Revision: Firing Up the Chainsaw

Like everything else in writing, there are many ways to approach revision, and I’ve written quite a bit about the process elsewhere.  But every writer and every project has unique challenges.  For NewBook, I’m choosing a slower (since I have no deadline) but thorough and reliable method to cope with its nature and history.  I  will work the whole manuscript through  successive layers, front to back each time, to ensure that it’s structurally correct, in order, and then that the construction on that structural base, that foundation, does what it’s supposed to in each scene, and finally that the “finish”  or “curb appeal” of the writing suits the foundation and the structure on top of it.

Why that method?   Because it has the best chance of finding and fixing any serious mistakes.   I can tell (and so can the few people who’ve see it at various states) that this book started well before my present level of recovery from that concussion.  Before that, there was more than a year of progressing from not being able to write, not being able to conceive of a storyline, etc. to writing badly, to having “spots” of good stuff in mass of not good, to storylines that petered out, imagination that stopped dead 10 or 20, or 30 pages in.   This book started while I was writing better overall, but still with stretches of “stuck in cement” and it’s had one dead end after another, chunks that proved not to belong to this book after I wrote them.  It’s also had chunks of “boring”, from infodump to rambling stuff that, in the end, wasn’t plot-relevant and didn’t reveal anything about the characters, to conversations that happened because nothing else was happening.  And it felt “different”…writing felt different, the book felt different, and not (mostly) in a good way.   For a long time I didn’t know if it would become a book or be another failed attempt.  The only way to find out was to keep going.  So I know there are places that will need cutting, and places that will need filling, and characterization that I’m now seeing more clearly to be enriched.   My head is clearer than it was 18 months ago, a year ago, even 6 months ago.   I would not then have been able to “see” the book as I see it now, let alone re-vision it.

So now I will do what “outline” writers do first: analyze it, dissect the plot, the story arc, the motivations of characters, the underlying “deep logic” of it, and compare that to the actual book.  Then fire up the chainsaw to make the big cuts that will leave the real structure visible (to me, anyway.)

5 thoughts on “Revision: Firing Up the Chainsaw

  1. Is revision difficult? I found revising my dissertation to be nerve wracking in some places and others I was asking myself “Why did I write that?” or “Where did THAT come from?” It’s wonderful to know that you are continuing to recover and see progress.

  2. I actually like revision…most of the time. I can fix what’s wrong, reshape it, polish it…and nobody will ever know what was there before I chopped, pruned, whatever it was I did. I like to turn in something that the editor at least respects (editors never like everything, and in my experience editors–the professional editors–do make books better overall. Nearly all of them.)

    It can be nerve-wracking when you’re on tight deadline. It can be nerve-wracking if your editor (when you have one) and you have a different vision of the project overall. Or when your process and your editor’s are so different that you’re driving each other crazy. For instance, I don’t mind an editor pointing out that something is fuzzy, unclear, confusing, boring (I’m annoyed with *myself* for not seeing that before). But I do not like an editor telling me what to do to fix whatever problem they spotted, rather than telling me what the problem was.

    My first editor, bless her, wanted me to cut a whole large segment (it may even have been a whole chapter…) from Oath of Gold, and told me why, commenting that it was beautifully written, and she loved the feel, but she had to cut x-thousand words and that was the one chunk that did not actually contribute to the plot…nothing happened that was essential to what came later. And I thought a minute or two, realized she was right, and agreed.

    Mind, you, if I’d been certain male writers, I wouldn’t have been told it couldn’t be umpty.dumpty.whatever thousands of words long, but I knew my place…it was only my third published book. And I was happy how it came out. I was extraordinarily lucky to have Betsy Mitchell for my first editor, for the Paks books, and then again later for others. I understood her approach; she understood mine. Her editorial letters always made sense to me; I could see what was wrong and a way forward that would work…and so on.

    I’ve had other superb editors, and just a few that I had trouble understanding. Revising for someone you admire as a professional, but cannot seem to “get” is very hard, and very depressing….it just saps your energy and your confidence. You can tell that they’re thinking you’re not that good, or a difficult writer, or crazy, and you’re struggling to figure out how they got *that* out of what you wrote and what the heck they want instead (as your work keeps coming back for another round.) I’ve heard from friends with doctorates that dissertation writing is often like that…a committee that wants to pick and pick at it, wanting this change and that.

