There’s nothing dirtier than revision. Its dirtier than dirt. Such a grimy task, a filthy word for a filthy business, really. After the free-fall adventures of brainstorming, after the gumshoe pursuit of research, the bulk of writing is a messy, painful, crazy-making process, comprising ninety percent of the work, give or take a few percentages.
Revision comes in all sorts of manifestations. Here are some of the shapes noted thus far during labor. You might recognize them yourself or have some to add.
Tunneling through the Mountain of Crap- If you’re the type who likes to get all the possible story ideas and words out in one blobby mess then you might be familiar with this beast. Some writers like to throw all their ideas onto the wall and see what sticks; this process often feels like tunneling through a mountain of crap once you sit down to see what you got. Digging though is an endless task. You have to constantly find your footing, unsure of what exactly you’re stepping on, wondering if the ground steady enough to hold you, so you can go further. You hone your senses, alert for avalanches that might bury you and take weeks if not months to climb out. Its not a pretty picture, sitting there wallowing in the middle of your own crap, thinking this shouldn’t be necessary. You could be at a BBQ, throwing back a couple beers, letting the sun do its work on your skin, but you push through because you’ve been fatally stung by the literary fever. The way of the words is in your blood and there’s no getting around it.
Civil Engineering- There are those writers who prefer to revise as they go. They have a clear sense of the shape and content. The map shines bright and clear in their mind. Working more like civil engineers, they plot the land, flatten where it needs flattening, dynamite through massive boulders, and drill, bulldoze, bolster, solidifying the groundwork before laying down the tracks that the plot and characters will follow. These engineers are masters of surveyance, practicing an art otherwise known as outlining. Whether its mental cartography or massive diagrams pinned to the wall, outlines are the preeminent foundational work of revision.
Wrestling Your Sibling- At some point the manuscript gets more familiar to you. You recognize it as a part of your being. You share a history, a bloodline, but you still don’t quite understand the piece. It’s moody; it turns on you, it stabs you in the back, feeds your insecurities, and then, out of the blue, reminds you of your own cleverness or reveals how brilliant life can be. You unexpectedly enjoy spending time with it. You share a few laughs and tears and wonder how can this quixotic being exist. How does it work? What makes it tick? The inner workings still eluding you, you plug away, trying to penetrate the mystery of the manuscript, which really is the mystery of yourself.
In the Footsteps of Rodin- As the sculptor, you’ve cleared away a lot of the unnecessary bulk of the first few drafts, enough to see the strong veins that will give you a striking contour, or at least tapped in deep enough to follow a vein though you know you need to do more shearing. You cut, and cut, and cut away admiring the smoothness. You find muscle, and you want to unearth it, let it do its thing. You are honing, chopping, knifing, and you’ve found a pace, a rhythm that is starting to feel consistently good though, every now and again, you run into stubborn knots, but this time around, its expected, and you have ways and means of working with it or around it.
Shadow Boxing the Lyrical Punch- You have the inner workings down. You understand what makes the piece move, but its not quite moving, certainly not with the pace and breadth that you’d prefer. This form of revision is painstaking, arduous, nitpicking, until you get into the flow, which comes and goes, but when you’re in it, its sleek, shiny, and rides like a dream. You never want to let go of this feeling. This is why you write, why you put through with all the many stages that came before. This is what it means to create.
Other shapes and forms of revision include handwriting and note-taking. Some writers who are accused of being luddites prefer to pen their manuscript first by hand and then transcribe to computer. The transfer from one medium to another is undoubtedly a type of revision, since the author is most certainly re-imagining the shape and feel of the piece via a new medium.
As a close friend explained, revision is a collaboration with yourself. Your past, present, and future selves must all work together. “All good art is not epiphanal but lends to epiphany for the audience.” The creative process is not, repeat, not borne from epiphanies. When you practice an art form, like writing or painting, revision is the beginning and the end.
