Sunday, January 11, 2015

Exercises in Revision #2: What's Wrong

A while back, I promised that after this series, I would post some exercises in revision. Here's the second one. (#1 here.)

Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
—Neil Gaiman, "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" in The Guardian
So: You and your readers have identified some things that need fixing in your piece. If you've shown it to several people, to a workshop class or writing group, you've probably received lots of conflicting advice about how to make it better. What should you do?

I'm assuming here that you're working on a short story or a section of something longer, such as a chapter of a novel. Later, I'll talk about reading over a whole long work and seeing how it hangs together, but for now we'll focus on short sections—say anywhere from a few paragraphs to twenty-five pages (six or seven thousand words). The right size to read in one sitting.

I find it helpful to read over it one more time quickly, and make notes about what to change using my editing brain—that is, the conscious, logical part of my brain. (As opposed to the writing brain: the subconscious, illogical part that deals in dreams and magic and intuition.) These notes can be brief, but they'll be more specific than the Xs and ??s you marked down on the first pass.

These are the four areas I look at to see if there's room for improvement. Don't think about exactly how you'll make the improvements yet. Your editing brain might not know the answer, and that's okay for today.

You may resist these suggestions. You might think they're simplistic, that maybe they apply to people who are writing one-dimensional, stupid stories, but you are allowed to ignore them because your story is doing ninety-nine other fascinating, complex and important things, and you just don't have time to think about Fiction Writing 101 stuff like "show, don't tell."

All I can say is that I've seen a lot of works-in-progress over the years, by beginning writers, by accomplished and talented authors, by people in between, and it's surprising how many, across the board, wrestle with these issues (including me). Rare is the story that can't be strengthened by making improvements in these areas. If you're pretty sure your story isn't perfect, this is useful stuff to look at.

Clarity: Is the story clear on the most basic level: who's talking, what the characters are doing and why, where they are, how much time is passing? Frank Conroy was the head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop when I was there; he was a complicated, brilliant and demanding teacher. "Meaning, sense, clarity," were three of the things he demanded, over and over. They are the foundation your story stands on, he reminded us. If those things aren't in place, there is no story.

A Journey from A to B: Does your main character make an emotional journey from A to B? Can the reader tell what it is? Look at these two very short stories to see how the masters do it. In both of these, the changes are internal; you could call them subtle. And yet. They are huge. And you have no question, as a reader, that tectonic plates have moved, that something deep inside these two main characters is altered forever. And yes, this applies even if you're rewriting a chapter in a novel. The character should begin the chapter in one place and end it in another. The journey doesn't have to be huge, but there should be one and it should be clear to the reader.

Show, Don't Tell: Is your story firmly anchored in the world with lots of concrete, sensory details that reflect your characters' direct experience?  If you've ever heard a writing teacher say, "show, don't tell," that's what they were talking about. It's the difference between, "I was scared," and, "My upper arms tingled, as if all the little hairs were were trying to stand up under my sweater." The first tells us what the character is feeling; the second shows us. To come up with this kind of detail you have to put yourself inside the story, inside the character. Don't take shortcuts, using phrases you've heard a hundred times. ("My spine tingled.") Really feel the fear in your body. Pay attention. Write down the actual, specific feeling.

Stay in the moment: Is most of the story taking place in the now, rather than in flashbacks, exposition, or abstract speculation? This is a tough one for writers who've done a lot of research or a lot of thinking about their characters. It's tempting to put everything you know into your story (sometimes because you want to show everyone how much work you've done), but if you do that you'll wind up with a story that's diffuse and nebulous. We don't need to know everything about your character's past, or the history of the region in which she lives: we need to know which little shard of her childhood is sticking in her throat at this moment, which particular abandoned building she's walking past and what it feels like for her to look at it right now. These little bits of information are iceburg tips, and as readers, we'll know that; we'll feel the power of all you didn't say. Believe that. It's hard to cut away pages and pages of research and backstory that you labored over, but you have to do it. Keep the story focused.

It's amazing how far you can get by asking these four questions as you re-read. Again, don't worry about how you'll fix everything right now: just jot down some notes: "too much exposition this page," or "need more concrete details." Just let your editing brain give the orders. Tomorrow we'll talk about strategies for getting your writing brain to carry them out.

Next: How to Fix It

You're doing it wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Eugen Osswald, illustration from The Animals' Ball, 1917, via 50watts

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