Say It Again, Pam!

Revising a draft of a novel can be a painful process. Things that aren’t working have to be rewritten or tossed out, elements that are missing or neglected have to be not just added but woven in seamlessly. A scene may have to be stood on its head, or moved back or forward to a different chapter.

This month I’m taking an online course in revising. The first class will be meeting (if you can call wearing a headset while staring at a screen “meeting”) tomorrow. The handouts and homework are already interesting, and I’m sure I’ll learn a few things. But it occurs to me that the instructor’s view of revision may be a bit different to my own.

In the process of revising, the keys for me are continuity, plausibility, motivation, challenge, and agency. Adding sensory detail to help the reader visualize the scene is also part of the job. But character arc? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Continuity is a concern in matters small and large. I once changed the spelling of a character’s name, but the old spelling was still visible here and there in the “final” draft. In my new book, I have a character discovering an important clue in a trash can. But how would he know it was important? I had to back up to an earlier chapter and show someone mentioning that part of the crime to him, so he would recognize the clue when he saw it. And how exactly to fit the new bit of dialog smoothly into an existing scene? That’s a skill in itself.

Plausibility and character motivation are closely related. It’s vital that the characters do what they would actually do in the scene. If your plot outline has the characters going north when their natural desire would be to go south, you have to fix it. If you just write a line of dialog where somebody says, “Hey, let’s all go north!”, as happened to me in a draft of The Firepearl Chalice, what you have is the characters peeking over the author’s shoulder to read the plot outline. This is a deep mistake. If you need them to go north, you’ll have to find a plausible reason why they themselves want or need to go north.

The principle of challenge is this: Don’t make life too easy for your lead character! If you can think of a plausible way to make her life more difficult, put it in the book. And having done this, make her solve the problem herself. That’s the “agency” part. Don’t let the lead off the hook by giving her a vexing plot problem and then handing her the solution on a silver platter. Make her work and sweat for it.

This is how the revision process works. You notice where you have failed to do these things, and you fix them.

One of the handouts for the class advises the author to “color passions.” Among other suggestions in that section, I find this: “Break the [character’s] passion into parts. Revenge, for example, can come from anger, shock, resentment, embarrassment, shame. How can you explore each?”

But let’s be frank. If you’re still exploring the possible sources of revenge, you’re not revising a finished manuscript: You’re tinkering with a stack of notes. You haven’t even started writing your novel yet. By the time you’re doing revisions, you had better know exactly why Charles is taking revenge on Wilbur, and how he goes about it. If, during revision, you decide that Charles’s motivation is inadequate, then fine — find a better motivation and revise accordingly. Writing a new paragraph that attempts, by way of interior monologue, to explain his motivation to the reader is not likely to work. You’ll probably want to add a new incident, perhaps in a flashback, that builds up his motivation. Having added this new scene, you’ll then need to keep a close watch on the continuity, because everything in a novel potentially connects to everything else.

Continuity, plausibility, motivation. Also, a saw, a chisel, a hammer, some nails, and a pot of glue. That’s how you revise.

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