The Writer’s Chisel

Next month I’m going to be participating in an online writers’ workshop, or class. (The terminology is a little vague, and it’s their terminology, not mine.) This particular free-for-all is called “Getting the Big Picture.” It’s about revising your novel, an activity that one hopes will make the novel a more fulfilling or enjoyable experience for readers.

I suppose the flip answer to “How does one revise a novel?” would be the old saw about what a sculptor does: You start with a block of stone, and then you carve away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. This implies, of course, that you know what an elephant looks like. That’s the core problem for writers: If you don’t know what an elephant looks like, sooner or later (and probably sooner) your chisel is going to slip.

The mere fact that you’ve read a lot of novels is not necessarily going to help. A well-written novel is a lot like a Photoshop rendering. If it’s skillfully done, you won’t notice that it’s an illusion. The painstaking craft will be invisible.

I’ve done quite a lot of revising. My Leafstone quartet (see the banner above) started out in 2005 as a single bloated novel. Fortunately, it was never published. In 2012 I started rewriting it from the ground up. At most, about six pages of the original version made it into the final text. It’s an entirely new novel that uses most of the same characters and the same large-scale plot structure. That doesn’t mean I just rewrote paragraphs. I created new incidents and threw out old ones that weren’t working. I changed the mechanics of important magical systems. I invented new characters, and killed some of them off. The entirety of Book 4 (The Firepearl Chalice) is new.

And having written all of that by 2015, I revised it in 2017. I replaced whole chapters with new material, because those chapters just didn’t work.

If I hadn’t known what the elephant looked like, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that. To simplify the metaphor, I would say you have to know where you’re going. What’s the destination? You may need to redraw the road map in order to arrive safely (or at all), but if you don’t know where you’re going, no amount of revision is going to help you.

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