Thursday, December 18, 2008

Last Chapter on Revision

The next item on the Revision Laundry List to be checked off has to do with the basic unit of dramatic writing, The Scene, whence the following questions need to be considered:
1. Are they all necessary?
2. Are you sure; which is to say, were there any in which you were merely showing off, trying to outdo the likes of Noel Coward or Elmore Leonard or Annie Proulx for pithy dialogue?
3. Are there any duplications? Be serious about this. For instance, it may be successfully argued that after a point, most mysteries are simply a series of interviews. Has the manuscript under revision taken steps to insure that the interviews have some sense of freshness and divergence from the others?
4. Does each scene develop the reader's understanding of characters and the issues they are facing?
5. Are the characters actually interacting and reacting?
6. Do the scenes contain suspense, tension, or ominous foreshadowing?
7. Do the scenes end on a note of unresolved conflict or anticipation or do they linger like the last guest at a party?
8. Most important of all, do they leave an emotional impact?

From which we move to the divisions and sections of a work, mindful that in shorter works such as stories, scenes are separated by a two-line space break, advancing to the long form where, after the scene break, the most significant division is the chapter. A constructive way to look at the chapter is as a collection of relevant scenes, meaning the rudder could be the simple matter of chronology or point of view or theme. It may help to regard a chapter as a mini three-act play, in which there is a beginning, a middle, and a resolution; the presentation of a problem and or goal, a muddle of clangorous expectations, and an apparent goal in hand which results in a significant abeyance (which causes the reader to look at yet another chapter before setting the story down for the night. Chapters are often presented with a number, which serves no real dramatic purpose and is little more than the literary equivalent of a mile marker on a map. Chapters are just as often presented with a date line, much as newspaper stories, followed by a city. Los Angeles, September 1985. Chapters in multiple point of view novels often begin with a tag line reminding the reader who the narrative focus of the following events will be. Fred, for example.

The next potential division is the Book, a collection of relevant chapters in which the rudder could be chronological or, back to Fred, a particular point of view. Some books have been given the book subtitle for the geographical locale in which they take place, other still use the name of a character or family.

Getting down to the end of the revision tour: make a complete pass in which you become a heat-seeking missile trained on spotting and knocking out cliche of all sort, whether it is racial, occupational, or narrative. The question often arises in writing groups and beginning classes, Suppose one of my characters has as a trait the speaking or thinking in cliche? The answer of course is that such a character is a fine example of a cliche. If you must have such a character, render that person's linguistic tropes in as deliberately fresh a manner as possible in order that the cliches emerge as original as possible, so that the critic will say of you in all sincerity, even this author's cliches are original. A good standard to follow is: If you have to ask if a figure of speech or character or situation is a cliche; it probably is.

The last but one thing to look at is the title, which can and should pose some relevant enigma, pun, double entendre, or even an irony. Clever titles often attract favorable attention, but the irony here is that titles obviously intending to be clever attract negative attention. Sometimes a phrase from the text will suggest a title, sometimes a pun on a well-known situation or condition will fit the writer's purpose. The old standby is the straightforward declarative description as in, say, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony.

Another question often asked in writers' groups and beginner classes: How do I know when I've finished revising?

Answer: When you make changes no one will recognize.

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