I am neck-deep in revision. My wonderful editor Peggy has told me to take whatever time I need, but the time I need is NOW, so I am culling through my story and thinking like a surgeon. Well, to be honest, I’m thinking like a 16-year-old boy, which is a fairly alien experience for me having never been one before, but I live with one and that helps.
This is where writing gets fun, but it’s also where writing becomes writing. Revision is the work part of writing, and it is often what separates the men from the boys – or the writers from the non-writers. I’m often surprised by those who get to this step and are either afraid, or even resistant, because they hold so many misconceptions about the process of revision.
There are those who look at revision as simply a grammar exercise. They hunt for commas or misspelled words like Hemingway hunted water buffalo in Africa. There is no doubt that grammar is important to writing, but it most certainly isn’t the life blood of writing. Writers who look only at misplaced or misused punctuation haven’t begun to scratch the surface of real writing.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who treat revision like a post mortem. They get out their bone saws and trocars and go at their creation like Dr. Frankenstein trying to fix his monster.
While I applaud their enthusiasm, I wonder if their overzealous approach might not somehow cause them bigger problems in the long term. Quite often the revision is a delicate balance between these two extremes. Granted, there are times a bulldozer is necessary, but there are other times that a needle and fine thread are the better approach. So what exactly is one looking for when one begins this operation?
Many writers use a check list of sorts to help them identify areas of concern. Since I trust my computer to spell check and apply basic grammar laws, or provide red or green squiggly lines indicating a possible error, I don’t spend much time on this area. Being an English major helps. Having had mentors who cut me no slack on these things also helps.
I move on quickly to looking for beginner slips – places where I may have relied on passive verbs, used too many adverbs, where I may have switched verb tense accidentally, or where I may have used inappropriate tag lines to substitute for emotion. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to avoid adverbs as much as possible, along with trying to use active language. I still find that I’ve gotten lazy somewhere and allowed them to slip in, so I spend the time to pick these out and remedy the issue with something better and more active.
While I’m at this second step, I look at the dialog passages, and I look for places where I may have missed dialog opportunities. One of my great pet peeves is reading something where the writer talks about talking, but never actually uses dialog. This is particularly annoying when it goes on for any length of time. A sentence or two? I can live with that. An entire paragraph – or more? – I’m done. I won’t finish the book, the article, whatever it is. That’s just lazy writing and worse editing – if there was any editing.
I trust my ability to develop characters before I really dig into a story, but I look for character consistency and believability as I’m revising. There are a few things that I believe go into making a character real: the character is altered in some way as a result of his or her experience in the story (and that doesn’t mean for the better all the time); the character’s actions are motivated by the circumstances of the story and are consistent with who the character is established to be (in other words, someone afraid of heights will not suddenly parachute from an airplane on a whim); and the if the character begins as a stereotype, he or she can not remain a stereotype throughout the entire story.
Those are my rules – you can feel free to use your own, or borrow these if they make sense to you.
When I look at my characters during the revision process, I’m looking to see that I’ve kept them in line with these concepts. Yeah, there’s wiggle room that gives me the freedom to have some fun with my characters, but I find that stories where the character doesn’t somewhat follow these guidelines, I don’t believe the character is real and I lose interest in them quickly.
Revising plot is more complicated than any other aspect of fiction. Typically for me, the plot is there and is clear, but it’s the nuances that I need to fix. There are things that need to be made more clear, and others that need to be toned down. There are issues that need to be strengthened, and others that need to be scaled back. Here’s a “for instance” from what I’m working on now: the main character has a love interest. It’s a complicated relationship because she’s a bit of a gold digger – always looking for the next best thing and willing to throw over anyone who doesn’t meet her need. But she’s not a bad kid. They live in a small community and what she really wants is to find a way out of her small life. She genuinely cares about the main character, but she is young. She isn’t manipulative, she’s just trying to find answers. The problem is, while it’s a good subplot, it may need to take more of a back seat in order to really build the main part of the story. I’ll need to cut some scenes back, and maybe even cut them out, in order to achieve this. Then I’ll need to build other scenes to redirect the focus to the most important part of the plot – the main character having to confront his crazy mother.
So the real work is on. I’ve only spent a few hours with the revisions thus far, but this is really my favorite part of writing. This is where the real crafting begins. This is the part where I really get to dive into the words and swim around in them.
Wish me luck!