The Cleaver and the Needle

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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.


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.


Revisionary: Three Thoughts on Fixing What’s Broken

I’m not sure if it’s my favorite (favourite?) distinction between British English and American English, but I spent a good chunk of my first term at school in Wales being alternately charmed and confused by “review” and “revise.” Revising, there, is something you do to prepare for an exam. (At the end of the second year, my cohort and I concocted ornate revision schedules that we nearly managed to follow.) Review is used much more often in the context of “a formal review.” You know, the kind of thing you might revise for.

What’s important to either usage of either word is that they involve seeing again, looking intensely. When you look again, the goal is not to see the surface of the story (the writing you’ve already done), but the story underneath. See what the underlying principles are. See where the story has gotten away from its best self. Those are the spots you need to go back to, to make the story match the vision. (It’s just as true, incidentally, of nonfiction and academic writing, even if they don’t have “stories” in the same way.)

I posted about editing not too long ago. I described it as selection, keeping the best bits and weeding out the worst. Editing is also, though, a reaction. As writers or editors, when we go to edit a work, we are reacting to what’s on the page. Revising (in the American sense) is an active process, one in which we make the good better and the replace the bad. We push and pull and coax the story toward the vision we have for it.

That vision can change. We refine it when we share our writing with our favorite co-conspirators or hand it to an editor. When we look again, we might see things that were in our blind spots for the last go-round. Whatever changes, though, there are a few things that help (me) with the revision process:

1. Have a Plan

Even if you are an inveterate pantser when you write, having a plan makes revision smoother. Some fixes are simple enough to handle intuitively. Most, though, require a bit of forethought (which is not easy to do while you’re writing). What other parts of the story does a particular scene touch? More importantly, why are we changing what’s there? What do we have in our mind’s eye or ear that we’re pulling the story toward? How are you going to get there? Change in voice? Altering a character’s actions? If we’re replacing a bad section, how do we avoid making the new one bad? The more you have figured out about the problem before you go mucking around in your story’s guts, the more likely you are to have the right tools on hand. Plus, you’ll be less likely to leave a spanner in there that will necessitate more work later.

2. Keep Your Eyes Fresh

This is vital for editing, too, and one of the best reasons to have somebody who is not you look your work over. When I get into a story, it’s hard to hold on to the big picture and the small picture at the same time. It is also particularly hard to kill your darlings when they’re cozy at home. Work environments matter. Mess with them. If you’re sticking to soft copy, try opening your document in a different program. Print it to .pdf and read it without being able to change things. Personally, I love having hard copy to scribble on, even if it’s not always practical. Do what you can to disrupt the habits of your eyes. You’ll notice more—not just bad things, either.

3. Remember That it is Your Work
(in both senses of ‘work’)

The story you’re revising is yours. If it gets out into the world, it will have your name on it, no matter how awesome your editors or workshoppers were. If you’re self-publishing, you get to make the final decisions. Even if you’re not self-publishing, you don’t have to do everything your interlocutors suggest. I’ve mentioned before that I had an excellent advisor for my master’s thesis in music history. She taught me an enormous amount about making academic writing good writing. That didn’t stop us from disagreeing, though. I’d get drafts back marked to pieces in mechanical pencil. Some (many) of her suggestions or corrections were good ones. There were others that I didn’t agree with. I left them in the subsequent drafts. If they came back marked a second time, I’d think harder about changing things. That didn’t happen very often. It would have been a much worse document without my advisor’s input, but it was still my name on it.

Revising is also your work to do. Your editors point out problems. They might suggest fixes, but they won’t make them. As the writer, it’s your responsibility to fix what’s broken. Revision is work. It is often a grind that forces you to fight your own bad habits. Revision can be a painfully unfun slog. It’s just as much part of being a writer, though, as zooming through that ecstatic first draft or smiling at the fact you’ve changed nothing into something. When you get to the end and you’ve polished everything to gleaming? It’s worth it.

So go forth and work with fresh eyes. Know that I’ll be trying to do the same over here.

Editing and Choice

Editing is selection. It’s choosing what stays and what goes, what can only stay if it changes, and which things are connected. Editing is not just sandpaper or scalpel, applied to remove the bad. Sometimes editing is a rubber mallet to bang out dents (or selectively add them). Sometimes it’s a wrench to tighten loose bolts. Sometimes, of course, it’s a blowtorch.

As I work over my NaNo material, I’m doing a little of all of those things, even though this is just a pre-edit intended to help me figure out what’s missing. (I probably need another 20-30,000 words for the novel to be complete.) I’ve run into some ugly knots—one with timelines occurs quite early—and a plethora of minor things that I’ve nudged about. There are some that I still need to decide on, too: capitalization of some things and just what the hell the monetary system looks like (I’ve referred to six or seven denominations of coins). ’Tis the season, even if it is not national editing month just yet.

It’s also a season for more abstract editorial projects. Whether it’s a Christmas letter or answering a well-meaning inquisitor at a holiday party, we select the bits of our lives that we feel are the best or the most relevant or sometimes just the least worst. We consider most of the same things we do when we edit our writing (fiction or non-): What’s our audience? What do they want to hear? How far should we bend things to fit into a pleasing shape? What might “sell,” and how interested are we in providing it? The break between calendar years is an opportunity for even more abstract “editing.” What are New Year’s resolutions if not attempts to edit the fabric of our lives? We want to keep the good and remove the bad. Carrying that out can be as rough as earnestly digging into our own work.

Editing is the way we put our best selves forward. I try to remind myself of that as I edit. When I have them, I remind my students of the same thing. Too often—and especially when we work on our own material—we reduce editing to mere proofreading. We want to catch our typos and mend our inconsistencies. Maybe we go a small step further and remove some passages that don’t work. If it’s a NaNo project, we might be more comfortable tossing the junk we piled up chasing wordcounts, but not necessarily. There are ready aphorisms about lightning and lightning bugs, about killing our darlings…but really, I think that good editing aims at the questions I cast as abstractions a paragraph ago. It’s up to the person wearing the writer’s hat to provide the final answers, but the editor ought to be asking those big questions. (That’s one of the reasons that finding somebody else to share the editor’s hat is so useful. They don’t think they already know the answers.)

Editing is a chance for us to really engage with a work, to figure out what makes it tick. That’s the challenge but also the thrill of it. It’s taking something cool (hopefully) and making it better. It’s using every tool in our kit to make our best choices. The consequences might not be as dire as picking the wrong cup in a Grail Knight’s challenge, but still, choose wisely.