Writer’s Digest newsletter featured a step-by-step guide of revision in their article “How to Outline (the Easy Way) Like Janet Evanovich by Zachary Petit, published April 20, 2012:
Evanovich: Storyboarding is a little more visual. When I’m plotting out a book, I use a storyboard—I’ll have maybe three lines across on the storyboard and just start working through the plot line. I always know where relationships will go, and how the book is going to end. When I storyboard, they’re just fragments of thoughts. I write in three acts like a movie, so I have my plot points up on the preliminary storyboard. Another board I keep is an action timeline. It’s a way of quickly referring to what happened a couple of scenes ago. The boards cover my office walls.
Yuvi Zalkow stresses revision in his online video “10,00o hours” from the Failed Writer Series #11
To stay sane and save time, strategic plans can be indispensable. Some of the vital steps to revision include but are by no means limited to some of the following:
1. Print out draft.
2. Check out exercises on Revision to keep in mind in reviewing draft.
3. Have a clear system in place for note-taking to add, take away, and revise to the manuscript.
4. Count how many scenes are necessary and have a clear list of these scenes that you can rearrange.
5. Create a timeline or calendar and track the dates from start to finish of the manuscript. Be sure to include flashbacks, and events that may have occurred outside of the manuscript’s present story.
7. Determine what can be left out or explained in exposition.
8. Tighten every scene.
9. Tighten the dialogue to push for speed and distance.
10. Make sure characters are consistent.
11. Weave in concrete details and added research to peg the story down.
Revision is endless and takes infinite forms. These are just a few noted. What experiences and encounters have you had with the one and only creative process?
At negative one draft, meaning the number of drafts that have come to fruition has been too many to count. Previous incarnations of the projekt include:
- tweaked and tightened
- print out
- read through
In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley counts the first reading as another draft and probably, by that logic, any hard-copy reading of a manuscript generates a whole new revised draft, simply by the act of reading and processing material.
James Scott Bell agrees with this practice as he outlines in his Writers Digest article, “The Five Step Geyser Approach”. Bell advises waiting two weeks before reading the first printed draft since distance allows the mind to cool rather than pushing through in the white heat of the moment when a writer may be too up front and close to the projekt to see straight.
Careful reading of the printed first draft could involve:
- Making an outline and therefore re-outlining the entire projekt for plotting purposes
- Arranging scenes
- Adding new scenes
- Diagramming character evolution and devolution
- Note where characters witness other’s transformations and when and who doesn’t
- Tracking plot-lines and sub-plot-lines
- Assigning where new tidbits of information, observation, details, and ephemera can give texture to scenes and exposition
- Count the scenes
- What needs to be dramatized
- What hasn’t been exploited
- Where can the character’s life be put on the line
- Where should the story-lines explode
- Note what can be skipped
- What needs to be rejected
- Imagery, symbols, metaphors
- Recurring phrases and words
- Vertical moments
Revision the first couple of times is something to feel one’s way through, relying on instinct and sensory experience. It’s a blind journey, and the process feels like only experience a dozen or two dozen times is vital to start recognizing shapes and forms that make sense.
Naming these shapes and forms becomes easier with more revision. Translation is key since there’s translating what’s on the page and translating what needs to be on the page. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden watching for patterns, noticing similarities and differences gives order to an otherwise amorphous world. But even when a form is named it still needs to be placed in the hottest spot. How do all these shapes fit in a way so the structure moves with urgent and meaningful pacing?
Jonah Lehrer, in his “How Do We Identify Good Ideas” from Wired writes on the necessity of honing a critical eye to discern between what is a good idea and what is dross:
Nietzsche stressed this point. As he observed in his 1878 book Human, All Too Human:
Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration … shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.
Notice the emphasis on rejection. Nietzsche eloquently describes the importance of not just creating but recognizing the value of what has been created.
But this raises the obvious question: How can we sort our genius from our rubbish?… how can we become better at self-criticism? How can we get excel at the rejection process?
For all intents and purposes, revision is rejection. Whittling down and rearranging to see what holds water. Just as in basic grammar, the same rule applies whether composing a lean and concise sentence or a lean and urgent story. Bring the subject and verb to the front of the sentence and let the rest follow. Or bring the conflict, the scene with the most tension, the moment where the character has the most to lose, to the front of the chapter or at the beginning of the novel then let the rest follow.
