Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Many Stages of Revision

When you revise your work-in-progress--a novel, say, that you’ve spent three years fleshing out--and you reach the stage where you're replacing deleted words and phrases with new inserts, you may find that you "see" only bits and pieces of the story without getting a chance to enjoy the flow of the narrative.

This late stage of the process is so much different than earlier stages when you revise each line of the narrative by hand, searching for inconsistencies in plot-lines, emotional arcs, setting, voice, characterizations, and more. (Sometimes you can find yourself looking for all these elements simultaneously.)

Indeed, a good deal of the revision process takes place on an intuitive, almost subconscious, level, as if you're looking out of the corner of your eye for shadows lurking like carp beneath the surface of a dark pond. If you're patient, though, you can begin to see those shadows and lure them to the surface.

This process of fleshing out the shadows of a story is one of the most gratifying parts of the entire writing process. Each time you return to the story, you can find new ways to "see" how the parts link to each other and the whole connects with readers.

With so many parts of a manuscript to review, though, it may prove helpful to break down the many stages of the revision process and identify each step separately:

* First pass - examining the plot's structure
Is your story’s problem clearly articulated? Is your character’s motivation evident? Does your reader know what the character wants and why? Is the impediment to his or her desire obvious? How does the character overcome the problem to reach the goal? And is the resolution credible? Does the end balance out the beginning so the story itself has a kind of balance?

* Second pass - developing characters
Have you clearly established the emotional arcs of the main character and supporting cast of characters? Do these arcs rise and fall in a compelling way... with a clear cause-and-effect sequence showing not only when a character acts a certain way but why the character acts this way? And are the relationships between the characters--the conflicts, the doubts, and affections--clearly delineated?

* Third pass - establishing a consistent setting
Have you established a credible setting in the reader's mind? Can the reader sense your character's emotional state through your descriptions of place? Have you adequately set the stage in terms of time period in which the story takes place, the class or status of your character, and his or her role within the larger setting?

* Fourth pass - deepening metaphors
Have you used metaphors to strengthen the reader’s understanding of your character’s emotional state... the struggle that the character must undergo and his or her feelings about the struggle as the story progresses?

* Fifth pass - checking grammar
Here's your chance to check for typographical errors, the musical flow of the language, the grammatical construction of sentences, word choice, etc. This is the time to ask yourself how the words sound and whether the sentences unfold in a graceful manner. Ask yourself if the page scans easily. Are the words and lines too tightly packed together, too dense for the reader, or too loose, with insufficient details?

*Sixth pass - simmering the stew
Put away the manuscript. Let it simmer at least one month. (Don’t even peek!)

*Seventh pass - reviewing (and revising) again
A month has passed, and now it's time to review the manuscript (repeat passes #1 - 6) for any remaining issues and make whatever changes are necessary. This is your chance to expand or delete material... identify passages or scenes that are extraneous... supply information that might be missing.

* Eighth pass - one more time
This is the last time that you can catch typographical errors (or other "minor" problems) before sending it out to readers.

I've heard from friends that some writers prefer to retype entire drafts rather than engage in the insert and delete game. That way, they’re able to regain a sense of how the story flows... and can pinpoint places where the flow seems to be interrupted. (I've revised this way, and it's a wonderful technique to move inside your story again, even if your wrists may ache for days after extensive typing.)

Also, I know that some writers like sharing their work with readers in its earliest stages and look forward to receiving critical comments as the story develops scene by scene, chapter by chapter, while other writers prefer to wait until they’ve finished a first draft before sharing it with other readers.

In the end, what matters is that you find a way that helps you get your story on paper.

Don't be afraid to experiment with the revision process!

Learn to rely on whatever method works best for you.

For more information on revision, visit:


Barbara O'Connor said...

Great post, Bruce!

Bruce said...

Thanks, Barbara.