Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Revision – should be easy, right? You take your vision and you do it again.
Well... that is actually one of the things you need to do. But to be serious for a while (and you know this kills me, right?) let’s take it from the top.
Years ago, at a workshop with Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, I was stunned to hear that while I was experienced enough to write stories, I lacked the necessary experience and knowledge to revise/rewrite/recast. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I mean, I used to teach English. And, of course, I learned English (and a few other languages) at one time. How many times had I revised a paper? Revising was easy, right? You go over your book and you change the wording and stuff...
Well, making a long and painful story short, KKR and DWS were absolutely right. I didn’t know how to revise. And I still don’t – or at least it’s not something that comes naturally. I work at it every single time I have to do it. It’s a painful process. All forms of revision.
What do I mean all forms? There are many things that get lumped in under “revision.” Some have different names but they all are, in a way, forms of revising. The ones that come to mind are: editing, revision (proper), rewriting, recasting.
To the extent they all involve taking work that could be considered finished and making it different in an attempt to improve it, they all involve re-vision – i.e., taking your vision and re-doing it. And each of them involves peculiar dangers that you make things worse, instead of better.
Take editing, which is probably the most minor of the processes – you change a word, a sentence there, move that explanation on the mating cycles of cockroaches to the beginning of the book... Simple, yes? I mean, the book remains essentially the same.
NOT simple. Why not? Because as you were writing it, you were “unrolling” the story in a certain order. If you’re like me, there’s the reminder-ticker-tape at the back of your head going “have you described him? Is this the first time we see him? Mention the thing with the hair!” While when you’re editing, again if you’re like me, you’re lost in the prose itself and it might be hard to remember what you’ve mentioned before and not or to find the exact reference back there. So in fact, when you move the thing on the mating cycles of cockroaches, it might be before you mention the villain is a cockroach and you might be confusing your reader terribly.
At the next level of invasiveness is revision proper. This goes a little deeper than mere word changes. With this one you have to ask yourself things like “Did I sufficiently describe the escape pods, so they understand the urgency of her flight?” Or “Should that second scene when he gets knocked on the head be there? He got knocked on the head once already. I need another injury. How about liver failure?” This one is proportionately more dangerous than mere editing. (And btw, I mean editing as a writer does with her own work, not as an editor does, which is more the revision proper level.) While editing can bring the reader to a dead stop at a sentence or paragraph, this one allows you to kill a novel dead, dead, dead. How?
By the time you start this phase, chances are you’ve been living with the novel for at least some months, and probably years. At this point, it’s very easy to come across a description of the character and decide that “oh, who needs to know his eyes sparkle with green fire?” and cut it out. Only your reader did not know that, and, denied the knowledge of this ophthalmic problem, will wonder what your MC sees in the guy (and why she’s stockpiling holy water.) By this process, you end up with talking heads and a nonsensical plot.
The opposite problem is trying to overcompensate for this and thinking “oh, I need to explain that.” In its extreme form, it has the author explaining how a zipper (or something else we have now) works. In its various intermediate forms, it can swell your novel to twice its size and give the reader WAY more information than anyone needs or wants. It can also bring your action scene to a dead stop, as you explain how the sonic guns work.
In a way the next level up – rewrite – is safer (As btw KKR as DWS told me they would be.) This is where you wrote the entire novel. Now you lock it in your drawer and you re-write from memory. While it will never be like writing it the first time – characters and situations are familiar, and presumably there are fewer surprises, though some minor scenes might change – you’re still telling the story anew, and that keeps it fresher as it unrolls. If you are a relative newby, this is the type of “revision” I’d recommend, for your seriously flawed stories. At least, if you suspect the problem is on the “narrative” side, rather than the story side. I.e., you have a basically solid story with solid characters, but you made a mess of how you told it. This is often the solution for stories you’ve edited to death.
And then you have recasting, which is the simplest one of all from a storytelling point of view... and the hardest too from a diagnosing point of view. This is when you take a story and you try to figure out why it was rejected. And then you play with removing/replacing story elements to make it better and/or more marketable. I’ve done this with half a dozen short stories. For instance, there is a story where a revelation of the character’s alien nature made it very icky that the Main Character had married him not knowing this. It tarnished both of them. Though the story was lovely on the word/emotion-path level, no one would touch it.
When I’d been away from it long enough to realize what was wrong, I went back and made the MC his adopted sister instead. This required recasting the story, because no scene could remain the same. But when I was done, it sold first place I sent it.
So now that I am an experienced author (G) I get to tell you – revision is hard, because it’s hard to see anew what you already saw once. This goes against the way the human mind works. It’s like playing poker with yourself. You pretend you never read this, and you write it again.
Do you understand the difficulties? Do I sound like I’m just being snobbish? What is your particular revision issue? Have you markedly improved a story by revising it? How?
It’s a difficult process. Share your pain.