by Stephen Leigh
“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” — James Joyce
I think many of us would revise our current world if we could. Personally, I’d love to highlight “COVID-19” and hit the DELETE key. Ah, if it were only that easy…
As a writer, though, it often is just that easy. Nothing written in a draft is set in stone until your story or novel is published. If you (and/or your editor) decide that something must be changed, the initial surgery can be performed with a few keystrokes. Of course, the deletion may also require minutes, days, weeks, or even months of repairing the hole made in the manuscript and stitching together the edges of the wound with a few-to-thousands of new words. In fact, should you ever write for Wild Cards, I will guarantee that no draft manuscript of yours will pass through the editorial gauntlet without change… and possibly major ones. That’s the nature of the beast, especially since writing for WILD CARDS requires that your story mesh with the stories set around it.
For example: the last Wild Cards novel where I wrote the interstitial segment was MISSISSIPPI ROLL. I looked at my email folder for that novel and counted the number of emails exchanged during the writing of that novel: discussing what was needed to be done; what needed to be changed/revised; the responses to those and subsequent changes. The final count was 312. So if you ever harbored any doubts that we work very hard on the WILD CARDS books, you may put those doubts to rest.
But let’s give you, gentle reader, a chance to revise. I came across the following two sentences recently. From a CNN news headline—“Fairfax County police identify victims of deadly triple homicide”—and from a TV commercial for Cincinnati Eye Institute—“After my cataract operation, I could see things clear as a bell!” What’s wrong with those sentences?
Hopefully you immediately noticed the problems, but in case you didn’t… “Fairfax County police identify victims of deadly triple homicide”—umm, homicides are always deadly, so calling a homicide ‘deadly’ is redundant. “After my operation, I could see things clear as a bell!”—hey, you screwed up the cliché: you might hear things clear as a bell, but you can’t see things clear as a bell. In fact, you can’t see anything through a bell unless it’s made of glass.
As it happens, I generally love revision, because that’s when a mediocre story has the opportunity to transform itself into a great story. Mind you, as with writing itself, there’s no ‘right way’ to revise. If your efforts result in an excellent story in the end, you used the ‘right’ method—but your approach may have to change with every story you write.
Non-writers often talk about ‘revision’ as if it were something distinct from the initial writing. Revision isn’t (necessarily) a separate process—it’s not for me personally, anyway. ‘Revision’ is a process interwoven with my initial writing, a part of the whole draft structure. I write my drafts in a two-step process: every day when I come back to the draft, I first read what I wrote the day before, revising it as I read before moving on to the blank part of the file. Because of that process, my first draft is actually not a first draft; it’s at least a second draft by the time I’ve reached those lovely two words: THE END.
And once I reach THE END, I go back to the beginning and start thought it again, (mostly) ‘revising’ this time—though that often entails adding brand new material to the draft. I’ll usually go through at least three complete revisions, from start to finish.
I tell you this because a writer had better love their story/novel: because often we end up reading that story over and over and over and over and… You spend time coming up with the story or novel idea and constructing the characters, setting, and plot. You spend more time writing it. You spend even more time revising. By the time you slip the manuscript into an envelope, attach it to an email to send off to a market or your editor, or upload it to Submittable, you should have read over and revised that manuscript a several times. In fact, you’d better have done so because true ‘first drafts’ are—in my experience—not anywhere near publishable.
So how do I start the revision process? Often the best first step is to ‘gather opinions’ from others. That could be via your editor (if you already have one), or a workshop group, or ‘first readers’ you trust to give you their honest reaction, or just from letting the manuscript sit until you get some distance from it. Why? Because it’s difficult for a writer to get ‘outside’ their own story and judge it as if they’re reading someone else’s work. You’re too close to the work: you have in your mind the vision of what you intended, of how you saw the story in your imagination, and that can prevent you from seeing what’s actually there on the page.
I see revision having four ‘levels’ of sophistication. Level One (the lowest) is simple copy-editing: fixing the common technical surface-level errors. As someone who has taught creative writing at a university for a couple decades, I’ve seen lots of such errors in my students’ work. Here’s just a few examples (with examples borrowed from student stories):
- • simple homonym errors (“break” for “brake”).
- • lack of commas leading to strange phrases (“My three favorite things are eating my family and playing music”); too many commas (“Stop clubbing, baby seals”); no commas before proper names and titles of address (“I don’t know Sarah” rather than “I don’t know, Sarah”).
- • sentence constructions which hinder understanding (“Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on” implies that the television finished the assignment).
- • the “It” possessive/plural issue. ”It’s” means “It is” — always! “Its” is the possessive form.
