making books: man bites world the auntie mame files words
by Harry Connolly
Twitter user @UOJim asked me to write a post about revision, and I realized I have never done a systemic evaluation of the way I revise. Writing this will be a way to organize my thoughts on the subject, all of which I will probably forget once it’s time to go back over EPIC SEQUEL WITH NO DULL PARTS next spring when the first draft is finished.
(See how hopeful I am? Finished draft in the spring. It’s like a magic spell: I write it to make it happen.)
The way I figure it, there are two basic kinds of revisions: story-level and text-level.
Story-level revisions: Are the characters believable? Does the plot make sense? Is it clear enough what’s happening in this scene? Basically, do the macro-level choices work?
At first, I was tempted to write: I don’t do a lot of this but that’s not really true. I do, in fact, think a whole helluva lot about the characters and the plot, but I do it before I write. It’s pretty rare for me to throw out a huge section of the story because it doesn’t work. I really don’t like revising my story that way, and I do my best to avoid major revisions when I can. God forbid I had become a screenwriter as I’d originally planned.
Mid-sized revisions I do all the time. I changed characters and their motivations in Circle of Enemies without actually changing the things they did. I just gave them different reasons for it, and that helped clarify the story. In the original draft, Melly was Ray’s ex-girlfriend, but nothing as serious as Violet was. My agent explained that it muddied things for the protagonist to have the same relationship with two different characters. The whole Lino/Steve Francois plot elements were also complicated and fuzzy. Ironing all that out involved a lot of revision but not much in the way of story changes, if you know what I mean.
Every book has story issues of one kind or another, (for me, it’s usually that I’ve overcomplicated things and need to simplify and clarify them, or that I’ve shoehorned in a story choice that’s wrong for the book because I want to make a comment on a particular genre trope) but my story revisions typically involve a changing a few paragraphs or a couple of pages. I’ve never thrown out a hundred pages of book.
The reason for that is: I plan a lot. The outline/synopsis is my first draft, and that gets revised as I write the book. The actual first draft I send to my agent is really a sort of second draft. Or draft 1.5.
Shit. So far, this isn’t terribly helpful, I know.
The other issue is that I’ve gotten better at recognizing when the story is going wrong. Whenever I make a poor choice, it feels flat, like a dead piano key. That isn’t going to help anyone diagnose the problems in their story, but that’s how I experience the warning signs of a flawed plot–with an almost physical sense of wrongness. In the last year or two, I’ve finally learned to pay attention to those feelings. I still make mistakes and miss things. Sometimes I forget a plot point. Sometimes a character slowly changes from one thing into another during the course of a book. Sometimes while I’m in the middle of a draft, I’ll make a note to check, add, or change something. That all has to get fixed in the story-level revisions.
What’s more, I do my best to keep track of how the characters feel about what’s happening to them. Are they hungry? Grieving? Do they miss their family? My worst screw-ups always happen when I lose track of this. (Confession: I did lose track in my last book; my agent caught it–because she’s totally smart–and I had to go through the book making dozens of small revisions here and there to make the character’s emotional state believable. It’s embarrassing and annoying, but there you go.)
The truth is, it all comes down to two things: paying careful attention to your work, and taste. The former requires you to cultivate an ability to read pages as though they’re brand new to you. The latter is what some people mistake for talent; you make your choices as powerful and effective as they can be.
Text-level revisions: How many times am I going to use that same word? Is this sentence structure repetitive? Is that word or phrase right for the POV? Basically, everything at the level of the text.
Remember that post from last fall where I talk about failing my book? That post would seem to put the lie to everything I said about about pre-writing and making good choices early so I wouldn’t have to revise heavily. The book I failed, A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark, has no voice. There’s a narrator but it’s not any of the main characters, and I completely failed to give that character a distinctive point of view which would give it a distinctive voice.
That sounds like a story-level revision, but it’s not. When I tackle that book again, I’m going to make a creative decision about who that narrator is and how they see the world, and then I’m going to do a text-level revision to change all the words in the book without changing (much, probably) the events of the story.
It will be a huge, text-level revision in which I change every single non-dialog sentence in the book, but since I’m not planning to alter the narrative (much, probably) I don’t consider it a story-level change.
Anyway, I try to save text revisions until after all the story revisions are done (partly because I don’t want to put in a lot of work refining a paragraph only to change it later because Melly isn’t Ray’s ex anymore) but it never works out that way. I can’t stand to look at a clumsy or awkward sentence on my computer screen without fixing it. I can’t look at my own sentences without wanting to change them. It’s a sickness.
Again, it’s a matter of attention and taste. It’s a matter of looking over one paragraph after another trying to decide what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes I find that if I can’t fix the end of a sentence, the problem is in the beginning. Same for paragraphs. Sometimes I find that I’ll describe things out of order and I need to switch them around. If I read too slowly I miss word echoes. If I read too quickly I miss dropped words or extraneous prepositional phrases. There’s no system; it’s all just ugly, dumb-headed struggling through the pages.
I know there are people who do multiple passes through a manuscript, focusing on one thing at a time: plot, dialog, whatever. I’m not that organized. Other writers polish a paragraph until they’re satisfied with it and never revisit it except by editorial request. Personally I find that I need a second and third look at my text because I don’t catch everything the first time. I go through twice, and if I think there’s a part of the book where the text feels off, I’ll revisit it again and again. Honestly, I wish I’d had a chance to revise the first page of Circle of Enemies either one more time or ten fewer.
Unfortunately, I’d hoped this post would be helpful for people, but I’m not really seeing how it would be. I don’t have a systematic approach for people to learn from. All I have is feeling around in the dark.