My Desk – Books, Pens, Notebooks, Marked-up MS
Revision is not copy editing, although that is part of it. Every creative writing workshop instructor I’ve encountered mentions this when she talks about revision.
Once you’ve read it over with an analytical eye,” the instructor advises her students, “begin with a blank page and re-write.”
Yet few beginners heed this advice, including me. We fear the blank page. It’s easier to tinker with the sixty or more thousand words already written, than it is to re-organise the manuscript by beginning fresh. We polish the text instead of the story. Then we send out the manuscript and it is rejected.
At Author Salon the prevalence and cost of this reluctance was made clear to me over the past year. I have read the first fifty pages of several manuscripts, given my feedback—always enthusiastic, but honest and fair—only to receive the next draft of the work a short time later and see that it is, at least in story terms, exactly the same. Some metaphors have been fixed up, dialogue smoothed, commas added, but in essence it remains as weak as it was before.
Desperation is the culprit. Everyone wants an agent now, affirmation now, and publication now. They believe that they have put in enough time, and fear that another blank page will steal years from their lives. I have learned that the opposite is true.
The first draft of anything is shit.– Ernest Hemingway
First ideas are rarely the best ideas. A first draft is an act of discovery. The writer must analyse what she has written and throw out what is not her best work. Sometimes we can’t recognise what is our best or worst. We are too attached, too precious about our words because they are a part of us—they reflect who we are, what we think, our deepest emotional selves. When we critique our writing, we critique the tender part of us who dared to make itself vulnerable via exposure on the page.
The only cure for this angst is time. I began the current revision of ‘She Wore Pants’ under MJ Hyland’s mentorship a full year after I put the previous draft to bed. I knew it wasn’t ready for commercial publication, but it’s only now that I’ve achieved sufficient emotional distance from it that I’m able to evaluate the core of my story, and ‘re-vision’ it as a better, more coherent, structured narrative. Radical surgery means a change in narrative point of view, a renewed focus on one controlling idea that all of the conflict hinges upon, killing off characters and inventing new ones who support the central conflict.
Did I stop writing during that year? Hell no. I researched and wrote a twenty thousand-word exegesis and completed my thesis. I also looked at one of my older manuscripts and brainstormed ways of improving it, so that, with luck and effort, when a publishing contract comes my way, the next manuscript will already be in my back pocket.
The problem with PhD novels is that they are written with three people in mind: your supervisor and two examiners. All three of them are academics, and the requirements of your degree are not the same as those of publishers or agents. Academics are interested in literary talent and demonstrations of knowledge. After all, the purpose of doing this work in the academy is to produce new knowledge about the nature of your literary genre and writing craft. That is the basis for your degree, and what your thesis demonstrates.
Publishers aren’t interested in what you know about literature and language; they want to read a good story well told, one that will attract readers. Although some students manage to produce a manuscript that satisfies both audiences, it is rare that a novel produced in the academy will find publication in its original form. Most of my fellow students who found success with commercial publishers did so after a significant re-write.
Designing story tests the maturity and insight of the writer, his knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart. – Robert McKee
Now that you have a draft and you have read it, what does it look like?
- What have you said?
- Who is the protagonist? What do they want? What stops them from getting it?
- Where is the climax located?
- Does the narrative point of view work?
- Is the tone right? Can you improve the voice?
- What themes emerge? Are they consistently reflected through conflict?
- Are the characters rounded? Are any of them extraneous?
When we re-write we discover that we are already better writers for having written our draft. This is where the real work lies and where our talent has a chance to shine. Those hours used in practice and discovery did not go to waste. Cutting twenty thousand words (or whatever is necessary) is not the end of the world; we know now that we can do better. We should do better. We owe it to ourselves to find our best ideas and use our creativity and intellect to produce our best work. We should not be satisfied with less. This work provides us with the insight to win the war against cliché. Our originality shines through revision.
Write a hook and a pitch for your draft. Use the result as your guide for re-writes. This work will distil your story into its essential components and show you where your efforts are most needed.
Books on my desk:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
Renni Browne & Dave King
The First 50 Pages
The Art of Fiction
The Art of Fiction
Reading Like a Writer
The Elements of Style
William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White
How Fiction Works
- Rewrite Your Script (gointothestory.blcklst.com)
- The Beggar King (writerswritedaily.wordpress.com)
- Rejuvenating The Writing Process (kristibernard.wordpress.com)