Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Revisions, Or...What Was I Saying?

Boy howdy, Christmas slowed down writing on all fronts for me. No editing, no blogging, no new chapters...not even any reading, for that matter. It’s probably no excuse, but it’s what I’ve got. So, here you go:

*hands over excuses* Mea culpa.

Anyhoodle. I said in my last entry that I might talk about revisions this time. Turns out, that’s a swell idea because I just so happen to be in the middle of the revisions process as we speak. Er...type. Well, except, I’m obviously not revising as I type because I can only type in one document at a time. (Ahhh, would that I could type in multiple documents at once...)

I’ve lost track again, haven’t I?

Well then. Let’s begin with the fact that I am emphatically pro-revision. This is one of the few areas of writing in which I actually have a process--namely, chronological order.

I start at the beginning of a book and write my way all the way through to the end. Even if details emerge that will require changes in the beginning, I DO NOT go back until after I’ve come to the big, fat THE END. Why? Well, the first reason would be that I’m easily distracted. If I stop concentrating on the flow of the story it’s entirely possible that I’ll forget it. The second is that I could drive myself nuts making every minor change in the beginning dictated by the middle, but the end could very well make all those changes moot. (Or is that Moo? It’s like a cow’s opinion. It doesn’t matter.) I need the big picture before I can concentrate on the details.

After I reach THE END the first time, I shut the project down for a bit. Sometimes a short time, sometimes a long time. I need this time to forget all the little things that were going on in my head when I wrote the story in the first place. I need to read it with fresher eyes. Often, the best solution is to head straight into another project. Start with a brand new Once Upon a Time, if you will. If that one comes easily, I head for THE END. If it doesn’t, I wait until I’m thinking too hard about it and then put it on the back burner.

Then it’s back to the beginning on an older project that’s been left to mature in an oak barrel in my basement. (By the way, are you enjoying this hearty serving of mixed metaphors? Yum, yum.) And once again, I go from page one to THE END. In the revision process, I’m a little more capable of moving around in the chronology, but in general it’s a front to back order.

So, what am I looking for when I revise? Everything. But, if you want data, I’ll give you a list.

  1. 1. Technical errors. Grammar, spelling, missed words, typos, formatting mistakes, rogue italics...you get the idea.

  2. 2.Weak writing. Repeated phrases, repeated words, passive voice, unnecessary wordiness.

  3. 3.Characterization. I want a consistent personality among my characters. Sometimes I find that they’ve said or done something out of character and I have to get rid of it, or reassign it.

  4. 4.Insufficient backstory. This includes beefing up the role of any minor characters that turned out to be more important in the end than the beginning.

  5. 5.Humor. I think I’m hilarious. But, sometimes my jokes don’t work. This is an area where I rely heavily on other readers, because I always think I’ve gotten the humor across. As I’m sure any comedian would tell you, the audience never gets all the jokes. Those that sail over their heads should be revised or eliminated.

  6. 6.Information dumps. Or as Maureen Johnson calls it, “fact-meat.” This is when a writer tries to give you all kinds of salient facts on a subject in a very short time. Often in an unnatural way that completely stops the action and makes readers yawn, or skim. Information is best revealed in small doses, by characters interacting, without resorting to lecturing or weird, stilted dialoge. (“My, it’s unexpectedly warm here in the Taj Mahal in India.” “Alabaster is an excellent insulator, my dear.” “But how did the ancients know that, Peter?” “Well, darling, for that answer, we must turn to the pages of Herodotus.” Etc, etc, ad nauseum.)

  7. 7.Page closers. This is the opposite of a page-turner. In a book that you can’t put down, every chapter ends with a feeling of promise. The reader should find it nearly impossible to stop reading, even to eat. If I finish a chapter without a sufficient tease, the reader is going to put in a bookmark and come back later. Page closers can crop up in the middle of a chapter, as well. No matter when it happens, I want to get rid of it.

I could probably go on with this list until I was curled up in the fetal position beneath my coffee table. But, I think you get where I’m going with this. A first draft is NEVER good enough. No matter how great you might feel when it’s done. No matter how many first drafts you turned into your teachers for History, English, or Journalism. What you wrote the first time is bound to be full of errors of all kinds.

It takes some serious humility to admit that you didn’t do it perfect the first time. It takes even more humility to let someone else tell you that. The ideal scenario would be to write a first draft, go back through it yourself to find everything you’re capable of finding, then hand it off to some trusted beta readers who will find everything you couldn’t. Because YOU ARE TOO CLOSE TO YOUR OWN WORK. You will not find all the mistakes--even the spelling errors, trust me. You will never see what jokes don’t work. You will never know what crucial information you left out because it’s all inside your head. Every sentence you write is based on knowing what you know. Your reader doesn’t. So, your beta readers will tell you when they are left holding up mismatched puzzle pieces.

A writer never has to follow every bit of advice given by a beta reader, but she should most assuredly take it all in and do some considering. This is an area I see a lot of new writers falling down on. They are happy to fix technical errors, most of them are even willing to rephrase a confusing or wordy sentence, but a lot of them will fight with beta readers who suggest that an area is confusing or weak. They will defend their writing, and say “You just didn’t get it.” That may be, but if your readers don’t “get it,” you’ve failed. The whole point of writing is to share a story, a world, a new idea. Communicating. If the message isn’t being received, you might as well print it out and read it aloud to yourself, or use it to wallpaper your bedroom, because you’re the only person who’s ever going to want to read it.

Wow, that was soapboxy. I think I should probably walk away from the keyboard before I get riled.

Stay tuned. In the new year, I’d really like to start using this blog to share a bit more about myself as a person, not just a writer. Not everyone is hear to “listen” to me drone on about a craft they may never want to pursue. Of course, there’s not guarantee that anyone will want to “listen” to me drone on about anything else, but we’ll give it a shot.

So, Happy New Year! I’ll catch you in 2010!

- Liz

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