Revision as Refinishing
So—as one does when one is stuck at home—I’m in the middle of revisions these days. The sort of revisions where you basically know what you want to do going into it. (Things like, Make this character more complex and Give that guy stronger motivation for what he does and Make her less of a goody-two-shoes and so on.) And I have notes for what I want to accomplish—pages and pages of notes.
So you’d think it’d be a simple thing to effect the changes. And occasionally, it is. But the majority of them take quite a while… far longer than it took to write up the desired changes in my notes. Which is funny, because my notes are detailed—sometimes to the point of containing actual dialog and/or interior monolog—and one could pretty much copy and paste them into place.
Which leads us to the sticky part. The “into place” part, I mean.
First of all, you need to find the perfect place within the manuscript to insert the new text. You can spend quite a bit of time just trying to locate it. And if the perfect spot doesn’t exist, then you need to create it… which means further writing, just to make a space for the incoming information. And then, once the new text is in place, there’s something else we need to do…
We need to break out the refinishing skills.
I do a little antique restoration—furniture and machinery—and when you’re fixing a broken record cabinet, for example, the repair itself is by far the easiest part of the process. Hiding the repair—making it look like it was never broken—is much harder.
Let’s suppose the cabinet you’re restoring has a crack in it… maybe the wood has shrunk over the past century and left a gap in the middle of a panel. So you squirt some glue into the break, pull it tight with clamps, and let it dry. Voila! The break is repaired—it’s once again structurally sound. But it’s also obvious to anyone who’s really looking where the break was.
So you scrape off the excess dried glue. Then you fill any little gaps and irregularities with wood filler. Then you sand the joint smooth. Then you try to match the original color… or maybe that’s not possible so you strip and sand the entire thing. Then you stain the wood, which might require multiple applications to get the right tone. Then you apply the correct finish, which will almost certainly require several coats… with appropriate curing time in between each. Then you apply whatever final polish the piece requires.
Only then—when it looks like nothing was done at all—is it really done.
Which is almost exactly the same process we need to use when revising our manuscript. Assuming we don’t want the edits to be visible, that is.
In other words, we can’t just pry open an existing paragraph with a crowbar, shove the new information in, then duct tape it closed again.
Let’s say we want to go back and reinforce to the reader that our protagonist—Sara—is really bright. We could wedge it into basic description, telling the reader “Sara was short and muscular, with long, auburn curls and an IQ of 150.” Which is painfully clunky on several levels. (Personally, I almost never describe characters via exposition. It comes out in context, or through relevant dialog or interior monolog, or not at all. But my MO isn’t necessarily right or wrong—it’s just me.) The real issue, however, is that it’s simply telling the reader. Which can take the reader right out of the story. Because if Sara really is smart, we should see that organically through her actions and words and thoughts.
So we need to go back through the story and weave in subtle bits here and there that show the reader that Sara is really perceptive or talented or academically notable (or however you wish her gifts to manifest). Demonstrate that she’s doing really well in AP Calculus… show her beating a nationally ranked chess master… have her figure out who the thief is through sheer brainpower. But each of these scenes—and we will almost certainly want several smaller ones vs. a single big “reveal”—will have to flow naturally from the previous scene, and not just be stuck on. Then we need to smooth out any gaps in the material via multiple read-throughs, looking for any roughness or irregularities and polishing them with each pass. Then we need to check for continuity errors, making sure the timeline of events still makes sense. And of course Sara has to be relatively self-consistent throughout—not perceptive one day and oblivious the next just to make the plot work.
The reader needs to incrementally gain the understanding that Sara is bright through observing her doing a series of things that paint a picture of intelligence… through events that you’ve shown the reader, and are believable in the bigger context of the story and the characters contained within.
So please don’t just tell us that Sara is smart. That’s like gluing the broken board back together and telling us it’s fine, when we can all see that it’s not.
This is one of those non-intuitive cases where the more work you do, the easier the job seems to an outsider… until you finally do so much work that it appears no work was done at all!
At that point, congratulations—you’ve hidden all the seams. You likely won’t get credit for it (other than perhaps from your editor, who’s seen the before & after pics) but the reader will have the wonderful experience of reading a story that seems to flow smoothly and naturally… almost like the writer did nothing at all.
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This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.