Thursday, January 20, 2011

Friends with scissors

Revision is my friend.

I know this. In an intellectual sense, I am well aware that my style of writing is suited to multiple revisions, and I'm certainly much more happy with a well-edited, heavily revised story than I am with the floundering first draft. I even enjoy some parts of it -- finding the plot holes that need to be fixed, the sudden realization that of course this character would do this instead of that, and all I need to do to show it is cut this section here.

But revision's not a comfortable kind of friend. If the first rush of composing a new story is like the glamourous, bubbly friend who shows up with tickets to That Thing You Love and buys you tea and little chocolate pastries and gives you sparkling advice about your relationship problems, then revision is the kind of friend who will help you move, but will at the same time point out that maybe the last few life choices you've made have not been very good ones. Revision will tell you that no, the bandage dress doesn't work on you, then remind you to file your taxes.

Revision's also the kind of friend who'd tell me that my metaphor has gotten horribly tangled and shouldn't I do something about that?

This is all at the top of my mind right now because I'm trying to wrangle several chapters in line, and it's been difficult. First I wrote three long overblown introductory chapters with action, derring-do, and very little connection to the plot. Then I swapped them for a great little independent story that was set far too early to be any good as a first chapter. Then I put the first three chapters back, only chopped down to size . . . and none of it was working.

At about this point in a draft, I usually go nuts. New projects start popping up, short story ideas clamor to be written, the internet becomes even more shiny, and it'd be so easy to just set this all aside for a little while . . . except I know if I do that, it'll be ten times harder to start again. (Totally not speaking from experience here. Uh-uh. No way.)

But the thing about revision -- and about the imaginary friends that I've conjured up to anthropomorphize it -- is that it has the same goal I do, at heart: to make this story the best it can possibly be. The friend who tells you the bandage dress doesn't work will, ideally, point out the other ways you can play to your strengths. The chapters that looked so pretty first time through aren't helping you tell the story. So after a week of fruitless cutting, rewriting, re-cutting, and so on, I finally sat back and said okay, this isn't working. What do I want to do with these chapters?

The answer was easy: introduce the characters, introduce the world, begin the conflict. And my inner editor or revision fairy or however you want to look at it said you have two chapters that do just that already. Start with those, and don't worry about the rest.

It's a little annoying to know that those lovely overwrought chapters have been chopped off and left to wither in the sun. But knowing that I have the beginning makes up for a lot, and more than that, the story's strength now comes through.

I think part of being a writer (warning: gross generalization ahead) is learning this balance, taking what inspiration gives you and what revision tells you won't work and learning to weave the two together. We're the weaver in the middle, between the spinner of stories on one shoulder and the wielder of the scissors on the other. (And now I've got the image of shoulder-angel Fates in my head. That's not going away any time soon.)

So I've got some work to do on that front. But revision is my friend, we've got the same goal, and I've already written enough to keep me going. Onward!

...and yes, metaphors like the ones above will be the first things to get cut in the next draft.


Helen Lowe said...

Another great post, Margaret! Revision via the second draft is my favourite part of writing, the part where I get to take the rough-hewn form and pare and shape, bring out a nuance here and add shading there to really make the story rock. I find it more relaxing than writing new because I already have the basic form of the story to work with. :)

Sharon S. said...

lol! poor little metaphors. As a reader, I *love metaphors. They add depth and complexity to my reading experience. But, back to the subject...I love it when an author posts those unwanted pieces on their websites (after the book is released). It is a great way for the reader to get more insight into a character or situation. Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels series) does this all the time on their website and the fans (that would be me) eat it up!. So, don't worry about those poor little orphaned paragraphs, they can get a second chance at love! (I revise my posts all the time, makes me feel smart )

nymfaux said...

well, revision still sounds like a bitch, even if it is your friend--just your PMS-y, bitchy friend that no one else likes, and you can only take in small doses, the kind that you only invite to be polite, but know they already have plans, so they won't be able to make it, kind of friend.

Also, TOTALLY love your title--I started laughing when I read the first paragraph :)

and as for the paragraphs that are spectacularly awesome, but don't really fit--I like Sharon's comment about author's giving out freebies and extras to us poor starving readers...but also, I'm not sure if I'm the only one, but I sometimes like to recycle--just because I can't use this piece RIGHT NOW, RIGHT HERE, doesn't mean it won't be perfect somewhere else. :)