Monday, May 8, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #2

A popular post from February 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

I hope you all had the chance to see the comment from Jordan E. Rosenfeld in last week's post; another lesson on the power of proofreading and knowing your facts! I managed to mess up two rather important facts because I didn't take the time to figure them out. AND both of them were ones that I had wondered about when I wrote them, but then I quickly made my own assessment and moved on. Don't follow my bad example, it's a far better feeling to be right rather than corrected. That said, what a thrill to have the author, a WD writer, leave a comment. Maybe I can mess something else up so she'll comment again :-) I'm still a bit star struck when I run into big names, and anyone that regularly contributes to Writer's Digest is a big name. Also, when you get a minute check out Jordan's blog.

And so we are lesson #2 of "Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart" (Writer's Digest February 2008). This section is titled Deep Cleaning and it consists of exactly that--moving the refrigerator, scrubbing the baseboards, tackling the grout with a toothbrush. Rosenfeld points out that it's temping (and easier) to do a light dusting, sweep the corners a little "fixing words here, tacking on explanations there" but this will not "fix" the mess beneath the refrigerator or get the grout back to the appropriate color. She says in the article "True revision usually involves restructuring"

There's a very good reason this portion of revision comes after you've let it sit, you must be in your obective state in order to have what it takes to do this kind of work. This is where you go to Stephen King's advice of "Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings".

Your darlings might be that beautifully poignant scene that brought tears to your eyes--but plays no part in plot. It might be the angst ridden characterization that is actually a reflection of your own issues with your childhood. It might be the insistence that this story take place in New York even though you've never been and your research for such a setting boils down to the first three seasons of Friends. The point is that you've had the distance necessary to cock your head to the side and ask questions like "Would he REALLY do that?" and "Does it matter that she was once locked in a closet overnight when she was twelve with nothing but a snickers bar?" If it DOES matter and if he really WOULD do that, fabulous, but if it doesn't fit--get rid of it.

To be most effective I think there are a few pinnacle questions you need to ask yourself. The challenge is that you must also be willing to answer them and then do whatever needs to be done to fix it.

1) Does your story start in the right place? It should start at the point of change, the beginning of conflict, just after the beginning of the story. If you find yourself justifying those first fifteen pages where nothing happens, then it's time for them to go.

2) Are you using the right POV? Switching from first to third person isn't as hard as it looks and some stories are better told using one or the other. Whichever POV you choose, make sure you're taking full advantage of it.

3) Are your conflicts worthy of your characters? The conflict in your books must have the ability to destroy your character. Harry Potter against Draco Mafroy is a waste of our time, we know Harry can beat him, but put him up against the most powerful dark wizard of all time and you've got good conflict. Whether your conflict is dragons or depression or terrorism make sure it's got the power to succeed. If it doesn't, if we can tell from day one that your character can beat it with half his brain tied behind his back, then you need to grow your conflict.

4) Does every scene and every chapter move the story forward? If any part of your book does not intensify conflict, allow your character to discover something important, or propel the action forward, cut it out. Every single scene needs to funnel into the story of the, well, story, and if it doesn't it's a waste of words.

5) Is your conclusion satisfying? This does not have to mean happily ever after, it means "exhale". Make sure your reader can let out a breath and put the book down without feeling ripped off or set up. EVEN IF YOU WILL WRITE A SEQUEL, we have to know that THIS book is finished.

This type of restructuring is hard to do, absolutely, but fully necessary if you really want to submit your very best work. It's a hard look at what you've created and a difficult assessment of what works and what doesn't.

There are times when we read a chapter and don't know if it deserves to be in our story or not. What then? Well, in my opinion it means the element is unnecessary. We should know with each scene whether it deserves a place or not and if we're unsure, the editor, agent, and reader will likely be unsure as well. I always keep a "cuts" folder of every book I write. Anything I take out of the book goes into this folder so that if I decide I do want that scene, or if I find it works better later on, I can get it. 99% of what goes into my cuts folder never comes out.

WARNING: It is tempting to pawn this job onto someone else. We like to tell ourselves that we have lost all objectivity, that we can't see the story for what it is anymore. If this is the case, you didn't let it sit long enough. If you can't find the faults yourself, then let it sit longer, don't make it someone else's problem to see what you should be seeing. Having someone else point these things out to you does not help you grow as a writer, does not hone your skill of revision, and it makes you look lazy when they do tell you what's wrong and you say "Yeah, I wondered about that too." Own your words, own your revision, kill your own darlings rather than handing the blade to someone else.

Lesson three next week.


Annette Lyon said...

Great post, Josi! Lots of awesome points. #3 especially jumped out at me and got me thinking about my WIP--are the conflicts enough to DESTROY my characters? I need to answer that.

I agree on making yourself do the cutting and dicing, but when you've reached the point of not being able to tell if anything else is wrong, having other (talented) eyes over it for you and point out the glaring weak spots that are STILL there helps. Sometimes you can't see them yourself.

Josi said...

I absolutely agree that there is a point when another set of eyes are necessary, this advice is specifically for the beginning of the revision process, when you've finished that first draft and need to 'restructure' pretty major elements. It's tempting to have someone else read your first draft and tell you what needs the most work--I think that's mean and rather lazy at this point in the rewrite process :-)

When you hand it over to someone else you should have the confidence of knowing you have done a thorough job of fixing anything you CAN see.