Writer in Residence · 07/10/2012

Macro, Micro, and the Order of Information

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

I, like the wise and wonderful Stacey Swann, whose editing tips are included below, have always courted organization. Though I am far less successful in my daily life than I wish to be in my writing, my mind has always worked analytically, and part of the fun of revision, for me, is the puzzle. I’m the kind of person who likes cutting up a story, who likes moving around the pieces and figuring out the structure — well, up to a certain point. I even teach a class called “How to Write Structure.”

Swann’s tips below are mostly on the line, things to do in in that “very last revision step.” So I’ll share some thoughts on the broader strokes she mentions in one paragraph, and which I’m still working on in my novel manuscript, eight years later.

I’ve been following Gabriel Blackwell’s lovely series, A Sequence on Sequence, over at Big Other. It’s fascinating to hear people’s thoughts on ordering a collection. It seems to me that some of these thoughts can be applied to novels, or stories, or essays, as well.

I have written a book of 115 interlocking prose poems/flash fictions that add up to a novel of sorts. I set out with this structure in mind, small pieces adding up to a whole. Or this is not entirely true — I wrote the first tiny piece because I was asked to for a flash fiction issue of JMWW. About a year later, I read that story over again, and there was a lot more I wanted to say. So I wrote 20 more pieces. Then I started submitting those pieces, and The Lifted Brow asked whether I had about 20 or so that they might sprinkle throughout an issue. I said I could, and I wrote 20 or so more pieces. That left me with a chapbook-length book, which I sent to one publisher, but was told was probably too short. Soon after that, someone at Civil Coping Mechanisms asked me if I had a book-length manuscript. For CCM, that meant 120 pages. I said I could. I wrote about 100 more pieces, looking at the parts of the plot — which covers one year after a boy shows up claiming to be the narrator’s bastard child — that could be filled in further, mostly in the second half of the year. I knew, all along as I was writing these various stages, what kind of book I wanted it to be, what structure I wanted the book to have, but I didn’t know how many pieces I would have to write to get there. Later, I had all of these pieces but the order wasn’t right. I set them all out on the floor — my wife agreed to keep the baby out, and she wasn’t walking then — and stepped in and around and through the middle of them, looking at their shape, both literally and figuratively.

I threw about twenty pieces out. I put the pieces that set the stakes and set up the conflict at the beginning, but tried to keep from bogging the arc down with too much information. Two of the pieces I ended up keeping were set in the past, and I placed these pieces directly following surges in the present story, surges that I thought would be deepened by the backstory, as well as to provide a breath for the reader before diving back in. There is a long couple-fight in the book, and I fiddled with the order of these pieces, trying to get them to rise and fall, building and loosening tension, but also trying to keep some pieces that fell outside of the fight within, not to let this one thing take over. I wrote a few new pieces toward the end to give the narrator longer to change. He wasn’t the type to make a quick shift. I focused, maybe most of all, on pacing, trying to keep the reader’s attention through escalating stakes and desires and conflict, etc. And the order of the pieces was essential to this. It is essential to make sure the reader knows certain things before other things. For example, what the fight might cost the relationship before the fight.

I set the manuscript aside and a few months later, went back to it and reordered it slightly, cut and added new pieces, worked on transitions.

But this is about revising a sequence of pieces, each of which can also stand on their own. With the novel I’ve been working on all this time, I started with a very different structure than I have now. I started with 20 chapters all with a different style. The story went along chronologically, and the perspective shifted from one character to the next.

There were a lot of changes in between, to get the manuscript to where it is now, structured as two arcs, one in a way set in the aftermath of the story, in a hospital and rehab center in Boston, and one in the action in Prague that is looked back on from the aftermath. It was important and difficult for me to give each section a true arc, but that’s another discussion. What was similar between this project and the prose poems, was the huge amount of ordering that had to be done, and still has to be done. Today, I want to work on moving a section back fifty pages or so.

A lot of the novel is about knowing and not knowing, and accordingly, there is a lot the protagonist can and can’t know from each timeline. In Prague, he doesn’t know the consequences of his actions, though he does think about/fear them. In Boston, he is suffering from a head wound and memory loss, and has to piece together much of what happened in Prague. There is also the fact that he can’t know exactly what was going on with the other characters, so he has to imagine.

