Sunday, April 27, 2014

Body of Revision

A few years ago, I read an article on Steven Pressfield's website about revising in layers.  Unfortunately, I can't for the life of me remember the title or even give a more specific summary.  What I do recall, though, is that this mysterious article came as a revelation.

I knew, through painful experience, that I had to go through many re-writes before my story took shape.  No matter how long I toiled or how carefully I planned, Draft 1 came out awful. Draft 2 was even worse.  Yet around Draft 5, 6, 7, the writing started to come out better.  The problem was, I didn't know why.  I'd tackle everything at once, and sometimes the story sounded nice and sometimes it didn't.

The article made me think about breaking up the elements of writing and focusing on different ones for each drafts.  This kept me from being overwhelmed.  So what if I my sentences were mangled, my description nonexistent, and my point of view kept switching?  I'd figured out the plot, so mission accomplished.

But I knew--again, through painful experience--that the elements had to be handled in a certain order.  Why spend hours trying to tune a phrase just so, when two drafts later you have to throw the scene out.  No, each draft had to build on the next one.  I thought of it like creating a human body.  If you tried to fix skin onto the bones and inject muscles in between, you'd end up with a bumpy looking mess.  Better to make a solid skeleton and then slap on the meat.

As I experimented more and more, I came up with a system for revisions.  I'd start humble, write fast and loose and messy, experiment and leave my options open.  As the story took shape, my writing became slower, more thoughtful, more precise.  By the end, I had a pretty nice, pretty shiny story.

Here's how it works.

Draft 1: Ideas
aka the Soul

Ideas gives birth to the story.  They're what compels the writer to write.  Each story begins with a simple question. "What is this about?"  As that question is explored, the humble idea grows up to become a theme or a motif.  Ultimately, it's what gives the story its meaning.

I call ideas the soul of the story because they are mysterious and hard to explain, but without one the story withers and dies.

For me, the idea draft is simply finding out what the story is about.  I take my time and ask a lot of questions.  How does this happen?  Why? What are the consequences?  I find a novel must have more than one idea.  As the first one starts to dry out, a new idea must be presented.  The old idea and the new one overlap and grow on each other, creating even more question.  I keep asking until I get an idea of an ending.  The idea draft usually looks like something between notes, an outline, or an exploratory draft with lots of gaps and plot holes.

Draft 2: Character, Plot, and Setting
aka the Internal Organs

Character, plot, and setting are fundamentals of story-telling.

Character means, of course, knowing your protagonist inside and out: his past, his morals, his desires, his fears, his strengths his limitations.  But it also means knowing these same things about your supporting characters and understanding their relationship to your protagonist.  

Plot is a progression of events which moves the story to the climax; it should run parallel to your theme and illuminate what your idea is trying to say.  For a plot to move, things must happen now.  Flashback, backstory, and exposition may be vital for clarity, but these are not plot.  At the same time, there must be a purpose to the action or it's just a random bunch of events.

Setting, obviously, means a physical environment: a forest, a castle, a room.  But it also includes the objects in the environment: clothes and furniture and weapons.  If your protagonist finds himself in unspoiled nature, what animals live there and what are their relationship to man?  If he's in a town or a city, what sort of culture does he confront?  What is history of the land?  What's the day, the month, the year?  What's the weather like?  How much time passes for the duration of the scene?

I like to think of character as the heart, plot as the brains, and setting as the lungs.  Each controls its own vital system that keeps the body alive.  Take away one and the story instantly collapses.

The reason I lump these three together is because they're interconnected.  Take a battle, for example.  You have to choreograph the action, one attack leading to another, until someone wins or the fighting ceases. (Plot.)  But in order to understand the action, you need to know where they're fighting and how many people are there and what's the weather conditions. (Setting.)  But you also need to know why the commanders chose to fight here and now and what they expect to happen and how your point of view character fits into the grand scheme of thing.  (Character.)  Any little alteration of one can greatly affect the others.

Not surprisingly, this drafts tend to be muddy, bloody, and messy.  I usually dive in at one section--say, plot--realize I need to do setting, change my mind about the plot, start on character, change the setting, change the plot again, have an idea for something completely different, and start all over.  At the end of it, I've got long thorough drafts so contradictory I can barely understand what I've written.  But that's fine.  I've explored different ways to develop the ideas all the way through from beginning to end.

Draft 3: Logic and Structure
aka the Skeleton

Structure and logic force the various writing elements into one solid story.  Structure means composing scenes, building chapters, putting events in order, deciding where backstory and exposition goes, choosing a point of view, commanding the pace, and ruling over everything with the iron fist of consistency.  Logic means going over the manuscript with a red pen for plot holes, unbelievable characterization, inaccuracies, and any other mistakes.

I call these two elements the skeleton, because they're rigid and they keep plot, character, and setting from spilling out in a disgusting heap.

It's on this draft that I switch off the right side of my brain and let my inner critic come out.  I make note of all the inconsistencies, the confusion, the unnecessary stuff, and I do my best to cut it out and clean it up.  On the flip side, I see what's working and what needs to be expanded or further developed.  This is the draft where I make all the big decisions about what happens in my story and stick to those decisions.  By the end of it, it actually starts to look like a novel.

Draft 4: Imagery and Emotion
aka the Flesh

People read in order to experience something new, be it travel, adventure, or falling in love.  What gives them that experience is imagery and emotion.  Imagery appeals to the five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste.  When people talk about painting a picture, this is what they mean.  But a picture alone can be boring.  Emotion creates a human connection.

Imagery and emotion makes up the good, meaty part of the story--the part people ultimately hold onto.  That's why I liken it to the flesh.  And like the flesh, this kind of description can be thin or voluptuous.

My previous drafts already include imagery and emotion--it's impossible to get this far without them.  But here I crank it up to eleven.  I go over my scenes and write exhaustive description, sometimes ticking off the five senses one by one.  Likewise, I have my point of view character react to everything from the weather to the sight of another character to a bit of exposition.  The more dramatic it is, the more paragraphs I write.

Draft 5: Prose
aka the Skin

Prose is the "good writing" part of the story.  It means choosing the right words, arranging the sentences, listening to the rhythm, building paragraphs, adding tone, and creating pace.  This is when I look at active verbs versus passive verbs and start hitting the thesaurus.

To me, prose is the most cosmetic part of the story, but it's also the part people look at first and judge accordingly.  It's the skin that gives a pretty face to the substance, and the clearer and smoother it is, the better..

I start this draft by reading through the imagery and emotion of the previous draft and hacking out everything but the most evocative words or phrases.  I build new sentences around these words.  This is the most time-consuming draft, as I easily spend an hour or more per page.  Everything is chosen and arranged with meticulous detail.

* * *

By now, the story is basically done.  There's more editing, of course: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like.  But this is what I consider hygiene.  It's clean up, not a major re-write.

This is my own method.  It works for me, for the most part, because it lets me switch my brain back and forth between creator and editor, feeler and thinker, experimenter and decision-maker.  To me, it's a logical progression.  But is it the same for you?  Or do you have a different way of tackling revision?

Please let me know.

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