Monday, December 15, 2008


revision--a systematic review and examination of raw thematic material; a process of searching for the optimal form and deployment of a story (also applies to nonfiction). A final and emphatic editorial vision of a project, reflecting as nearly as possible a unified editorial tone, vibrant characters with uneasy choices, and a satisfying, plausible resolution.

Writers have been advised for some time by instructors, literary agents, and editors to revise a recently completed work. Often those same instructors, literary agents, and editors have an inchoate vision of what they mean by the term "revision," adding an entire layer of confusion to a process than can be a joy.

Thus three important revision rules for writers at the outset: (1) Unless a literary agent or editor offers a specific quid pro quo offer to represent or publish the work if specified revisions are made, their suggestions are worthless; (2) Unless the instructor, literary agent, or editor cannot articulate a specific list of revisions --change the point of view, change the verb tense from past to present, remove fifty percent of the physical description, etc--their suggestions are not nearly as valuable as rereading the material yourself; (3) If the revision suggestions from the instructor, literary agent, or editor do not resonate as appropriate, ignore them.

These basic questions follow for the individual essaying the revision:

1. Is the work complete? A significant way to determine this is to set the work aside for between one day and a week, then return to read it afresh, hopeful of not discovering any "How could I have forgotten that?" moments. Accordingly put in any forgotten that.

2. Does it begin in the right place? Always a tricky call, especially if the present opening circumstances were the cause for the work congealing as an idea to pursue. Reread the work specifically for another place where there is a greater sense of opening velocity and character involvement. Stories need not be set in strict chronology; a perfect place for the beginning may be the penultimate or even final scene. Remember beginnings are not places where much in the way of background is set forth; beginnings are more likely to be eighty percent movement and twenty percent description. Quirky, interesting people doing quirky interesting things make the most engaging beginnings.

3. Does the reader have someone to root for? Sure, the manuscript has a protagonist, but is the protagonist invested enough in his or her agenda to make readers want to become emotionally involved as the characters tread their paths? American readers for instance, would not seem likely fans of Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. After all, what's the big deal about wanting to be a butler? But of course, Mr. Stevens didn't want to be an ordinary butler. And who among us could root for Fast Eddie Felson, a kid who wanted to be a pool hustler? Not just any pool hustler. Thinking about the dramatic strengths of Carrie Bradshaw and her ultimate goals, we begin to get an interesting perspective on both sides of the coin as it were, rooting for her in Sex in the City and rooting as well for the eponymous Pamela to retain her chastity in her own dramatic venture.

4. Does it end in the right place? Does it,we must ask, end by explaining itself too strenuously or defensively? Does it bury emotional effect in a welter of logical details to the point of producing anticlimax? And since we're on a questioning jag, does the ending take the reader well beyond closure? Do the characters and situations have life off the page? Does the current ending foreclose on that delicious sense of aftertaste that appears after the last page has been turned and a final effect appears? Does it usurp reader participation by not allowing the reader to get a word or thought in edgewise, thanks to the control-freak nature of the author?

5. Not forgetting that some types of stories require descriptions of places, clothing, food, local customs and politics, is this story too descriptive, too heavy handed with theme and atmosphere?

6. Is the story told in the most effective point of view? Could someone have told it better? Think about it In this case better relates to more tension, more suspense, more irony, more naivete. Ah, naivete as in a naive narrator instead of a worldly or trustworthy one, which takes us back to Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day, and makes us question the benefits of a trustworthy narrator. Doctors and lawyers frequently complain that they cannot trust their respective patients and clients; should readers be able to trust narrators?

7. Is there a better narrative effect to be had than the present one; is it perhaps too literal? Could the narrative be enhanced with an edgier voice?

These last questions are of particular importance because the answers to them will have a direct effect on the first item in the next installment: Dialogue--the things characters say to attack stasis.


Anonymous said...

Point taken.

Anonymous said...

Number 7 - edgier voice-is the one I'm most concerned about. First, it seems like an agent is unlikely to bother asking the writer to try and revise this aspect of the novel, but will instead dismiss the manuscript in the first few pages. Second, it also seems to be what agents are looking for: a dominating voice that jumps out at them, while my protag's voice is more subtle.

Matt said...

Your points are all very pertinent. The exercise of revising is one that I've worked hard to embrace and now I work it like I work writing itself. Very important to me in your list is Question #1 (put the work away for a while). Sometimes I work myself, for better or worse, on semi-artificial deadlines (eg. submitting to a lit mag) which serves as motivation to complete the work. The important thing is, no matter how solid or bullet-proof I think the work is at the time, it needs to ferment in a desk drawer for at least a week before I would ever consider sending it forth.