[A note on something I mentioned yesterday: Another way of saying what my editor did about humor is that you can’t make something funny simply by making your characters laugh. Nor something sad by making them cry. Or scary by making them tremble.
Ego and fear are two of revisions biggest enemies. As someone who has critiqued many manuscripts written by new writers at events such as SCBWI conferences, I would have said that the biggest hurdle I’ve seen is that many a writer really doesn’t understand what she or he has written. There’s a huge gap between what they’ll tell me they wanted to "say," and what I read. I attribute part of it to inexperience. Much in the same way a fond parent can’t see their children’s glaring faults.
After talking to two seasoned (no, not old) teachers and authors about it, I’ve come to appreciate how much ego and fear come into play. To say nothing of reluctance. Margaret Bechard, author of HANGING ON TO MAX, SPACER AND RAT, IF IT DOESN’T KILL YOU, is on the faculty at
Margaret said: “Certainly one of the biggest problems I see is that writers are unwilling to really change anything. Small things, sure. But they don’t want to cut scenes because they get hung up on some kind of “vision” of the story that they can’t let go of, even though the story has clearly changed.
"Often, writers aren’t willing to step back from the story and look at what it really is becoming. They aren’t willing to change their ideas. Some of that is ego. And some of that is fear. But I think they have to stop and really think about the story at some point and about its effect on a reader.
"Also, so many writers refuse to see that revision is creative. It’s another chance to enter the story world and think about it and adjust it …
to think up new ideas and try them out.”
I love that idea of looking at revision as being creative, and especially Margaret’s calling it a “story world.” It sounds exciting when put that way; as if the chance to reenter such a magical place should be anticipated and that the writer should hope for revelations they didn’t see before.
Ron had the thought along the same lines. He said, “ … clinging to what he/she imagines he/she ‘wanted to say.’ I don’t think books are like pets, to be trained and ordered around and made to perform. The germ of an idea-for-a-book may be both the author’s and the book’s but in the writing human needs often get in the way.”
The idea that the germ of the idea might be the book’s was startling. I asked him what he meant by “human needs.”
“I’m talking about ego,” Ron said, “and ‘Look at me, Ma!’ It happens to every body and to me all the time. I want to be rich and famous and I want to publish a book a year etc. etc. All that noise gets in the way of the melody, the tune the novel is humming if anybody will put down his mirror and listen.”
When I asked him what he looks for in his own revision, Ron said harmony. To him, that means, “It’s when all the parts fit together in an harmonious whole. It’s probably easier to see in a good poem or a dandy picture book. But the principle is the same.”
(Ron admits that he’s hard to please - right now, he has a copy-edited manuscript on his desk - that means it’s been bought and was on its way to production - which is “in about its 9th revision.” He took it back. He’s still not satisfied with it.)
I asked Margaret if she had any advice to offer. She said, “Sometimes, you need to let a manuscript sit a bit so you can come back to it with some kind of enthusiasm. It’s a good idea to take a break and let your subconscious mull on it.” She also said, “Be brave. Print the thing out. Take it somewhere you don’t usually work. Read it out loud with a pen in your hand. Take the whole thing in one gulp, yes, even a 200-page novel. Look for things to change, but also look for the places where you really feel, deep down, that you got it right.”
She ended by saying, “Maybe it does come down to that idea of fear. Revision takes courage and it’s hard to be that brave.”
I want to add one thing to that idea of looking for places where you think a manuscript works. Robert Olen Butler calls it "thrumming." The dictionary definition says thrumming is a "monotonous" sound. But not to a writer. Once you get into the habit of looking for it, you'll understand that it's a sound of contentment; that of an engine that's running smoothly, humming away on an empty road on a beautiful day, surrounded by corn fields. It means that whatever you wrote works. You'll know when it doesn't - that's an abrupt "THUNK" sound. Not nearly as pleasant. It means you hit a pot hole. Look to see why.
My thanks to Margaret and Ron. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what I learned from E. B. White and how it might help you.
Okay. Here’s my “check list” of things I look for when I start to revise. I say check list, but I’m not that formal. You don’t have to go through and actually check things off your own list, but having some sort of accountability to your story that becomes part of your writing process is a good discipline.
What do I have here? The first question to ask is what change/growth/revelation on the part of your protagonist does your plot chart? (It’s a question I’m very aware of up front; although I generally think I know the answer when I begin a book, it’s very likely to change. Do not make the mistake of becoming married to your plot.)
