Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Revision: The Big Picture

I had the double-whammy of a doctor's appointment (checking on the progress of the shoulder) and physical therapy this morning, so I'm getting a late start to the day.

For the next few writing posts, I thought I'd tackle the subject of revisions, since that's the stage I'm currently on in a book and I've received a lot of questions about it. My process is what works for me. None of this is a set-in-stone rule about what you must do. These are things to try and see how they work for you.

I think I do the bulk of the work on a book in the rewrite phase. No matter how carefully I plot a novel, I don't seem to know what the book is really about until I've written it, and then I have to reshape it to make it be what it's supposed to be. I generally do a fairly fast first draft and then revise all at once, though if I come up with an idea while writing that affects the earlier part of the book or that needs to be set up, then I will go back and fix it. I just don't worry too much about tinkering with words until I'm done.

The first thing I do when I finish a first draft is look at the big picture. Well, actually, the first thing I do is take a few days off. I think it's important to let a book rest a while. You wrote it the way you wrote it because that's what made sense to you at the time, and if you tackle revisions while you're still in the same mindset, that will still be what makes sense to you. A little distance helps give you a more objective perspective on the work. I generally have multiple projects at various phases going on, so I can force myself to switch mental gears and think of something else between phases. I may take a week or so to research, brainstorm or plot another project. If you're on deadline you may not have the luxury of taking that kind of time, but when I have a deadline, I try to plan my work so I can take a mental break between phases.

Then, I'll look at the big picture. The main concern here is whether the story works. I try writing what I think should be the cover copy for the book, then I think about whether what I've written really fits the book. Am I playing up something that's relatively minor because I think it sounds interesting and would help sell the book? Am I leaving out something I've devoted a lot of time to in the book? I think the exercise of writing the cover copy is a great way to force yourself to think of what is most interesting and appealing about the story. Those are the elements you should focus on as you revise.

To refresh myself on the book, I usually go through the manuscript with a notepad handy and chart each scene. I'll write a one-sentence description of the main action in the scene ("The heroine arrives at the eerie estate and meets the creepy housekeeper"), then list who the protagonist of the scene is (the heroine), what the protagonist's goal is (to meet her new employer before she commits to staying at this remote place), and what the conflict is (the creepy housekeeper is stalling, and the coach is about to leave). From there, it's easy to see how the story flows. You can generally get a sense of cause and effect from what the characters are trying to do and what's stopping them. I'll sometimes write a plot outline based on this analysis, and that's where the plot holes show up. You can see if someone does something without a reason or if something happens and none of the characters really react to it.

Another thing I might do in checking the overall plot is to revisit my character development. With the benefit of having written the book, I may work through some of the same exercises I do to develop characters before I write the book, but answering based on what's really there as opposed to what I want to be there. Sometimes it's the same, but there have been times when I realize that there was something about a character I really wanted to convey but that never showed up, or a character took a different direction that's working better, but the change isn't coming through in the plot. This can also show me when any major plot events depend on a character doing something out of character.

This is when a beta reader or critique partner can come in handy -- give the manuscript to someone you trust and let that person ask questions. That's a good way to discover if there's something that only makes sense to you because you know the background. Another person may ask something like "Why did he do that?" or "Why didn't he just _____?" when you can't see that for yourself.

That scene-by-scene outline is also good for what I call "major surgery." It's the chainsaw stage of revising. That's when I cut out huge chunks of the book -- often to make room for new stuff that needs to be added or scenes that need to be fleshed out. If there are multiple scenes that look more or less the same in the outline -- same character has the same goal and the same conflicts or obstacles -- then some of those scenes can usually go or be combined. If I can't think of what the goal or conflict is in a scene, I have to figure out why it's in the book and see if there's a way to put the important parts in another scene or rewrite the scene to include a goal and conflict.

After doing all this analysis, I'll write a revised plot outline of the way the book should go, and then I'll make a list of the major changes that need to be made in order to make the book be that way. I'll figure out which scenes need to be cut, which scenes need to be moved or combined, which scenes need to be rewritten and which scenes need to be added. The second draft is when I do all this work, as well as working on the transitions to make all this flow together.

Next: The third draft -- medium-grit sandpaper.

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