Revising, Ellen Style
I’ve never done this before, but—hey, that’s how you keep from getting old, right? Try new things? So here goes—I’m folding you in, inviting you along, opening the curtain, and showing you how the sausage is made.
Yesterday I began the revisions to The Bone Trench recommended by my editor Gretchen. I’ve posted about this novel’s long birthing process several times including here; the novel is based on my first published short story which you can read here. The novel has had many Beta readers; an earlier version was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition; this its first trip through the meat-grinder of a professional editor. When I finish the revisions, I’ll write a query letter, with Gretchen’s help, and then send my baby into the agent world. If you want to see how I move from here to there, hop on board. I’m giving you a blueprint for Revising, Ellen Style. Keep the parts that work for you and throw the rest away.
First some background. Gretchen sends a “Reader’s Report.” It’s an eleven or twelve page synopsis of her thoughts on characters, plot, technical details; it’s not a line edit of the manuscript. I absorb her comments, mull over them, cogitate on them. Really, I do. My brain has a knee-jerk reaction to criticism so I always step back and let it seep in. Shrug the suggestions onto my shoulders and walk around wearing them for a while to see how they fit.
I’ve done that, so I moved on to Step 2.
In Step 2, I copied the Reader’s Report and re-titled it, “Working Reader’s Report.” I then deleted all the good things she said. With the two pages left . . . That’s a joke. But I do delete anything I’m not going to be working on (see title of document). Of course, I’ve absorbed the successes during Phase 1. This is crucial. I did some things really well; I need to keep that in mind as I shape how to revise.
In Step 3, I pare down Gretchen’s words to her action points. Here’s an example:
Demonittes: These are an interesting addition, but their metaphorical role isn’t as fully developed as it could be, so they don’t seem fully necessary at this point. Their greatest role is when they are infesting the Arc of Salvation, and their infestation of Jesus seems to be more something that is there to mirror their infestation of the Arc as opposed to a clear-cut issue in the plot.
Here’s what I wind up with:
Demonittes: A clear-cut issue in the plot.
Step 4. I begin making notes at the beginning of the Reader’s Report on my thoughts for addressing each spot that needs help. I put the notes in chronological order as to how they will appear in the manuscript. If my feel for a solution is more concrete, I write the notes in dialogue or a phrase I want to use. If not, I will write a question that needs to be answered to get to the solution or a concept that needs to be worked out. I do this for every point Gretchen raised that I know needs addressing. For the really easy stuff (minor confusions, hyphenated words, etc.) I go ahead and make the revisions in the manuscript.
As I perform Step 4—writing in the notes above or correcting the manuscript itself—I delete Gretchen’s conversation on that particular point below. Solution written; problem deleted. As I work, my words are growing, hers are diminishing. The document slowly becomes my working outline of revisions. What remains of her words will be 1) points for which I haven’t yet arrived at a solution; and 2) really important points to which I want to return after I’ve finished all revisions and ensure I’ve adequately addressed them (e.g., “Jesus should care more about private prisons;” “Mary comes across as the less competent of the two at times.”)
What about suggestions I’m not sure I agree with? I leave Gretchen’s words in the document at the bottom. As I revise, the wisdom of these suggestions might become clearer. For The Bone Trench, this section of the document is only one point; Gretchen suggested little I disagreed with.
An important thing happens during this process: I begin to see where two problems are connected. Where a solution can be made to work double time. For those of you into Myers-Briggs, I am an INFJ. One of my strongest needs is the synthesis of disparate parts; that’s why my tag on my old blog was the Creative Synthesizer. This is how the website analyticalperspective.wordpress.com explains it, quoting an article by Dr. A.J. Drenth:
While INFJs are deeply theoretical, they are less impressed by theories built by a mere assemblage of facts or data. Rather than being “fact” oriented, INFJs concern themselves with forging new connections and reconciling opposites by way of their Intuition. They feel that everything is somehow connected to everything else, forming a vast and interconnected web. For INFJs, discovering truth involves getting a better handle on the nature of this connectedness and the holographic patterns of the universe. In fact, this happens to be one of the signature strengths of their Ni, which subconsciously processes and synthesizes copious amounts of information, wraps it up in the form of a symbol or metaphor, and proceeds to upload into the INFJ’s consciousness.
Having all of Gretchen’s suggestions in front of me at once enables me to see the floating pieces and connect them one to the other until the final picture is clear. Knowing this about myself has made my re-visioning path MUCH easier.
So. I have my working outline finished. My “Working Reader’s Report” on The Bone Trench is three pages; two pages of my notes and one page of Gretchen’s points. My two pages of notes contain a great deal of shorthand and represent a lot of work still to be done. For example, my notes read, “The Great Metanoia is trying to be born but there’s a blockage; MM dreams about the 3 Marys.” I must write the scene where Mother Mary realizes the truth of the blockage and the scene where she dreams. Then I must decide where in the narrative they belong. What I’ve described to you in this post is merely the organization I go through to begin the re-writes. Yep, lots of work.
Which I will do now.
How do you organize for revisions? Do you find your particular personality needs a particular process? Are there “revising rules” you’ve discarded? Ones you’ve made up? I’d love to hear about your process.