Monday, October 10, 2011

Six things I know to be true about revising

My NaBlo posts are in the form of letters to my journal about my revision process. Along the way, I'll include Home-Made Revision Workshop posts, and my Friday Challenges.

Dear Journal,
Today is Thanksgiving Day. After being on the planet for 59 years - close to 60 - I now know that Thanksgiving is always on the 2nd Monday of October. Doesn't seem to difficult to figure out,  does it?   It eluded me until this year. I kept thinking it was a lunar date like Easter, but couldn't see why it was. How did I get it this year? I said to myself 'Self, I'm sick of not knowing this basic thing - find out - remember!' and so I did. 

Are there things out in the world that you'd like to know, but you haven't let them morph from irritations to must-knows? In the past few years I've set myself to learning a few of these things (bigger than the Thanksgiving one). I used to think I couldn't bake - now I make upside-down plum cake, chocolate hazelnut torte,  sticky-vodka-chilli-pepper-almond cake (a real grown-up treat) and 12th Night Cake, among other complicated confections. Oh, I always cooked but baking was mysterious. Nope, it wasn't - I just had to follow instructions. And I learned to knit - now I'm knitting lace - the epitome of tricky knitting. Same thing - didn't think I could follow a pattern. But I can.  I've put down my accordion of late but I'll pick it up - I was really getting somewhere with Oh My Darling Clementine. It was hard - made my brain hurt but good too. 

Now we come to revisions.  I didn't have the faintest clue as to what they really were. Oh, sure I knew I had to clean up my manuscript but like knitting and cake making - it all seemed so dry and mathematical and boring. But like those things, when I got down to it - I realized it wasn't. It is thrilling to apply some principles, exertion and patience and get something less than wildly madcap - more Peter Carey than Jack Kerouac - but still magical. 

Here are the 6 key things I've learned in my revision process:

1. Like cooking, you must have some sort of plan of attack and the discipline to use it Unlike baking, you are free to change the plan  but if you just go in with some hazy idea of 'making things better', you will make a dog's dinner of it - not a saleable manuscript. The discipline will apply to not only the plan of attack but the how of it - I will spend 2 hours a day or revise three chapters or 35 pages. 

2. You must apply exertion - joyful exertion. This isn't digging ditches but it is somewhat less exciting than the heady days of getting that first draft down. It is good to decide you will revise so much (two chapters seems to work for me) a day and really do it. The joy comes when you use your discipline and your inner grit together. Joy will rise up in you - I promise.

3. You must apply patience - a singular lack of aggression. This will be slower than you'd like - or that is how it is for me. Keep all dreams of being published out of your brain pan. Keep your brain pan only full of little sticky notes like 'weed out clichés'  'pare down the prose' 'cut by 10%'. When you realize that your big fat-headed, impatient, author-to-be is yelling in your face - calm him or her down. "Sweetheart, we have work to do - then we'll write our Giller acceptance speech."

4. You must apply mindfulness. A simple rule will help with this. If it isn't on the page and the story needs it - put it down. That doesn't mean you need to make your manuscript simplistic or condescending. It means that you shouldn't be all mysterious for the sake of your subtle brilliance. If you need your readers to know that your protagonist is shy - you must show her being shy somewhere. Mindfulness is both micro and macro. Look close - down on the bug level of the lawn of your work - does that word work? - should I make this a separate paragraph? - and from up on the highest branch - why should readers care about this person? - will readers get my theme? 

5. You need to apply generosity. This is part of the macro-editing or revision process for sure. Being generous in writing means that you have a heart-reason why you write - this is the time to remember it. Writing is the gift of showing others your view of the world. Don't be coy, or falsely modest - if you didn't have something burning in you to share, you wouldn't create an entire universe in loving detail to do so.

6.  You must apply the sword of insight. Why a sword? Because this is where you cut through your dreamy fuzzy thinking about your work to expose the true story. It is when you kill your darlings, wake up to the pith of what you are saying and say it. It is the sword that will cut away all that is not clear to reveal your story in blinding, brilliant clarity. It is very hard to wield this sword but the more you work with it - the easier it will get. 

These six things I know to be true. For those of you who want to know my inspiration - as always the six paramitas of Buddhist practice are inherent in these truths. 


Clarissa Draper said...

I like your six steps and I agree you need those six things. Cutting out the unnecessary, looking deep to see what needs changes. Well done!

H. L. Banks said...

Happy Thanksgiving! 12th night cake, now that is a new one to me. My fuzzy brain memory of the bard's comedy is struggling to vision - interesting.

LOVED what you had to say the revisions, no puzzlers there, just a lot of hard work.

Margot Kinberg said...

Happy Thanksgiving!! And thanks, Jan, for sharing the lessons you've learned. I especially like the empowering nature of those lessons. What writers do is pretty amazing, and if we don't remind ourselves of that, it's hard to keep slogging through it.

Jan Morrison said...

Clarissa - thanks deario, writing it reminds me...

HL - we often have a 12th Night Party here. It is on the sixth of January. The cake has something in it - a bean or something akin. The person who gets it is the King of Misrule or the Queen and must be obeyed for the rest of the evening. Old and fun. google 12th night cake - it is really more a bread than a cake.

Margot - Thanks - I have to get to the meal and sweeping up the mounds of dog hair any minute now but I've been writing our October murder mystery - and it is going great guns - utter and absolute nonsense but loads of fun!

Southpaw said...

Good advice for editing and life in general.

lissa said...

6 very good things to follow but if only I can really follow them well. but it does take time and effort and thought so someday I might be able to get it done.

great advices. I don't know remember dates either. here in the US, thanksgiving is in November. I only remember since I have a calender in front of me.

have a sweet day.

Jan Morrison said...

Thanks Southpaw! Guess you'll be hibernating soon, eh?

Lissa - oh sure you can...just do it bit by bit and pretty soon you'll be there - with a habit ingrained.

Kittie Howard said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Jan, to you and yours. We have a King Cake tradition in Mardi Gras Louisiana that's similar.

Thanks for sharing your tips. Each held a wisdom that touched me. And thank you for stopping by and following me. I am very happy to follow you.

Jan Morrison said...

Ditto Kittie - an aside - my protagonist in the mystery series I'm writing is Kitty MacDonald. Love women named Kitty (or Kittie!)

GigglesandGuns said...

Excellent list. Right on point. And much more difficult than they appear.

Words A Day said...

Thanks for this - you're so right. And I recognise myself in that hazy approach, (time for joyful exertion).

I think you're great to get two chapters a day revised. (I spent two hours revising three pages today,so think I need to up the ante!)

I found this post incredibly helpful, yes, planning and descipline are paramount -and as you said, heart:)

Ciara said...

I love your six things. I was so confused. When did Thanksgiving move to October. LOL. You weren't talking about the American Thanksgiving. :)