Like an alchemist
Revision is like metallurgy, and good storytellers must become good alchemists. How do you know what changes to make? How do you know what things to leave alone?
I developed my story-building model based on the principle that any story can be developed to its full exactly as it’s told, and to change that story in any way creates a new story. Hence, one need change nothing! Instead, one need discover what should never have been there in the first place.
Your story is gold, but in the process of telling it, some impurities slipped into your mixture. Your goal when you revise is to eliminate them by working your magic and turning them into gold as well.
That is the alchemy, and if you are scratching your head wondering what the heck I’m talking about, then please read on.
The multiple universes of story
It’s tempting to get carried away with revision. After all, you can change anything you want. You can add a character, or take two away. The story changes then. In fact, it is another story altogether. You’ve discovered something new. You’ve slipped into another universe with its own laws, and if you truly want to discover that one, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and work everything out once more. Never mind that wonderful universe you outlined then wrote into existence.
It’s so tempting to go into that other universe, even though it seems the same. I assure you, it is not! (If you have been the victim to circular revision due to entertaining these seemingly innocuous changes, then no doubt you can relate.)
The true, unique story you discovered
“Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “I had my protagonist Al’s whiny mother tag along as a side-kick for my whole novel. You’re telling me I shouldn’t cut her?”
Well, actually, I’m telling you neither. What I’m suggesting is that you discover WHAT your true story is and ask how Al’s whiny mother helps to serve that story. You spent time carefully outlining everything up to this step, so I presume you had a good reason to put Al’s whiny mother in the story. If not, then, by all means, Al’s whiny mother might have crept in somewhere while you drafted and now you have to go back and determine just how to set things right. Maybe she has to go (if she was never part of the story to begin with), or maybe (which I think is more likely) you have to discover just what function she serves in the development of your story arc.
This is exactly what it means to unearth the true, unique story you discovered. Not just with Al’s whiny mother, but with every single sub-frame and the elements in it. If you’re ruthlessly cutting elements from your story to avoid hassle and get it to your publisher, then you’re taking the easy way out. Granted, sometimes it’s liberating to let loose with the sledgehammer when you’re doing renovations—at least, until the ceiling falls down on you.
Sledgehammers aside, your goal is to find the “true story” that lies somewhere in between what you’ve written and what you can appreciate to be the true story from the post-draft outline you developed in Step 11. Bring the two in sync, bit by bit.
The art of doing this well is not something I can tell you how to do—the ability to do this is what makes you a writer and is very much a “gut” thing. However, having a method by which to anchor yourself as you do it is very much a calculated move that does not depend on gut and chance, and it can spare you the headache of listening to many “instincts” that take you in wild circles.
You’re going to apply this treatment again and again and again, very much like peeling back the layers of an onion, until you get it just right. For example, maybe the first pass over your manuscript you will try to determine each sub-frame’s inner and outer turning points, contrasting emotions, and contribution to the overall frame. Next time, you might pick out more specific senses, list characters and places involved, note things you need to research, write out background information, and realize a few more things about what function that sub-frame needs to serve for it to “belong” to the story. The time after that, you might layer in more alpha reader and cold-read notes, and tick off things from your to-do list. (Keep in mind, you can visit this sub-frame again any time. You don’t have to go from the beginning to the end before coming back to it, and you don’t have to visit every one the same amount of times – only the particularly troublesome ones.)
The important point here is don’t approach revision as a reader. Your goal with revision is not to read your manuscript and fix the words. You will get bogged down and lose sight of the larger implications of the changes you make. Instead, use your post-draft outline as a tree-hopper to keep you focused on higher levels of story—see your sub-frames as units and look at what the components are doing through the words. Zero in on larger goals, like trying to show various contrasting emotions and how a dialogue can be rehashed to meet this need, or revamp a “dead” scene so it actually has a function that fits with the thematic function of the other scenes it is part of. Layer in various senses so they suit the mood, modify one character’s behavior after you write out her background motives, or give someone boots when you realize the journey through the snowy forest would be quite tedious with shoes.
‘Til every inch glows
You are tempering steel. You swing your hammer in the middle and beat down the bumps you see between blows. You flatten one, then appreciate another better. Back, front, front, back. A little on the edge, several in the middle, one for the tiny bump that stands out against the ruddy light. Your arm is tired, but you can keep refreshed by the improvements you see with every swing. It keeps you going until the whole thing’s glowing and smooth and ready for another bath.
Expect revision to take you an average of 2-3 hours / sub-frame by the time it’s all said and done. That’s about 200-300 hours if you’re writing a 100,000k word manuscript (approximately a 400 page novel). Given the 200 or so hours it should have taken to write the draft (again, assume 100,000 words), this equates to half a year of Monday-Friday 9-5 work.
Does that sound like a lot? It should – after all, full-time writers are not full-time writers because they laze around in their slippers all day. More importantly, though, does this compel you and excite you as you think about the riches you can bring to the surface as you develop this unique story universe you set out to give birth to?
Persevere, and you won’t regret it. When this is all done, your story is ready for beta readers and another cold read of a special sort that involves taking time off work and assuring all your friends that your absence is not a reason for any concern.
But we’ll talk about that next week.
Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.
You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog: