My wife is a freelance editor and literary scholar, so I asked her to be my novel’s first reader. I figure that her comments might not be quite as marred by the “friends and family” bias as others because she of her experience working side jobs as a freelance editor. Hopefully, that experience would allow her to read it with above-average objectivity.
If it doesn’t, then I’m afraid to see what my manuscript would look like otherwise. She recently finished the book and ripped me to shreds.
Not just on line edits, either. Whole sections, events, characters, and chapters are marked for major structural revision.
That I now have to actually do.
Which gets me to the point:
Starting to Revise is Harder than Starting to Write
I made a ton of notes for revision based on various issues I saw when I was working or things I’ve thought of since finishing. I have dozens of bullets and paragraphs just waiting to be addressed. Add to those the 300+ pages of line edits and marginalia from Jenn and my other readers, and I’m scared.
Sitting down and staring at a blank page is one thing. It’s daunting and intimidating, but once the words start flowing, the fear subsides and the narrative takes over.
With revision, though, the complete opposite happens. You sit down, and instead of a blank page that gets filled up, you have 86,000 words that you have to read, sort, edit, revise, rearrange, and generally manipulate. It’s not like creation. This is the nuts and bolts of it all, the moment when writing becomes actual work.
The first 10-12k words of the novel are what need the most attention–at least immediately–so I decided to jump in and start there. I always knew they would have to be reworked. I wrote the first part roughly two years before I settled down and made myself finish it. It was a foundation.
Between writing that foundation and finishing the novel, I learned a few things about writing fiction, and two of the most important are the importance of chapter length and just what “show, don’t tell” means.
My process is simple: I read the chapter of my manuscript on which Jennifer made her comments, see if her comments are structural, thematic, or line edits, then I check my notes to see if any of them are directly related to this section, and then I dig in, while keeping chapter length and “showing, not telling” in mind.
By focusing on these two issues at first, I’ve been able to get myself used to revising such a long document.
On Chapter Length
I don’t like long chapters. I don’t like writing long chapters, and I don’t like reading long chapters. Longer chapters don’t keep me reading more; they make me feel as though I am not making any progress in the book. So when writing, I wanted to make sure that I kept the chapters short and easy to get through.
The problem is that 500 words is not a chapter. I didn’t really understand this a few years ago. So my first job in revising was to merge the short chapters together and separate them into scenes where the old chapters broke (using thehandy dandy, time-skipping mark: ###).
I tend to like chapters between 2,000 and 4,000 words each, so my first six to eight chapters now exist as Chapters 1 and 2.
Unfortunately, even something that sound as simple as a few line edits really isn’t. I love Microsoft Word, but it doesn’t handle long documents very well. So I downloaded Scrivener. I love it. LOVE IT. I spent some time separating each chapter and section of notes into separate documents (Scrivener can later compile them into one), and now I can just view and manipulate any single part of my novel I want in isolation. The freedom is remarkable.
Show, Don’t Tell
For the life of me, I had no idea what this meant until recently. I would read columns about it, and I would think, “I do this already.” When people read my fiction, they follow the characters around and see what they’re doing. I’m showing them my story.
That might be true part of the time, but when I went back and read the beginning of my manuscript, most of it was narration explaining how things worked. It was quite literally storytelling.
For example, I have two characters in a previously forbidden hallway. The new area is remarkably different from what they’re used to. Instead of rustic decor with lots of wood, low light, and warm earth-tones that make them feel comfortable, the new area is exactly the opposite. It’s stark and sterile, and has strange statues lining halls, which are made the sandstone walls and steel floors. It’s a whole new world.
The problem with the scene is that I wrote about it in the novel almost like I did here. I was conveying the basic idea, but neither the characters nor the reader experienced it.
So in revision, I deleted the vast majority of narrative paragraphs and now the duo walk through the hall and discuss their reactions to the area as they happen. I have them talking about the unknown statues and what they could be. I have one character touch the wall and comment about it being cold and ugly instead of just having a narrator mention that’s what happens.
That’s what it means to show and not tell. Just within the first two chapters, I’ve revised a lot of telling into showing.
“Jimmy didn’t sleep well” is telling. “Jimmy rubbed his neck. He scribbled ‘new pillow’ on his shopping list as he gulped black coffee” is showing. And it’s hard to do when every base instinct of me as a storyteller is to explain in minute detail what is happening.
But I’m getting the hang of it.
Just another 80,000+ words to go.