The Cleaver and the Needle

Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.

Yet.

I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

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