Revise in Haste; Repent at Leisure
By Randy Susan Meyers
Just when you think you’re done with revision, guess what? There’s room to do one more (or maybe two, or three.) The smartest thing my agent did for me recently (uh, except for selling my book) was suggesting that one more revision on my current work-in-progress would be beneficial. (Her words were a little more pointed, actually. But that’s why I love her.)
I don’t know about you, but I read books with an eye towards how well they were revised. Not just well written, but well revised, because it’s between the first flashes of imagination and the last comma switching that the magic occurs. Sometimes I think the formula is this:
More work for the writer=more pleasure for the reader.
It’s difficult to see our own mistakes. I see this all the time when I’m writing posts. I’ll dash one off, think it’s just swell, publish it, and then cringe two weeks later when confronted with my clunky phrasing and grammatical errors. Of course I can delete a post and pretend it never existed or I can revise it post-production and pretend it’s always been like that. With a book, once it’s on the reader’s shelves, that’s it. Revise in haste, cringe in leisure. (Who among us hasn’t opened our published book and wished we could change this word, that construction?)
“Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, and intensify scenes. To fall in love with a first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.” Richard North Patterson
My first job in revision is:
Macro revision and deconstruction
“Try to find your deepest issue in every confusion and abide by that” D.H. Lawrence
In my first revision (of many, many, many) I ascertain the over-arching questions, which will frame my revision point of view:
A) Are you certain of the theme(s) of your book [or story]?
“Theme is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive, but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer” John Gardner
What is your central idea, your connecting thread? (for example, in my book, The Murderer’s Daughters, interlocked themes I recognized after the writing was family loyalty and the limits of family loyalty.)
B) Are you certain of the premise(s) of your book [or story]?
“A premise is the truth the story proves, and helps reader extrapolate meaning from events.” Jessica Morell.
What beliefs does your story rest on? (For example, in my book, one premise was that family violence ripples through generations.)
C) Are you clear about the motivation(s) of character(s)?
“Make the characters want something right way, even if it’s only a glass of water.” Kurt Vonnegut
Why do your characters do what they do? (One motivation I saw for my character Lulu was shame; for her sister Merry, fear was a stronger motivator.
D) Do you know your character’s crucible?
“Surmounting difficulty is the crucible that forms character.” Anthony Robbins
Crucible: 1. vessel of a very refractory material (as porcelain) used for melting a substance that requires a high degree of heat 2: a severe test 3: a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development. (For example, in my book, when the daughters and nieces of my point of view characters are in danger, that becomes their crucible.
E) Is your dramatic question(s) answered?
“Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear fine line persists.” Eudora Welty
What is the over-riding question of your book, what is the gotta-know? (In my book, a dramatic question I recognized was whether or not the POV characters would be re-united with their father.)
F) Do you know your story?
“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” William Wordsworth
What happens, that’s your story. How it happens, that’s your plot. Does your plot move the story along? Have you shown your character’s change? Are all conflicts and loose ends resolved? Does your plot structure reveal the story in as gripping a manner as possible?
G). Do you have Tension?
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Isaac Asimov
How is your ‘gotta know?” Why would the reader turn the page or move past the first five pages? Do you have questions they want answered? Why will they care about this character(s)?
“It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts.” Gustave Flaubert
Randy Susan Meyers is the author of five novels. She blogs at randysusanmeyers.com and The Huffington Post.