Writer in Residence · 07/16/2012

Revision in Action

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

Now on to Part II of our revision month. I had to take a temporary break from the internet to go to a wedding and the zoo. Life with baby. The interruptions of the real world.

Over the weekend, I got some notes back from a trusted writer friend, notes that I’ve greatly anticipated and feared. And for good reason. I realized as soon as I read over the suggestions that I had known for a while what I needed to do and had been resisting it. Hard. I had asked another writer friend what I could do to make the novel more readable, and she said, “Aside from putting it in chronological order?” which we had both dismissed. She had read earlier drafts of the novel and perhaps knew too much about the kind of book I wanted to write. I dismissed this suggestion because what I thought she meant was everything, but reading over these new notes, I saw that what chronological meant was more to build up a head of steam in the opening few chapters. The novel can never be completely chronological, since having the two timelines increases the tension by creating a gap between what happens and its consequences, a gap the reader is looking to fill, but the individual timelines could stand to be more chronological themselves.

I have an elliptical opening left over from when I was working on the novel as my thesis, an opening I’ve become very attached to. (That should have been my first clue, like Lizzie Stark says about killing her darlings below.) At the time, I had moved the start of the novel up in order to fast-track the reader into the grips of Prague. I had the best of intentions. I had dropped the reader into the drama and filled in the lead-up with memories, for example, of the protagonist meeting the other characters — versus meeting them “with the reader.” But over the last three years, I’ve streamlined much of the rest of the novel while retaining the elliptical first chapters, which no longer fit. Part of my reluctance to change had to do with time — the novel takes place within a year, approximately, so it’s all close together time-wise and I didn’t want to go through three months in the first three chapters. But this isn’t really an issue anymore. I know that the book can take it because it also moves over chunks of time at other points, leaving only the important events, and reordering the opening will only be in keeping with this, now.

But what I feel, facing this change, is both a huge burst of energy and a huge sense of malaise. I want to do it but I don’t want to do it. Basically, I want it to be done. I want to take a nap and wake up with the work finished. It’s hard to take apart something that seems beautiful and go through the ugly stage and hope that it will end up just as beautiful again yet more functional. The ugly stage, as discussed earlier in this month, is a hard thing to let yourself settle into. It’s difficult to trust yourself to be able to get back to beauty.

But I must. So Part II of revision month is about action. If anyone out there is revising along with me, comrades of revision, it’s time to attack. Time to attack not only first drafts, but second, third, tenth drafts. Here are some tips that may help, from the author of Leaving Mundania, Lizzie Stark.

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Revision Tips from Lizzie Stark

Revision is stupidly, insanely important. Skipping it is like forgetting your child’s birthday.

For my part, I find the simplest methods the best, and nearly everything I know about revision I learned from Pam Painter’s revision class at Emerson College. I took away many lessons from that class, but the biggest one is that revision has two goals, the mechanical goal of sharpening the language and improving its rhythm and readability, and the content goal of revealing the story’s core. I try to write long and then cut my work as brutally as possible, to cut it down to the best, most interesting stuff, strung together with minimal connective tissue. I also cut with the understanding that I really like my own writing and it’s probably not as good as I think it is, so I should err on the side of cutting more.

On a content level, I search for boredom. If I’m boring myself, how can I expect to interest a reader? I deal with boring prose in two ways: I cut it, or if it’s really necessary to the piece, I try to punch up the language so that the phrasing, at least, becomes interesting. Of course, if you go too far in this direction, the showboat-y phrasing can detract from the story; so do it with care. If I fall in love with a phrase, I almost always cut it. As a nonfiction writer, I’m bound by the truth, so I try to stay anal and paranoid about the relationship of truth to my writing. Nonfiction is an emergent art form — the meaning of the story oozes out of the content, and it’s important to create the right narrative hooks to help you work around to the juiciest bits of information.

On a mechanical level, I look for varied sentence construction — I try to avoid repeated words, sentences with identical gramatical construction, excessive adjectives and adverbs — often an adverb means I’ve chosen the wrong verb — and most especially, my arch nemesis, the to-be verb. I always attempt to cut down my drafts; for me, shrinking the text often results in sharper focus.

Ideally, I ask a trusted associate to read my work, because sometimes ego can get in the way of recognizing what’s unnecessary in a piece.

As far as what I actually, physically do when I’m revising, I have a few old standby techniques, usually performed with dictionary in hand:

1. I read it silently. During this phase, I’m reading for the structure of the piece, and to make sure I’ve explained all the technical terms and all the basic knowledge my reader needs to understand the rest of the piece.

2. If the organization is a mess, or I’m losing track of where I am structurally, or if I’m tired and would really prefer to read the Internet, I’ll print out the piece, cut apart sections and physically move them around a la Pam Painter, which helps with the next method. The cut-and-paste method has a big advantage — you can do it when you’re half brain-dead, and still interact with your story in a meaningful way.

3. I retype. Pam Painter, also taught me this one. I use it when all the information is there, but could use some finessing/compressing, and provided that my deadline is sufficiently distant. As Pam put it, when you retype you “recommit yourself to every word.” No one wants to re-write bad writing, so the text inexorably changes and improves as I do this, particularly when it comes to rhythm and changing up sentence length. Rote cutting-and-pasting messes with the medicine of this method, so don’t do it. Sometimes I’ll do this one several times.

4. I read aloud. It’s the first revision method I learned in college, and I still think it’s one of the best. I tend to use this one near the end of the piece — it’s a great way of catching copyediting errors, missing words, verb agreement, and misspellings. I also use it to ensure my language is varied, that not every sentence begins with subject-verb construction, and to catch passive voice, and excessive “to be” verbs.

5. Another Pam Painter tip I use at the very end of all my revision: I search for “just,” “look,” “back,” and “even” — words that are often neither necessary nor descriptive — and cut them whenever possible.

I know when a story is done either when the thought of the piece makes me feel weary, or when my thoughts stop drifting towards how to write it better during my hours away from the keyboard. But really, “done” is a capricious concept. I prefer to hew to that E.M. Forster quote, “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

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posted by Matt Salesses