Saturday, November 12, 2011

Revision - Part 2

While draft two was more complete - the characters more fully fleshed out, the plot holding together, and the major themes and imagery developing nicely - there were more questions to address in the next draft, and, once again I was faced with the dilemma of starting over with a blank piece of paper of editing from what was already on the page.

I should point out, I did read through draft two and made notes to myself, quite extensive notes, about how scenes needed to change. This was my "time to get real" draft, and anything that I was still in the hopeful stage about (as in the "I hope this works, but I know it doesn't") had to go or change. In some cases I left exercises for myself in the margins - list ten things Matt's feeling about Katami, list ten things Rachelle can say to Matt, ten things Alan's thinking - or rewrote passages on the back of the page. Once I began working on draft three, I would put Post-it Notes on the appropriate page as ideas came to me or I knew I would want an image to echo in specific scene later in the novel.

Draft three was the "figuring out the best way to tell the story" draft - the time to work out the structure of the novel (now that I knew what it was about, were there ways in which the form could work with the theme better?), really nail down the timeline, figure out what's working and make sure there wasn't anything in the novel that hadn't earned its place there. I also got really, really real about dialogue and became ruthless with what I call placeholder dialogue - the kind of dialogue characters speak when you know they have to have a particular conversation but you don't know enough about your characters yet to make it subtle.

Once again, I started out thinking I would cut and paste and edit from draft two. I mean, the draft was pretty solid. It was my MFA thesis and my thesis advisor called it one of the most fully realized theses she'd ever read, so why shouldn't I be able to zoom through this draft simply making changes to the existing text? And, once again, I tried for a couple of weeks to do this before succumbing to the blank document method of creating draft three. In this case, the blank document made it possible to break the novel open in an interesting way.

Like I said, this was my "get real" draft, and I had a transition in the first ten pages that had bothered me from the time this was a short story. In every draft I jumped from the very dramatic opening where Matt's older brother dies in a car accident right to the funeral. Then I was faced with the problem of having to introduce a whole bunch of characters (some of them major) in a gang shot - here's Matt's mother, here's his stepdad, here's the stepdad's mother and his sisters, and the dead brother's ex-girlfriend, and, for good measure, let me throw in Matt's soon-to-be-girlfriend whom he hasn't even met yet but he imagines her sitting in the church with them. It was character soup.

Faced with the "get real" moment, I asked myself what I was gaining by not showing the four days between the accident and the funeral. The answer led me to the creation of fifty or so new pages, new scenes that let me introduce all these characters one at a time, give them their moment on the stage, and then move on to another moment.

This change set the stage for draft three being a complete overhaul of draft two. The difference this time was that nothing was created that wasn't needed, wasn't demanded by the story. Maybe 15,000 words out of the 100,000+ in draft three were also in draft two, and there's only one scene in the entire novel that has survived pretty much intact from when this was a short story. It's still the same story, but it's like buying a used car and replacing all the major components and refurbishing the interior so it's still the same car, but everything's shiny and new and it runs great.

Now I'm in the "telling the story in the best way possible" draft and finally able to edit rather than rewrite. This draft focuses on the language and making sure that all the components are doing as much work as they possibly can. If there's a detail, it has to add something to the reader's understanding of character and plot. This draft is also about making sure that the flow in the piece as a whole feels continuous and builds and ebbs where it should. This is the moment for noticing the mechanics - how is the story being told (what's the mixture of narrative and scene)? Does the dialogue sound authentic for the characters? Do scenes begin and end where they should? Is there enough variation or do I have too many characters doing things that are too similar? Do I use the same description too many times? Is it solid or are there still moments where I'm only hoping it works?

So far, it's going well, and I'm really, really happy with the novel. Even though almost every page is bleeding red, all the parts are in the right place, the characters have their own space, and no one is wandering around in search of a plot anymore.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I love the term character soup. The implications go a long way as the flavors start to blend.