June 25th, 2008

me w/z-z

The Shape of the Novel

To my mind, one of the hardest things about starting a revision is finding a way to step back from what you've written so you can see it more clearly. We're in our novels up to our necks by the time we're finished. We've created every scene, every character, every bit of action. It's very much a case of "the forest for the trees." Who can tell how beautiful it is? The trunk of a massive pine tree is in your face.
website statisticsHow can a writer achieve the necessary detachment she needs in order to assess what she has created clearly and ruthlessly?

Yes, ruthlessly. I can't think of a more uncomfortable situation of trying to be truly honest with yourself about your writing than that of standing in front of a mirror, under florescent lighting, in the early Spring, trying on a bathing suit. You've worked out all winter. You're feeling good. You know you're in tone. Yet ... could it be? ... what are those bumps on your upper thighs?

There's no point in kidding ourselves. If what we've written doesn't work, there's no alternative but to fix it. Find it and fix it. Because if we don't, no editor or reader will love it. (I won't carry on with the depressing bathing suit analogy. There are always cover-ups.)

What's a writer to do? There are as many ways of solving manuscript problems as there are writers. What has worked for me is to take a literal step back. I think of it as running away. I print the manuscript out and lay it out on the dining room table in two rows, chapter by chapter, left to right, beginning with chapter one. Then I walk away. Then I come back. Walk away. Come back. When it feels less hot, I circle the table for awhile. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for weeks. However long it takes; always keeping a cautious eye on those rotten piles of paper. I'm afraid of what's on that table, make no mistake. It's huge. It's messy. I don't even know where it came from. Heck, isn't there a load of wash that needs to be hung out?

Gradually, slowly, it begins to feel approachable. After all, it's only paper, right? And so I pick up the first chapter. And I read it. And by reading only it, it feels smaller. Doable. How's my opening? What does it promise the reader? What I meant for it to promise? And what about my scenes? Do they drag? Have a lovely definitive shape? Serve any purpose in that chapter at all?

But let's get back to you. How's your dialogue? What are the first words your character utters? This is very important. Their first words can be extremely significant. Or should be. How about your conversations between characters? Often, you can literally hold up the pages in front of you and see your dialogue running out of steam in front of your eyes. The exchange goes on and on. The sentences look feeble. It feels endless. Nothing much is being accomplished by what the characters are saying. Highlight the sentences, if it helps to see them more clearly. What are your characters talking about and what does it tell us about them and how does it inform your plot? Is it aimless, empty talk? Get rid of it.

If you've ever thought about outlining your novel, now may be the time. I never outline before I begin, but I've sometimes found it helpful to write down what happens in every chapter after I have a first draft. Many times, I don't even get past chapter one before I realize I haven't done something I need to do. If I keep going, I can identify chapters that are lean, need more action/emotion/movement. Scenes that are out of place leap out at me. I have to cut and paste because they don't belong where I've put them. E.B. White calls this "transposition." He was a big cutter and paster. He felt that manuscripts often have serious flaws in the placement of their material and talked about the need for writers to change from the expository openings so typical in first drafts to the "dramatic beginning of the book" during revision. The excerpts I used from Kelly Barston in my post yesterday are a good example of doing that.

Revision is when you discover whether you have a shape to your novel or not. Every chapter needs to have a shape. So does every scene within every chapter. If you're not sure what that means, read a book you admire while you're circling your manuscript. Maybe it'll be a book in the same genre. Read it with an eye for how every scene begins, rises, and falls, all while moving your plot and characters to a new place. Note how chapters start and end. Write down the first lines of each chapter to learn more about transitions. Ditto with the last line of every chapter to know more about enticing endings.

It's all about digging and chipping away and enhancing and shaping. I've always been amazed to read that sculptors can see the shapes of what they want to sculpt inside what, to the eye of anyone else, look like nothing more than huge masses of rock or marble. How can they see anything? How do they chip away until they reveal what it is they saw? Revision is like that, in a way. What we may have meant to communicate might remain obscure until we take things away and prop other things up.

Courage and practice. That's all it takes. Okay. Much courage and much practice. Oh, and between now and next Spring? Try increasing your weights and varying the repetitions. Don't skim on your cadiovascular days. There are muscles in there, screaming to get out.