Today, I have author Stephanie Guerra here with us talking about the revision process. Welcome Stephanie!
Revision: Slogging Uphill with an Ax
Much has been written about revision, and the only thing I know for sure is that it’s necessary, and that it looks different for each writer. Scholar Robert L. Kelley said that “Writing is rewriting,” and I want to tattoo that on my fist so I can bop myself in the nose with it when I’m being lazy. Approaches to revision are numerous, and range from the uber-organized (wall-length plot maps) to the haphazard (scraps of paper floating around) to the violent (delete, start over). It’s a multi-layered process for which different strategies may work at different times. I’m happy to toss my plug nickel into the vat of revision advice, but I’ll stick to global observations, because I don’t have a new way of using Post-Its, or any trick that hasn’t been written about many times before. What I do is write each chapter over and over and over and over, and ask the same poor set of friends to look at it each time. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from my experiences.
Time is the golden ingredient and the key to revision success. Our brains like to form neural pathways; it’s what they do. So when we read the same manuscript repeatedly, the pathways get deeper, grow privacy hedges, and practically develop white painted footprints for us to follow. The trick is hiding the manuscript for a long time—months, if possible. Even a year. I know, I know; nobody feels like they have that kind of time. But if you’re serious about writing, you can cycle projects and build a system where there’s always something to pull out that’s been marinating for at least a few months. And believe me, all the problems and mistakes leap out like thugs with bats: right there! So obvious! How come you didn’t see/hear/feel them before!
Flexibility is the second key to revising. My best revisions come when I force myself to imagine other possibilities for my characters, even when I’m perfectly happy with the plot as I’ve written it. What would be funnier? More interesting? Raise the stakes? I never keep a scene just as I put it down the first or second or fifth time. Those are placeholders. The real scene (maybe version twenty or thirty) develops over months of experimenting. For instance, right now I’m revising a middle-grade novel that will come out in 2013. I’ve written five different versions of the ending, and even though I’ve got a good one that will work, I know I have more tries to go. It’s not wasted time. I’m testing until something rings so perfect that I can’t bear to touch it anymore.
Then I’ll show it my friends and they’ll tell me why it doesn’t work after all, and I’ll have to go back and rewrite it again. Which brings me to another main ingredient for revision: honest readers. They fall into two categories, the fellow writers/teachers and the friends/family. The fellow writers and teachers are usually honest right off the bat. The friends and family I have to beg for real criticism. I tell them that my feelings won’t be hurt, that I need criticism to get better, and that the greatest gift they can give me is the blunt truth—and they still say, “It’s nice.” Then I beg some more and they find something wrong with it, and I thank them profusely. Their insights are even more important than time in terms of making the piece better.
Effective revision also requires ruthlessness. I love the guy (Arthur Quiller-Couch) who said, “Murder your darlings.” I have whole closets of dead darlings. Because the truth is, I’m not as profound or funny as I think I am in the heat of the forge, banging away on my project. There’s a joy of creation that robs me of all perspective—which is fine, and as it needs to be, otherwise I’d never find the drive to write. But once the “darlings” cool off, sometimes I see that although clever or nicely worded, they just don’t fit. Or worse, they seem pretentious. Or maybe the whole chapter is a darling that meanders away from the plot in a slinky dress. Which is when the ax comes out.
Finally, as a subset of dead darlings, I want to talk about paring extra words, because that has helped me a lot with the final tweaking stages of revision. There are so many great quotes on this topic that I’m going to let others say it for me. However, if you are the next William Faulkner, by all means ignore these party-poopers.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” —Mark Twain
“Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” —William Zinsser
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” —Thomas Jefferson
“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
I’ll close by saying that the lens you use to view revision can impact the outcome. A horrible chore? Boring, painful, stab-me-in-the-eye-with-a-red-pen? I’m guessing that’s got to affect the quality of the work on some level. I’ve grown to love revision, because I know I have the stinky first draft behind me, the place holders are standing, and now I’m free to play with ideas, characters, and language to my heart’s content.
For some concrete revision tips, please see this excellent post.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Guerra has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame. She teaches children’s literature and a seminar in writing instruction at Seattle University. She also teaches creative writing at King County Jail, and researches and speaks about literacy instruction for at-risk and incarcerated young adults. She would like to encourage her readers to donate used books to juvenile correctional facilities. Stephanie lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and children. TORN is her first novel.
Find the author online: website
ABOUT THE BOOK
Stella Chavez is your classic good girl: straight As, clean-cut boyfriends, and soccer trophies . You’d never guess that Stella’s dad was a drug addict who walked out when she was a kid. Or that inside, Stella wishes for something more.
New girl Ruby Caroline seems like Stella’s polar opposite: cursing, smoking, and teetering in sky-high heels . But with Ruby, Stella gets a taste of another world—a world in which parents act like roommates, college men are way more interesting than high school boys, and there is nothing that shouldn’t be tried once.
It’s not long before Stella finds herself torn: between the best friend she’s ever had and the friends she’s known forever, between her family and her own independence, between who she was and who she wants to be.
But Ruby has a darker side, a side she doesn’t show anyone—not even Stella. As Stella watches her friend slowly unravel, she will have to search deep inside herself for the strength to be a true friend, even if it means committing the ultimate betrayal.
Thanks to Stephanie Guerra, one lucky winner will receive a print copy of Torn!!
- Giveaway open to US residents.
- Comments are appreciated, however, you must fill out the Rafflecopter form in order to enter this giveaway.
- Please read the Giveaway Policy before entering.
- You have until midnight (EST) on 6/1/2012 to enter.
Good luck to all who enter!