting my protagonist keep what he wants (but also doesn’t want) without pursuing it, without acting to keep it.

Making these things important in the reader’s mind instead of only as threads worked into the fabric of the story, on the surface instead of hidden in the background, has started to give the opening momentum and depth and possibility. Or so I hope. It has at least given a sense, as Alexander Chee put it in our previously mentioned Redivider interview, excitement.

In Oedipus Rex, we know what Oedipus is missing. We need to know in order to want to keep reading. We wonder about the consequences, rather than whether what we are reading has consequence. A reader kept in the dark doesn’t know what or where anything is, doesn’t know how to move forward, or even that she should.

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Thoughts on reVISION, by Gabriel Blackwell

Oedipus Rex is, just possibly, the original detective story. It’s got it all — sex, money, murder, a case of mistaken identity, a femme fatale (fatal mostly to herself), and a hardboiled guy out to find out who killed who. And yet somehow I can’t imagine Dashiell Hammett was thinking of Oedipus when he invented Sam Spade. Still.

Raymond Chandler learned how to write by reading other people’s stories and taking notes on what happened in them (naturally, his reading list included Hammett, and thus, I guess, Sophocles). Just what happened. No characters, no setting, no dialogue, none of the language — just what happened. He would take those notes and build his own stories up out of them. Eventually, he had enough stories of his own that he could do the same thing to himself — he called it “cannibalizing” — that’s how he wrote The Big Sleep. From a set of notes about stories that had been written from notes that had been written about other stories.

Some people believe there are twenty plots. Some, thirty-six. Some, twelve; some, six; some, three; some, just one. I guess some people might even believe that the number isn’t finite, but the balance of evidence seems to weigh against them. Look at how small that range really is: one to thirty-six. Not 136, but 36. It’s a shallow well, in other words.

Chandler may have been rewriting other people’s stories, but so are we all. And, hey, look at that: he was “rewriting.” Revising is an act of recognition as much as it is one of recomposition. I don’t mean that anyone needs to recognize which of the 20 Master Plots he or she happens to be using, but that revision is reVISION — not the process of perfecting the original concept, but the act of perceiving what one has created, a new and different kind of vision. A revision is not a vision in the sense of a prophecy — the sustained imaginative act of composition — but a vision in the sense of the sense — seeing, vision, a careful examination of what is in front of you. Not the creation or discovery of a set of clues, but the recognition that the clues are clues.

Oedipus, for one, had trouble. Any vision strong enough to carry us through from conception to completion is bound to be stronger than we can just wish away when we’re done with it. And so most of the revision that we do is really a process of derangement, a way of scrambling our perception of what we’ve put down so that we can see it for what it is.

Victor LaValle recommends something he calls a “beat sheet.” It’s just a record of things that happen in the story, something like Chandler’s notes, but stricter, maybe, or maybe the same thing. Description doesn’t count. Thinking doesn’t count. Flashbacks don’t count. If there’s dialogue, all that gets recorded is “Character A talked to Character B.” Just action. If you’re strict, if you really and truly just record what “happens” in your story, what results is most definitely a derangement. Though I haven’t read Ronald B Tobias’s book, I would guess that most beat sheets look something like one of his “master” plots. But the “beat sheet” does something else beyond telling you what you’re inadvertently ripping off: it gets you to focus on your story — not the one you intended to tell, but the one that you told.

All of the different questions that we try to answer in revision converge upon one, single point: What would this look like if I wasn’t me?

Which brings us back to Oedipus. Which is also, it seems to me, a story about revision. The great tragedy, the really moving thing about Oedipus’s story, is the moment of recognition. That is what the story has been building up to. It is a profoundly human moment, I think, showing us just how weak our apparatus for perceiving the world around us is, how imperfect and blind we usually are to what we are doing. We can’t know everything, and we shouldn’t try to, but if we’re going to create something as lasting as Oedipus Rex, we’re going to need a Tiresias. “Terrible, to see the truth / when truth is only pain to him who sees!” But whether one sees the truth or not, it is the truth, and, like Oedipus, we’re going to keep asking until we get it. The trick is to recognize that we’ve got it once we do.

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posted by Matt Salesses