Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Work of Revision

By Kasie Whitener

In October, at the SCWW Conference, I presented ten pages to a literary agent who represents the kind of work I’d done. She was not impressed with the pages, but she was impressed with the story as I described it to her. She told me to revise it twice and send it to her.
What does it mean to revise?
The easy part of writing is getting the story down. Bleed on the page. The real work is in revision. I’m not the first or only writer to say this. All really good writers know it to be true.

In my English classes I often break the word out: Re – vision. To see again.

A true revision should only resemble the original work. After revision, characters are more complex, settings are clearer, plot arcs are steeper, the stakes are higher.

Here is my tool box for revision in three parts:

First, map the story. I’m what’s called a pantser, I don’t plan the story first. I let the characters talk and write their stories as they tell them to me. It’s a magical process wherein unexpected things happen and new characters sometimes show up and hijack scenes.

But during revision, the story needs a map. What does the timeline look like? How are the chapters organized? Does something happen in every single scene?

The map can help determine if there are scenes that are superfluous. I love a good strip club scene, but if it doesn’t move the plot along, it needs to be cut.

Second, nail down the characters. All those people who wandered in have something to offer the story. Or do they? I heard a writer named David Coe refer to the character study as the ABC’s:
·         Attributes or what the character physically looks like, does he have a limp? A lazy eye? A scar?
·         Backstory or where the character has been, what he’d experienced, what made him who he is and
·         Circumstances or the current situation in which the character finds himself.

Map the story then map the characters and the two maps will work together to provide motivations for each participant in every scene.

Third, re-read the scenes. I like to print a hard copy in an alternate font. That way the work doesn’t seem like mine. The printed page enables me to look at the scene with fresh eyes.

Get distance. Take time away from the work so that you can be removed from your original intentions. Distance forces the work to speak for itself.

Revision is a long slow process.

Revision is the real work of writing. In revision, we use craft and structure to elevate our ideas from mere stories to written work.

As I’ve worked through the manuscript that agent asked me to revise, I’ve found the electricity that was missing from the first iteration. Sometimes I catch myself just reading my own work. Then I remind myself, it was good before, but revision makes it great.

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