- • not re-reading your autocorrect suggestions. (My all-time favorite from a student’s work: “There was a genital knock on the door” where genital was an autocorrect for what was intended to be ‘gentle.” At least I hope that’s what happened.)
- • missing words in sentences. (“It was obvious Marsha feelings for George.” I’m guilty of this, especially when I’m writing quickly!)
- • using an identical word too closely together. (“The desperate group was desperate to reach the town.”)
- • phrases that don’t quite say what you intended them to say. (“I make people smile and then I shoot them. Sometimes I flash at them, too.”—the narrator in that story was a photographer…)
Most of those mistakes should be caught when you re-read your manuscript. So make sure they are!
Level 2 revision is “Craft-Level” revision. To me, that means addressing issues like:
- • tense shifts—pick a tense, any tense, but stay with it. You can’t go from present tense to past tense from sentence to sentence or even paragraph to paragraph.
- • point of view errors—unless you’re trying to write in Omniscient POV (good luck with that; it’s not easy), you should only have one POV person per scene. You’re not allowed to go ‘head-hopping.’
- • stilted dialog—here’s a snippet of dialogue from one of my students’ drafts: “Are you reminiscing about how uplifting it was the last time we perambulated this way?” While that’s correct English, it doesn’t sound like anyone I know speaking. I mean, really, when’s the last time you used ‘perambulated’ in conversation?
- • “using the second cousin instead of the right word” (to quote Mark Twain)—as in “A stroke of lightening lit up the sky.”
- • use of outright clichés—you should avoid clichés like the plague. 🙂
- • infodumps—where you stop the narrative flow dead by tossing out backstory exposition that should go elsewhere. The rule is this: only tell your reader what they must know to understand what’s happening in the story at that moment.
- • shallow characterization; shallow settings; poor plot pacing—these are all rather subjective things to catch, but they need to be caught.
Again, you can often fix the above with a close re-reading. In fact, I’d suggest reading your own work aloud to help you hear many of these, though having other readers/workshop groups critique the manuscript can help.
Level 3 revision is line-by-line, word-level work. The precision stuff. You need precision in your prose so that your words should communicate exactly what you want them to communicate. For instance, what’s wrong with this sentence?—“Dead leaves scattered the ground.” I know what that sentence intends to say but what it actually says is that the dead leaves are tossing the dirt around, not that “The ground was scattered with dead leaves.”
Are you using active or passive voice? Both are grammatically correct, but in fiction, active voice is preferable. Active voice is “The student filled out the paper”—the subject of the sentence does the action; passive voice is “The paper was filled out by the student”—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon. Passive voice tends to sound formal, more ‘term paper’ than fiction. Passive voice also tends to slow down the pacing.
This level of revision is where you need to explore characterization issues and allow the reader to see deeply into your protagonist and other characters. A scene isn’t just about moving a character from point A to point B. You have to ask yourself: how does the character feel about her/his decision?; how is the character affected by the decision?; what factors went into the decision?; how has the character’s past experiences influenced the decision?; how does the movement change the character?; what is the character thinking or feeling or remembering? And, of course, you should know the answers to all of those questions.
Finally, all of the metaphors, similes, and other images you use should match the mood you’re trying to set and/or the theme of the piece… though they shouldn’t be too obvious, as this student’s work was when describing a character with a gun: “She had a death grip on her revolver… She was so nervous she was sweating bullets… She shot a glance at her companion…”
The fourth and last level of revision is “Killing Your Children.” This is when you have to dismantle and put back together an entire story or novel because it’s not working. That’s the hardest type of revision, because it usually requires means tossing away good writing at the same time. In my novel IMMORTAL MUSE, I ended up deleting two entire ‘artist’ sequences and a partial one—Amedeo Modigliani, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Artemisia Gentileschi—because they didn’t work thematically with the overall story arc. That was around 40,000 words in total; a short novel’s worth of scenes that had taken me months to write. I replaced them with two other artist sequences.
If you ever end up doing something similar, don’t actually delete those sections. Cut them out and save them—you might find material in there you can recycle at some point in the future. Those scenes are still in my computer…
The truth is that most writers can make changes every time they read their work-in-progress (I certainly can!). Writing is thus potentially an eternal process. At some point, you must say “I’m done!” Say “I’m done!” too early and the work isn’t as good as it should be; never say “I’m done!” and no one else will ever see your work.
To repeat: revision is the difference between the mediocre and the spectacular, so take the same care in revision that you take in creation. Make certain that your manuscript is your absolute best work. This is the goal for every writer in Wild Cards, and what George (as our editor) and Melinda (as our assistant editor) insist upon.