Pulling out an oldie but goodie, below lists the criterion for critiquing colleague’s work or revising your own. In Rosemary Graham’s fiction workshop at Saint Mary’s College, we were also required to give “a *description* of the work, an attempt to neutrally (without evaluation) say what the thing before us is and how it is structured” before diving into the critique. This helped both the reader and the writer see whether they were on the same page with the project, or not.
- What is the story about?
- What kind of format/structure is it in? Is the story supported by strong organization and structure?
- Which characters are grounding the story or leading it? Are they consistent? If they’re not consistent does it work?
- Is a vivid sense of time and place evoked?
- Is the story told from the best point of view?
- Does the narrator have a commanding voice?
- How does narration work in the story?
- Is there any weak spots in the point of view? Strong points?
- Does the story open and close with power and grace?
- What is the mood of the story? Does it stay consistent and if not does it work?
- What is the plot? What are the subplots? How well do they work together?
- Do all the characters sound distinct from one another?
- How does dialogue add or work in the story?
- Is the story presented in the right sequence of events?
- Are characters well developed? Sufficient complexities, desires, obstacles, weaknesses and strengths?
- Does the reader understand sufficiently the motivation, fears and actions of the characters?
- Does the setting work in synergy with the story/plot/characters? How does it lend to the characterization? The plot?
- Does the story start at the right moment? Too early? Too late?
- Does it end at the right moment?
- How does time work in the story? Is the pacing right for the theme/story/character?
- Is the dialogue complex enough?
- Are the right scenes dramatized and the right ones summarized?
- Is there too much going on in the story?
- What questions are raised in the story? How are they answered or left unanswered?
- Is there a sense of unity, everything well married, a single pulse?
- Are the right questions answered?
- Do all the pieces gel together?
- Is the author’s hand too visible? Does it stick out?
- Do you lose the character in the story?
We like to believe that perfection sprouts effortlessly from our mind like the great goddess and warrior Athena, but her story is the quintessential myth. We are more like Icarus, struggling to keep to the middle path lest we get swallowed by the churning waters below or singed by the searing sun above. We’re always fighting turbulence, which does its best to ensure our flight remains precarious. Yet, its this very precariousness that propels us forward and keeps us incited.
No work of art emerges perfect and whole. Revision is the monster we wrestle with. We stumble through the process like tunneling inside a mountain trying to find our way out the other end. Structure is the lifeline. Writer Emily Breunig stated that there are two kinds of writers, those who start with structure and plan and plot the whole project out and those who throw everything they have onto the canvas to see what sticks. No matter what type of writer we are, at some point, we have to sit down and do the painstaking work of organization. In Natalie Angier’s New York Times article“Bringing New Understanding to the Director’s Cut” published March 1, 2010, she writes:
According to the new report, the basic shot structure of the movies, the way film segments of different lengths are bundled together from scene to scene, act to act, has evolved over the years to resemble a rough but recognizably wave-like pattern called 1/f, or one over frequency — or the more Hollywood-friendly metaphor, pink noise. Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it…
…So, too, for many features of our natural and artifactual surroundings. Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink…
The shape and body of a work is determined by its heartbeat, and Angier taps into the essence of rhythm, which is all around us. As we divvy up chunks of narrative and cut and paste exposition, we need to maintain the balance between random and rigid, sustaining the mystery of our project to keep our readers engaged and invested in the story. Angier goes on to explain:
…Why our attention flits about in a pulsatile fashion that resembles heart beats and star beats and the fluctuating pitches of speech, nobody can say. “It depends on whether you think it’s telling you something very deep about the general organizational principles of natural systems, or not,” said David L. Gilden, a professor of psychology at of the University of Texas. As he sees it, complex systems are characterized by something called self-organized criticality. “They tend to migrate to the point where they are partially ordered, partially disordered,” he said. “They’re at the melting point between order and disorder.”
Chapters and scenes help us walk the fine line between order and disorder, and the clearer vision we have of how many scenes we need, how many chapters necessary to give the bulk of our word count a structure, the stronger are writing will move with agility. Word counts instead of page counts force writers to think about conciseness at the atomic level. In revision, we should be scrutinizing, balancing, and weighing each word against one another. We can do guesstimates on the pace of our story, with some really rough rules of thumb:
- 4,000-5,000 words is about 8 pages.