    1. Just realized that it might be helpful to explain WHY I don’t like an editor to tell me to fix a problem “like this” rather than leaving me options. Editors are busy people, shepherding many books through at a time, and they do not have the deep knowledge of a book (usually) that a writer does. Another of my favorite editors once wanted me to take a dog out of a book–the bit about the dog, she thought, was just self-indulgence (she assumed I had dogs), and wasn’t going anywhere. But one of the reasons that she’s another of my favorite editors was that she listened to me…I knew that in the multi-book group, the dog was going to be important because it was going to bite someone at a critical moment. “Be sure, it does, then!” she said, and I cut something else (nibbled bits off severalmany other things) to get the word count down to the required length. I didn’t know, at that point in the series, that the dog would do more than bite a bad guy and save a life…would save a lot more simply by being a dog (a fertile male dog.) I didn’t know who it would bite, or when (it wasn’t in *that* volume) but I knew it would. Tell me it’s too long…suggest a cut, sure, but let me into the decisions. Tell me it’s too slow in chapter 14, that the conversation between X and Y goes on too long, that nobody really cares that much about the minutiae of fly-fishing if it’s not part of the plot…I’m fine with that. But let me choose the words, because the words have to fit with the other words…and quite often a change on page 457 requires changes in half a dozen other places. (Continuity is a PITA.)

  3. Getting out the chainsaw – the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Little bit of humor. But I like the minutiae of fly-fishing – little more humor.

    But seriously, I do appreciate all that you do AFTER you have finished writing. I have read somewhere that good writing means good editing – and since the object is to come up with a product that is both good to read and good to sell, it is never easy.

    AS for cutting things out – could you make a collection of bits and pieces lying on the cutting room floor? Even if it never appears in print or does not contribute to the salable story, good writing is not to be despised. I also realize that since you would have to do the work, you call the shots, but it would be interesting.

    Also, I do not mean to pester you all the time with comments and questions – but in a way, you are one of two living authors I can so pester -(the other is Ms. C.J. Cherryh) – most of the people have pass on, some many years ago. I can not interact with these people so I have to give you their well deserved praise.

    Stay safe and stay sane,

    Jonathan up here in slowly freezing New Hampshire

  4. Jonathan: Lots of the changes are simply fixing sloppy writing…writing “through” means not poring over every sentence “as she is wrote” but accepting that there will be stuff that’s well below par. This morning, for instance, I changed a sentence that could be read as two people were killed years ago…who were not killed years ago (and one of them is still alive.)

    For things like that, there’s nothing on the cutting room floor. I changed the sentence, the old version’s gone into electronic recycling or whatever. (Yes, I know, sometimes you can find fragments on a hard drive. Except that when you’ve accidentally deleted the whole file and try to recover it, it’s not that easy….) The sentence in question was in Chapter Two; I’m now working in Chapter Three, and the old Chapter Two is history. I’m jotting down notes for structural work later, and occasionally cleaning up something I notice, minor (but annoying) stuff. Here’s one I just did:

    “The rest of the house looked dusty and untidy, but Ky saw nothing obvious but the one smashed lock downstairs.”

    The echoed “but” needed changing or the whole sentence needed rewriting. Secondary problem…the “one smashed lock” wasn’t a smashed lock, but a missing lock–it had been chiseled out of the door. Deeper problems…would the vandals really have missed their chance to do more than they did? Who were the vandals and why were they there? Just having the house vacant for a month or so wouldn’t (in that area) attract them…yet. Did the former tenant’s kids resent being made to leave and did they sic their friends on it? Would they have had a chisel along to get that lock out if they were the tenants’ kids’ friends? Would it be better to have a smashed lock or door (no need for a chisel) and more damage, or just let it be a mess because the tenant, annoyed at being told to get out, we need the house now, left the dirty dishes in the sink, a scum ring around the tub and dirty toilets?

    And what’s the point of detailing the mess anyway? Does the source of the carelessness, or vandalism, matter in this story? (No.) The house is going to need a lot of work, yes, but ten years of tenancy with no close supervision will do that just because tenants don’t care as much about a place as live-in owners, usually. It needs a thorough deep cleaning, repainting in places, minor repairs, etc. How much notice, in that legal system, has to be given tenants before moving them out? Who actually went there to give notice? Is there any local supervision, inspection, etc? Initially I was thinking the house was empty and Ky could move in whenever–a few days to check that the power’s on, get the keys, pack some cleaning supplies, etc.. But it’s been tenanted up until ….when? And why? If Ky makes the request to make that house available, how long until she can move in? (Not at all clear in the current writing.)

    In other words, noticing that echoed “but” is only the beginning of thinking this section through. It needs to make sense in terms of all the Vatta books…the eight written and those to come…and be clear who did what when, and why. Fixing the “but” by itself wouldn’t do anything to clear up the confusion that at least some readers will feel. And so the simple change I made this morning (not elegant, just changed “but” to “though”) isn’t the end of the problems or the fixes.

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