This is what made it difficult to order, this aspect of knowing and not knowing, the different timelines, the many bits and pieces that add tension and character development and backstory. Because the reader has to know certain information at certain points, and the protagonist at other points. The section I am moving earlier in the book, today (though I may end up scrapping this idea), is an imagined scene, looking back at Prague from Boston. I am trying to fit it in closer to when it happens in Prague, without ruining any pacing, because the dynamics in that scene might help the reader’s idea of the conflict. (This is a section of the book, by the way, that was actually present in my first draft. About 50 original words remain in the section now, of what was 20 pages. It remains because it is information the reader needs to know. Where, though, does the reader need to know it? That’s the question behind the move.)

Many of the other decisions I have made on a larger scale are about the order of information, what information is necessary and when. I have tried frontloading the narrator’s backstory, using The Shipping News as a model — another helpful method, to use models — now it is revealed in memories and dialogue. I have tried telling the story chronologically, and then associatively — now it is told mostly chronologically, with the consequences, in Boston, as a touch point, keeping the aftermath in the reader’s mind. I have tried spreading different characters’ perspectives throughout — now there is one part of the book where the other perspectives are clustered (imagined). All the while, I keep asking myself: What is the order that makes the book move as quickly as possible, while remaining clear, while remaining true?

Hopefully, I can get to that “very last revision step” soon, where I will heed this great advice from Stacey Swann. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to separate the macro from the micro.

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Editing Tips from Stacey Swann

My favorite quote about editing is from Susan Bell’s book The Artful Edit:

To break a text into nameable parts is a ruse — but one that allows us to approach our work in a more organized manner than while we write . . . Editing gives the writer a chance that writing never will: to see what he is doing.

I happen to be a sucker for organization. I’m a daily-list-maker, a calendar keeper. I can’t start my work for the day without having it all mapped out in front of me. So it’s not surprising that I also prefer to revise via list. My “big level” revision list for a short story is written in broad strokes — evaluating character, figuring out what my story is trying to say, breaking apart the structure and putting it back together, improving dialogue — but my line editing list is very detailed. I think part of the reason why I enjoy line editing is because it feels so structured; I simply work my way down the list. This is my very last revision step. Usually by this point, the story has been through five to ten sizable revisions during which I keep tweaking the language.

Many of the points below are taken from the excellent, excellent craft book The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne. Others were discovered in the aforementioned Bell book and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. The rest were gleaned from professors and writer friends. While my list is definitely geared towards my own writing weaknesses, I thought some readers might find it useful to adapt for their own use.

On the computer:

(I do this first section while at the computer because the Control F function is oh so handy.)

1. Cut every nonessential dialogue tag

2. Cut as many adverbs as possible

3. Proper use of:   like/as   it’s/its   lay/lie   that/which

4. Vague pronoun use/overuse of “it”

5. Overuse of filtering verbs: seem, appear, see, look, feel, hear, think, watch, stare, notice

6. Overuse of other words (this list is continually evolving as I figure out new words I use too much): that, really, only, then, still, smile, walk, just, very, every, something, come, lean, sit, leave, nothing, pull

7. Is the first line needed? Is the first paragraph needed?

8. Is the last paragraph needed? Could another paragraph be added at the end?

9. Look at the beginning of each line of dialogue. If it has one or two words, a comma, then continues on, you can probably cut everything before the comma.

To revise on a paper copy:

1. Eliminate everything you’re not sure of.

2. Strengthen each verb/remove to be verbs. However, do not replace with verbs that draw too much attention to themselves or break tone.

3. Remove passive voice

4. Word repetition

5. Fragments (I tend to overuse them.)

6. Do all removed conjunctions really need to be removed? (I tend to remove too many.)

7. Are paragraph breaks the best they could be? (look at entire story) Do you have any one sentence paragraphs? When looking at paragraphs think about Babel’s advice (“A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be a like a flash of lightening that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.”)

8. Does any paragraph feel monotonous and/or “slumpy”? Count the number of words in the sentences to make sure they aren’t all identical.

Finish by reading aloud! (Which invariably reveals many more clunky lines and unintended repetitions.)

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posted by Matt Salesses