Monday, April 19, 2010

The Art of Revision

So, to date, I haven’t written much about BENT ROAD, the novel I have coming out early next year. But a question that I often get about its publication is why it takes so long for a book to show up in a bookstore. I thought I’d talk a bit about that today, keeping in mind that this is my first novel, which makes me a rookie. I am recently off the bench, with little experience in the field or at the plate. (I’ve sat on many little league bleachers over the years.) Perhaps a terrible clichĂ©, but entirely accurate.

The process of selling a book doesn’t start with the contract, or the agent or the manuscript. It starts about ten years earlier—more for some, less for others—when a writer begins to write. He or she, we’ll call her a she, usually writes badly in the beginning, sometimes very badly. The writer extends herself to other writers and teachers who tell her the writing is bad. They mark up her manuscripts with red ink and she begins to improve. She learns about revision. This is a key word, the most crucial word, that the writer will learn. .

Revision is not what most of us learned about in high school. It doesn’t mean re-reading something once, running the spell checker and pressing print. It means the writer must analyze characterization and structure. She must cut every adverb on the page. I mean…EVERY SINGLE ADVERB. She can add a few back later if she feels she must. Revision means the writer must identify her plot points and hope that she finds a few. It means making sure that her characters don’t sit around and think most of the time, because for some reason, writers like to do that. Perhaps because they (and by they I mean me) spend so much time sitting around and thinking. Revision means the writer must make certain that people will like her characters—harder than you would think because you readers are supposed to like, or at least understand, even the worst bad guys. Revision means deciding what her characters want, and then should she find, happily, that they do want something, she must decide what they need. Two entirely different questions.

Revision means knowing the difference between conflict and action, because they, too, are entirely different, and mistaking one for the other will doom a manuscript. During revision, the writer will verify that her points of view have integrity. Is third person the best choice? What about first? Second person is too risky. She’s not strong enough for second. Though the reader may not care if the writer cheats with her POV (technical term that means point of view) other writers will, and she lives in constant fear of that. Revision means sniffing out coincidence in her plot and if she finds it, getting rid of it. And if she can’t get rid of it, she will shred the manuscript and start over. Revision means understanding the pathetic fallacy and the intentional fallacy and the fallacy of imitative form and ignoring the forth fallacy because she just can’t figure it out.

Revision means remembering her characters’ names and changing a few if she finds that every one begins with the letter J or that three of them rhyme. She must find a way—either via excel or a spiral notebook or yellow sticky notes posted all over her office—to track what happens on which date during what time of day in whose house on what street. She must catch the roses that are blooming in December and the cell phone that rings even though it died when her character left the doctor’s office. She will return to those sticky notes that don’t stick so well in the Florida humidity so she can double-check if the floor in the main character’s kitchen is linoleum or oak. And if the babysitter died on a Tuesday and three days later the family goes to church, can it possibly be Sunday? And what was the husband’s name again, and does he have two sons and a daughter or two daughters and a son, and how quickly does a body decompose after someone has died, and what if they die in June instead of January, and what is the name of that thingy on the fence that holds the gate in place. You know, that latch thingy.

Revision means knowing her narrative distance. Actually, first it means learning what narrative distance means, which takes the writer many years, and then identifying that distance and establishing consistency and feeling like she is teetering on the edge of a rocky gorge all the while. The writer must also grow a tougher hide so she can cut her most beloved scenes and characters when she realizes they don’t belong in the story. This tough hide is also useful when, even after ten years, she still writes sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters and stories that are bad. But now she realizes that bad writing will always come first. Then she will cut every adverb, and I mean every single adverb, and after much revision, her bad writing might be good.

Revision took a bit longer than I thought, so we’ll talk about the rest on another day. I’ll title it PART II.

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