- 8,000 words is 15 pages.
- Reading aloud, and often, will always give you the best sense of how fast or slow your writing moves.
As we plot the pace of word counts in each chapter and scene, we also need to constantly decide between narration versus exposition. Part of the decision depends on who is telling the story and what they’re capable of seeing, thinking, and relaying, or not relaying and thinking, to the reader. Answering these questions can help inform your choices:
- How long does each scene need to be? How fast do you want the scene to unfold?
- Does it need space for philosophical musing or background explanation? Can any of this be dramatized?
- Should a scene or chapter run quick, leaving the reader breathless for more? Or would you rather linger for affect?
- What kind of mood do you want to evoke?
- How much information do you need to get across?
- The bottom line in deciding the above is how do you keep the reader hungry?
We must remember that we always have options. There’s no one way to tell a story. Linearity is the surest way to make a reader yawn. Though we may start with structure, the architecture of the work can always be remodeled and renovated. Visualize constantly, the pace, the scope, the physical makeup of the piece. Draw diagrams and be flexible and brave enough to let those diagrams morph.
Some of the options we have for structure to avoid linearity are:
- Backtracking- introduce a character in chapter two, have her disappear only to pick up her up again five chapters later.
- Toward the end of the novel, only then fill in the reader about how the mystery introduced at the beginning. Think of Sophie Mol’s death in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or Myrtle Wilson’s brutal murder in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- Read other writers and follow closely their narrative structure. Take note and try it yourself.
- Have strong concrete images in mind for each chapter and scene. Ground readers with these objects and images, giving them a fixed point they can steady themselves on as the character’s and their unpredictable actions upset all expectations. These images may work best at the beginning or end of a chapter or scene though not always.
- In every scene and chapter you have to know instinctively what each character desires. They should be angling for something in each and every scene and chapter. Their desire doesn’t have to be on the page, but we need to know as the author, and that desire is like a cog running as one part to the whole engine of the plot. Individual desire is the DNA to each character, and every character has their own sequence to be unlocked. Every scene, chapter, and paragraph should have some block of the DNA depending on who the lens is aimed at for the moment. Something always has to be at stake. The story must be tipping over, ready to crash onto itself at all times.
- Think of the story lines in fragments, and drop threads liberally, picking them up five maybe seven chapters later. No need to string along every single plot line, readers will remember as long as you give clues and a heads up. Make readers leap and stretch with the story-lines.
- Check your maps and revise routes as you move along, meaning keep a chart that diagram of your outline handy with an eraser in hand.
Finding patterns, mapping structure, this is what inherently makes us human. Dancing the line between order and disorder, we prefer to play hide and seek with chaos. Structure may keep us grounded but structure is also a fiction, there to guide us only when we have the faith to trust in it. That faith can always be lost, so we must let chance and mystery rule as well. Revision is when structure matters most. The more physical we can envision the structure to our project the easier we’ll find our way through the process.
For some examples of visual diagrams, check out The Period Table of Storytelling by ComputerSherpa, The History of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley and, finally, Franco Morreti at the Stanford Lit Lab is practicing “distant reading,” which is described by New York Times writer Kathryn Schulz, in her article “The Mechanic Muse” published June 24, 2011, as “hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis… by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
The Merciless Writer: Benjamin Percy on Revision
In Masters & Doyennes on June 7, 2010 at 4:21 pm
Image from Esquire
If you haven’t been following Benjamin Percy’s articles in Poets & Writer’s, you’ve really been missing out. First he rallied the writing spirit in his call-to-arms “Go The Distance: What Rocky Taught Me About Submission” in the column “The Practical Writer” November/December 2009. In the May/June 2010 P&W issue, he knocks us out with another cold truth about the process of writing in “Home Improvement: Revision as Renovation.” Here’s a feel for some of his deftly thrown punches:
I’m no stranger to starting over. I wrote three failed novels before selling The Wilding…So much of revision, I’ve discovered is about coming to terms with that word: gone. Letting things go.
