Monday, September 19, 2011

Revising - a home-made workshop - Lesson 1 - revising for structure

To all who are in the throes of revising - I am inventing an on-line workshop to commence today. This is how I want to do it - I will post a focus for each session's revision, with examples of how I'm working it with my own material. I'm leading but not teaching - I want to get better at this, as I'm sure you do. I will work  from Susan Bell's book, The Artful Edit, with other material, as it seems worthy. If you want to work along - then by all means join in the conversation by posting your revisions, concerns, enlightenments and support! I envision this as something I will do up to three times a week.
As everything I do, I'm making this up as I go along. Please feel free to let me know what is working for you, or isn't, and anything you can imagine to help us focus and have fun while we revise, rework, self-edit, rewrite. If you want to borrow chunks of this (or all of it) for exploring on your sites - then go for it.
In the same vein of the Friday Challenges, this is self-directed work AND I'd love to hear if you take it on.
By the way - I'm not talking critiques here, I'm talking about looking oneself, with a hard and jaundiced eye, at what we've got on the page. (can an eye be hard? see, I'm starting already)

The movement of the writer between macro and micro revising

Bell suggests that we work best in revising or editing, if we can move between the micro and macro. We will naturally be better at one than the other (or most folks will), and will tend to spend more time on that which we like or do better at. And so, our work may become unbalanced because of it. For instance, if I'm better at the micro skills of language, repetition, clarity, dialogue, etc....then I might have wonderful polished prose without cliché and tedious redundancies. That's all very well, but if there is a singular lack of intention, structure and character, (all macro-view edits) then my piece will fail to do what I want it to.

The dilemma becomes one of skill - how does one move smoothly and beautifully between searching out over-used words and making sure there is a continuity of tone? What I've been doing is backwards and I don't necessarily recommend it, but hey! Here goes. Because I don't exactly plan anything, my draft was fairly raw when it went to the person who's editing for me. Most of her edits on the paper were micro type edits - this is clichéd, wrong use of word, paragraph confusing -  but some is structural - this spoils the tension, too much on this which doesn't add to your theme or story.  Also, I made a huge structural change by deciding after I'd started working with her edits, to change the tense of the book from 1st person to 3rd. As well, we've had ongoing conversations about the structure of the book - imagining a different beginning and moving great chunks of text around or jettisoning it. My point is that moving from the micro to the macro isn't all bad. Most writers will tell you the opposite - do all the macro stuff first - why struggle with the clichés in a passage that might not even exist after you've done a major macro sweep? And I have no answer for that.

When I was delivering my first child, the Scottish midwife suggested I get on my hands and knees. I won't tell you what I suggested she do, as I've come to forgive myself for things uttered during labour. The point is that although I'm quite sure she was correct in her belief, that for most women, the position is helpful in labour. But not for me. She might as well have told me to sprout wings and fly out of the labour room - oops no - come to think of it, it was a supply closet - a lunar eclipse had filled the labour rooms and beyond.  I think that will be the same for some of you with any technique or convention when it comes to revising. I would suggest that we try some of these things if they seem imaginable, and not to fight our gut instinct with others.

This is all to say that my workshop will fluctuate between the micro and the macro - let me know how it goes, as we labour to deliver these works, in pain and joy!

Today's workshop is to focus on Structure (Rhythm and Tension).
Take the chapter or paragraph or story you are revising and ask yourself these questions as you reread:
Is the drama dramatic? This is mainly a question of the lead-up to a crisis - too long and the reader loses interest - too short and it feels phoney.
Is your narrative sagging at this point? Listen to your own boredom with anything you write! Don't think you're more intelligent than your reader - if you are bored (even if you've gone over it a gazillion times) you can bet the reader will be too.
Do I need to reorder the scenes to have the rhythm and tension needed to serve the story? Building a story is like designing a house - we think the bathroom has to go in this one spot - then in the middle of the night, we wake up our partner with a brilliant solution to another problem - it requires moving the bathroom. Can we do it? We will always be reluctant to change the order of our work - we think once we have it down that way - it is the only way to do it. But that is not true. Notice that I said  - it is like designing a house. In the designing phase we must be able to freely move elements around until we get the pleasing and useful shape. Writing is as much plastic as that.
If you are writing mystery then structure is all the more important. In literary fiction it can sometimes take a lesser role - as long as everything else is sharp. But no fiction can do without tension. None - tension is what makes the bridge stand up so we can drive over it. Even if all we want to know is whether the young man eventually leaves home - we need to feel the tension of his choice.
Now, I'm going to go apply that to the chapter I'm revising. I will post before and after photos!
Please jump in, in any way you wish.


Margot Kinberg said...

Jan -What a fabulous idea for working together at revising! I like your overall theme of micro- and macro-editing and I agree that most of us tend to prefer one or the other. I know I do (micro-editing for me).

That's why I found your first theme - structure and tension - so helpful. As I revise, one thing I have to stop and think about is whether the scene is working. Not the sentence length or use of grammar or that sort of thing, but that part of the story. Sometimes I have to go back and completely re-work it so that it crackles more.

One thing I think will help me do this better from the first is to rely less on the outline of what I write (hard for me!) and just...write. I can't do that yet, but it's a goal.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

I love this. Love, love, love it! You have the best ideas, Jan.

Clarissa Draper said...

What a great way to do edits. I don't even look at the micro edits until the macro is done. I know I'll have to do micro on the new stuff anyway. Great project.