Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Joy of Revision

I know writers who hate to edit, but I love it. There is nothing like watching a pile of ordinary words begin to shine. But once you have your masterpiece in your hands, this squalling red-faced newborn with its squinched-up face and its misshapen head, how do you shape it into the beautiful baby you know it can be?

First, put the manuscript away for awhile. A month is good if you can manage it. Then read the manuscript through with your colored pen in hand. Look at the Big Picture. Does everything make sense? Where do you need more development? Where are you spinning your wheels? Do you have too many characters? Not enough? Do you have the right balance of plot and character? Are your characters consistent? Is your pacing right? Does everything move at the same speed? Where do you need more information? Where do you need less? Do not fix the problems; just note them.

Go through the manuscript again, correcting the big problems you noticed above. If there is a pacing problem, decide which scenes need to move faster, which might need a slower, more thoughtful pace. Sentence length and structure can affect the pacing of the story. Are all your sentences the same length? Try varying them. Add necessary scenes. Take out unnecessary scenes, even if you love them. (I keep a folder called “Jared scraps” for things I like but which don’t fit this book. That way, I don't feel so bad about cutting things I like a lot. I may never use them again--but they're there if I want them.)

Use the edit/find function to look for “filler” words: that, just, very, etc. You don’t need, “She was very beautiful” or “The stench was pretty awful.” “Very” and “pretty” dilute “beautiful” and “awful.” Do a global search for these words and eliminate every one that you don’t absolutely need. (I'll bet you can do without "beautiful" and "awful" too. What does beautiful look like? What does awful smell like? Rotten eggs or an overused outhouse?) While you're at it, look for your own pet words and phrases. We all have them. Do another search for those words and see if you can replace some of them with more vivid words, phrases, or images. (In one book a popular author whose work I generally admire used “the tires chirped” or “I pulled away with a chirp of tires” at least half a dozen times. It was an interesting line and sounded original the first time, but after a while it just seemed odd. Do tires chirp all that often, really?

Replace meaningless gestures with meaningful ones. Shrugging, grinning, and smiling are fine for first drafts, but look for the telling gesture or detail. Another good use for the search feature.


Look at the rhythm of your sentences. Try to end your sentences with the word that has the most weight. (Not, “After I talked to Moretti, I picked up a sausage McMuffin and went down to the docks to poke around,” but “After I talked to Moretti, I picked up a sausage McMuffin and went down to poke around at the docks.” Not, “There was a star-shaped hole in his head, and a thin line of blood trickled from it,” but “A thin line of blood trickled from the star-shaped hole in his head.”)

Read your dialogue aloud. Does it sound natural? Does it sound too natural (uh, um…I mean, like, really...)?

Replace generalities with specific details. Not, “She was the nicest woman I’d ever met,” but, “I knew she only had ten dollars to last her until payday, but she pulled a crumpled five from her pocket and stuffed it in the blind man’s cup.” Look for bland nouns and weak verbs. Replace them with strong, vivid ones. Don’t settle for the almost right word. Go for the lightning, not the lightning bug.

Keep your characters’ eyes in their heads. (“His eyes slithered down her body.” Well, that’s just gross.) Personally, I'm not bothered when people's eyes meet; that's such a common phrase it hardly registers any more, but there are many readers who are bothered by it, so why take the chance?

When you say something like, “Running for the bus, he tripped over a crack in the sidewalk,” make sure the two actions you’ve chose really can be (and would be) done simultaneously.” Not, “Falling onto the bed, she dialed the phone.” Fall first, then dial. Or dial first, then fall. It would be very hard to do both at the same time.

In the same vein, watch for misplaced modifiers: Mary moved to a little Irish village with nothing but a suitcase and an extra pair of overshoes. Does the village have only a suitcase and overshoes? No, try this instead: With nothing but a suitcase and an extra pair of overshoes, Mary moved to a little Irish village.

Are you showing when you should show and telling when you should tell? Or vice versa?

Beware the information dump, especially of the “as you know, Bob” kind, in which two characers tell each other things they both already know.

“Hardy Boy Syndrome,” she quipped. Just don’t do it. “Said” is good. Rule of thumb: only use a descriptive speech tag if the way a thing is said belies what is being said (“I hate you,” she said sweetly.), or if it’s necessary for characterization or effect. Note: you can’t hiss anything unless it has a lot of sibilants. It might be important to tell us if someone whispered or murmured something. Sometimes.

You can’t smile a word, grin a word, smirk a word, or frown a word. Not: “They’re beautiful,” Jen smiled. Instead, try: “They’re beautiful.” Jen smiled.

Read each sentence aloud. I usually point as I go, since it’s very easy to miss typos, such as repeated or misspelled words.

Exhausted yet? Put the manuscript away for awhile and then read through it again. Happy? Now find several readers and/or writers whose opinions you trust and ask them to read your manuscript for you. Ask them to make places they didn't understand, or places where their attention wandered. Read the suggestions of your readers with an open mind. You will agree with some of their suggestions. Others, you’ll disagree with. If you hear the same thing from several readers, they probably have a point. There is probably something wrong with that section of the book. The solution may be different from what the reader or readers suggested, but there is something there you should work on.

All right. Your book is perfect now, right? Wrong. Put it away again for a while and work on something else. You know your book so well you can practically recite it. But because you do, you read the sentences as you mean for them to be. You will invariably overlook some typos. Our minds provide meaning and correct errors without our knowledge. So read the manuscript again—backwards. (Thanks to Kathryn Wall for that tidbit!) By reading each sentence in isolation, you have a better chance of catching any errors that may have slipped by.

All done? Congratulations! It’s a book! Your beautiful new literary baby is ready to show the world.

3 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Very good advice, Beth. I might add, after shelving the manuscript for a month or more, take it out and read it as though someone else had written it. That makes it a little easier to be brutal while self editing.

Chester Campbell said...

Well done, Beth. Wish I'd read it earlier. I'd have posted something on DorothyL. You hit on a lot of stuff I'm guilty of, as you know (writer's note: Beth and I are in the same writer's group). Hopefully, I'm getting better.

Beth Terrell said...

Thanks, both of you. I agree, Jean. Trying to read the book as if it had been written by a stranger is a great idea.

Chester, you're too modest. There's a reason we hardly ever find anything to criticize in your work!