..the professional writer mercilessly lops off limbs, rips out innards like party streamers, drains gallons of blood, and then calls down the lightning to bring the body back to life…
I have thrown away thousands of pages [which means you need to write everyday to produce those thousands upon thousands of pages]…
One time [in grad school] a professor handed me back a manuscript with every single page slashed through with an enormous black X. There were no comments except a single word scrawled over the title: Don’t.
Percy’s the only writer you won’t mind sparring with on the mat because even though he’ll trip you up, you’ll be stronger and wiser for it.
Critiquing a Colleague’s Work, Part I
In Writer as Critic on June 26, 2009 at 6:32 am
Years after completing our MFA and adrift without the aid of a writer’s group, we may still be just as confused about what’s the most helpful, most constructive sort of criticism to give a colleague who requests our commentary. We might be rusty if we’ve been away from formal structured criticism. A professor one semester might have advised us to focus on dialogue, another semester that idea was contradicted. And the whole matter of what makes good criticism might have never been settled, might never be settled, might just be the same sort of muddling we trudge through when we edit our own work.
When a colleague asks us to lend assistance in critiquing his work how can we be sure to do him justice?
Start with a semblance of a plan.
“Our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours.” Virginia Woolf sagaciously instructs us when we read for a colleague that’s precisely the gist of it. We read for him, not for our own ego, not to bandy about our own intelligence or sharpen the thin blades of superiority. We read for the writer’s sake, or, more precisely, we read for the work itself. The work is a living breathing entity, the spirit in the rock that our writer-colleague is sculpting into shape. We are assisting in the search for veins. We are helping to add perspective, shed new light, and lend guidance to the potential of what is already there.
With that said, we should read to learn from our colleague and hone awareness of our own aesthetics and predilections. We read to learn. It’s okay be to a little selfish. If there are two or three things that we’re struggling with in our own story, and our colleague hasn’t given any specific instructions on what kind of commentary he’s expecting then why should we not take liberty and read for what we’re editing in our own work? Albert Molio in Fence’s Issue “The Talking Cure: Contemporary Fiction and its Critics” (V8 N1 & 2) argues for us, “More crucial, though, is the fact that when writers write about writing they are conducting a form of self-interrogation. That is to say, in the truest sense, reviewers review themselves.” Why should we be ashamed or embarrassed? We write to learn and improve. We read to learn and improve. The process is cyclical, never ending. Read in anticipation. Read actively searching for what we can hopefully apply to our own work.
Anytime we read for critique, we must remind ourselves that we’ll never catch everything, and our colleague certainly wouldn’t want us to try and catch every typo, every single slip of grammar or craft misstep. No one wants to see their work dipped in red, and its more productive to stick to two or three main concerns rather than trying to scrutinize every word and every line. We must be selective and use our time and our colleague’s energy and patience wisely.
Read first with an open mind and, as Woolf charges us, figure out what our colleague is trying to do. Shut out any preconceived notions, any bias we have for certain styles and aesthetics and try to figure out what this story is about on its own. Let the story BE before bringing our thoughts to it. Let the pen alone and save marking for the second read.
Before reading for the second time, summarize what we think the story is about. Be sure to include this in our notes to our colleague. It helps to see what comes across and, more importantly, what doesn’t come across for the writer. Then, with pen at hand, or Track Comments activated on our Word app, read with careful attention to our list of two to three specific concerns.
In our commentary, would it not be wise to apply The Golden Rule as we scribble our comments and jot our reactions? Would we not want someone to call attention to our tics and point out that we have a tendency to misuse commas or paint passive characters? One of the most beneficial, most constructive aspects of having a fresh set of eyes review our work is that this new perspective can track imagery, symbols, and figurative language throughout the story, and see how these techniques accumulate, evolve or even devolve. We can point to where our colleague might need more symmetry and when he may be laying it on too thick. It’s much easier to observe these technique’s in other writer’s works but can become nearly impossible when we’re so up close and personal to our own.
Ultimately, if we’re true to the art, we must be willing to give the brutal truth and nothing less. Flattery gets us nowhere. Keen honesty does. Read with a slavishness to savage truth but couch that truth with hope. Honor the art and inspire the artist. What more can we ask of ourselves as colleagues?