Posts Tagged revising a novel

Writing a slow-burn book? Three surprising ways to measure progress

600px-Arbol_de_PiedraSome novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)

With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.

1 Conduct a research interview

A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.

2 The like/don’t-like list

Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.

(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)

As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.

3 Write a synopsis

This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.

nyn1 2ndPsst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel

Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0

Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.

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The power of suggestion – what can you leave the reader to fill in? (With help from Victoria Mixon)

If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.

It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.

Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.

She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.

The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.

We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.

But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.

So we left off the other arm.

And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.

Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.

When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.

In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.

Revision

As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.

Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.

In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.

Only what’s needed

You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.

This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.

Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.

The power of suggestion

Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.

This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.

When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.

And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.

(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)

Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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Vision and revision: don’t miss our final seminar (with daring URL)

At Victoria Mixon’s again, for the last in our current batch of editor chats. It’s been great fun doing the series, bouncing ideas back and forth with a like-minded writer and editor. Even better, commenters are saying our series is as good as a writing conference – so thank you for that!

Tonight our subject is ‘Vision and revision’, or the buckets of perspiration that follow a bolt of inspiration. We talk about brainstorming and developmental editing, the imaginative quarrying that makes a nebulous idea into a solid novel and how, in the midst of all that sweat we keep our vision fresh. Heady stuff – come and see.

(Thank you, Compujeramay on Flickr, for the photo) Plus Victoria was dared by a naughty tweep to give the post an outrageous and topical URL. No, I didn’t encourage her at all. Nothing to do with me.

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