Plot is action, but it’s character, too. The conflict or desire your character faces is the driving force behind your plot. How your character responds to and overcomes obstacles is what creates your action. You can easily outline your manuscript to find out what actual events happen in every chapter. The more important thing for you to determine is whether your character changed or grew.
Writing exactly how this happened in your book in a single sentence before you begin a revision is helpful. It’s also frequently painful because in trying to write it, you may well find you’re not quite sure what change occurred. You might even find that, somehow, despite your best intentions, you neglected to create change.
Horrible, horrible thought. No wonder revision’s so scary.
For instance, if I were to write the sentence for my middle grade book FALLING INTO PLACE, I’d write: In helping her unhappy grandmother adjust to life in a new place after the death of her husband, ten-year-old Margaret discovers that she has the strength to adjust to the new life she faces in having to cope with her father’s new wife.
Or something like that. “Margaret discovers” – good. Assuming I make her act on this discovery, and that it changes her life in some way, I might be in the right place.
But how do you break your plot down to find this? Fiction is made up of structural units, as John Gardner says. Description, dialogue, action. Scenes are unified actions which occur in a single time and place. You can make revision appear less daunting if you treat each scene as an individual unit. The building blocks of plot, if you will. Review them one by one. Take it slow. When you’re satisfied with one scene, move on to the next.
Think movies. Directors yelling, “Cut!” Analyze each scene to see where it moves the plot or develops your character(s), and how. If it doesn’t, revise it.
How do I make what happens to my character real enough to touch something in my readers?
I tend to write character-driven books. They’re the kind I like to read. I find this a benefit because I know my characters very well before I start. I also care about them or I wouldn’t be writing about them. I don’t do that “What’s in her closet? What would he find if he emptied his pockets?” kind of exploration, but I know writers who swear by it. We all have to do what’s right for us.
But I do understand who my protagonist is and what he cares about. Often, he or she surprises me and does or says something totally unexpected. I’d heard writers talk about this for years and doubted its veracity. Now, I know it’s true. If your characters truly live inside your head where you can’t control them, they’ll do the damned things and send your plots in the oddest directions. When it happens to you, you’ll recognize it as a gift.
I make it real by understanding what children care about, and my character, in particular: what they fear, anticipate, love, hate, what makes them happy, sad … those universal emotions, which, if you can tap into them, will strike a chord in other children. A writer at an SCBWI conference once asked me how I was able to write about “normal” children and “get away with it.” “We’re always told,” she said, “that we can’t just write about regular kids.”
I took it as a high compliment. No kid’s ordinary, and every kid is. If you don’t treat them as a group, but as individuals, and take the time to really know their inner workings, then any conflict you put in front of them is a pleasure for a writer to trace and will – with enough skill, mastery and that elusive thing called “voice” - resonate with readers.
(That’s kind of an annoyingly simplistic bit of advice, isn’t it? Sorry. If I stop now to revise it, I’ll never finish this. You put your own stamp on what I said.)
You make it touch something in your reader by making it real. And by writing it well. And by providing real reason for the emotions you ask your character and reader to feel. By earning it, as writers say. Or, as one editor wrote in the margin on a manuscript of mine, “You can’t make your characters laugh if it isn’t funny.”
You make it matter by making it real, too. Readers are moved by characters and events. Real ones. Emotions, too, but the emotions inside your character and not those inside you. As Robert Olen Butler said, “In the text where yearning is absent … the indicator’s that the fiction came from your head.”
He also said that “in a bad story, the narrator is a passive observer," and that “the dynamics of desire are utterly missing.” The dynamics of desire. When statements strike a chord in me, I write them on index cards. I paper my office. Most of us do this. Find your own statements. Write them down. Adhere to them. Read them to be reminded. If you find what you’ve written doesn’t matter, you probably haven’t earned it.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, I’ll end by saying that you, yourself, may well be the biggest obstacle standing between your manuscript and a great book. Tomorrow, I’m going to post parts of conversations I had with writers and teachers Margaret Bechard and Ron Koertge on that very subject.
“Lucky is the writer who loves to revise; blessed is the writer who knows how.”
I made that up. I’ve rewritten it numerous times. I’m not sure the word “blessed” conveys what I want to say. Same with “lucky” - far be it for me to imply that writers who know who to revise are any more blessed than those who don’t.
Ahhh … revision. The endless search to make sure that our words convey what we mean for them to. That the unique word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and plot choices we made added up to anything.
As every writer knows, books can come together, or fall apart, during revision. It can be the most satisfying experience in the world if you see things falling into their proper place, truths uncovered, flaws corrected. On the other hand, a writer lives in terror that weaknesses will be revealed, superficial characters exposed, and that you somehow haven’t achieved what you set out to.
Many editors say they hold their breaths during a revision to see whether the writer can effectively revise a manuscript based on the comments the editor has made. More than one editor has told me the reason why she’ll often pass on a manuscript is that, while she may like certain things about it, it needs a lot of revision and that, if she doesn’t know the author, she can’t be sure those revisions can be made.
Revision is a deep and sometimes necessarily ruthless process. Chapters must be callously tossed. Characters killed off. Your beginning may not be the right
beginning, your ending might be flat, and – how often does this happen? – you may well find that manuscript is sagging in the middle.
There’s no magic formula to the art of revision. Certainly, I don’t have it to offer if there is. To my mind, being able to revise requires instinct with mastery of craft. The frustrating thing about instinct is, of course, that it’s … well … instinctive. Natural, inborn, innate. I personally believe part of it stems from a lifetime of reading, and that even if you haven’t spent your lifetime reading you can start today and gain ground.
Mastery is easier to talk about. You can learn how to revise.
I’ve learned what I know about revision from revising my own early readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. Two craft books, in particular, resonate with me: John Gardner’s THE ART OF FICTION and Robert Olen Butler’s FROM WHERE YOU DREAM. I like them because they represent two diametrically-opposed approaches to the craft.
But first things first: What is Revision?
It isn’t Botox, I can tell you that.
I’m leery of writers who speak about revision as “honing” and “polishing.” Sure, a writer should go through and remove adverbs and adjectives, evidence of weak nouns and passive verbs, often with ing-endings. (Two good sources are SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Rennie Browne and Dave King, and Strunk and White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.)
That’s the easy part. Or, as one attendee at a revision retreat I recently organized said at the end of the weekend, “I realize I’ve been editing all my life instead of revising.” When you clean up your language, your manuscript may read better, but it won’t cure deeper, more fatal, flaws.
That’s the job of revision. Revision is meant to address the bone structure of your manuscript: meaning, character, plot and effect – the more critical aspects of a book that contribute to its overall voice. Unless you’re willing to take a long, hard look at each of these elements, you’ll find yourself polishing the surface. All the wrinkle-free skin in the world won’t disguise a weak chin.
Some writers refer to revision as a “re-vision” – literally, looking again at what you’ve written. Reading through to discover what you’ve actually created, and whether its overall impact is what you meant to create. (If you’re like many writers who feel they’re too close to their manuscript to do that, stay tuned. I learned a very effective method from E.B. White which I’ll talk about later in the week.)
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says that while there are no rules to writing fiction, there are techniques. “Writers must master them. Revision is one of them.” He goes on to give a sort of revision checklist:
“You need to know what to look for, how to spot it’s not there or where more may be needed; whether your emotion rings true and is earned; your ending inevitable or contrived; the overall effect satisfying or frustrating.”
Robert Olen Butler says the point of revision is to find meaning.
“Rewriting is re-dreaming. Rewriting is re-dreaming until it thrums.”
One, pragmatic; the other, more emotional. I combine the two when I revise and have arrived at this:
1. What do I have here?
2. Have I made what happens to the character I’ve created real enough that it will
3. How do I make it matter?
(This sounds very heavy. You should know that many of my books are funny. Answering all three of those questions matters to the success of a funny book as much as to a serious one.)
The answer to Q. #1 requires taking a giant step back and a long, hard look at what you’ve written, in its entirety.
To answer #2 means dissecting and analyzing your plot with the specific purpose of discovering whether the conflict you created leads to important actions/growth, which, in turn, contribute to a satisfying resolution. (While I don’t outline before I write a book, I’ve sometimes outlined the manuscript at the beginning of a revision to see what happens in my plot).
To answer #3, you have to fix all your problems. Plain and simple: Delete, enhance, destroy, embellish, create, kill off. Revise for meaning, character, plot and effect.
The more you do it, the more it becomes habit and you know what to look for. I'll talk about what I look for more specifically tomorrow.
Maybe it should it be: “Blessed is the writer who loves to revise; lucky is she who knows how.”