Revising Fiction : It’s Not Just About Dusting the Commas

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions
woman doing CPR on mannequin

The rough draft of a novel may feel very “alive” to the author, but very “dead” to the reader. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The rough draft of my first novel needed resuscitation. If EMTs could have shocked it with a defibrillator, that might have brought it to life. Revision gave me a chance to do just that.

The sad truth is that I knew how to write, but I did not know how to revise. That is to say, I did not have a clue about how to take a smoothly written, but ultimately “shitty rough draft,” and transform the manuscript into a readable book. I was confident—too confident—that the years I had spent as a magazine editor had equipped me for my long-delayed, and much hoped for, glory days as a best-selling author. What I did not know back then—here, I’m talking twenty-five years ago—was that writing does not mean getting to the end of the first draft and then sending the manuscript to a copy editor to dust the commas.

Writing means revision. No matter how good or bad your rough draft is, you can always make it better.

And why should you? Because you want the end-product to be a book readers will enjoy. Ultimately, you want to feel proud of your book.

The Rough Draft

All writers feel a sense of triumph when they complete a rough draft of the novel that’s been living inside their heads. Finally, they’ve finished! They’ve achieved their goal of completing a novel! Woo hoo! But wait a sec. Finishing the rough draft gets you a long way toward your goal. But, it’s only the first step. In the next step you will need to revise what you’ve written.

Revising Fiction Means Stepping Back

“Revision” means to revise, to change the words, to amend, to make better. But on a deeper level, I like to think of revision as “re-envisioning” what happens to a character or what occurs in a plot. A writer must be willing to reimagine the story, to play the scene a different way, or to bring new characters onstage to mix things up.

  • Revision may mean playing the “what if” game and imagining a different ending.
  • It may mean flipping a scene.
  • Revision may require you to change the balance of dramatized scenes versus passages of exposition–the long passages of internal monologue in which there’s zero conflict.

And that’s not all. You may have to adjust the story’s voice. I’m revising a novel at the moment, and so these issues are “top of mind,” so to speak. I’ll take up a few of them in this post.

The Character’s Internal and External Journeys

At the most basic level, plot has to do with events that force the character to get out of her or his habitual behavior patterns and try something new. The character must learn. We must see the character formulate plans, take action, and then assess whether that action worked. If not, then the character must formulate a new plan. I like to think of this as two concentric, overlapping rings, a Venn diagram if you will.

two circles showing present action and thoughts

The ongoing action of a novel constitutes its plot. In a parallel stream, overlapping with the novel’s events, are the character’s thoughts. The character plans, schemes, feels crushed or elated, and ultimately revises his or her habitual behavior in order to seize the Golden Ring.

The diagram above illustrates these two essential components of a story. Now, imagine if one circle is vastly bigger than the other. If the “thoughts” portion were bigger, you’d be reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. If the action portion were bigger, you’d be flipping the pages of a Len Deighton thriller.

The Balance Between Present Action and Backstory

Revision is where you can bring a character into sharper focus. For character transformation to have meaning for the reader, the reader needs to know why the character didn’t behave that way before. Another way of saying this is that the reader must understand what’s “at stake.” Why will it matter if the character wins or loses her heart’s desire?

Here’s an example. Will Scarlett O’Hara find a way to keep Tara, even amid the wreckage of the Civil War? As to her backstory, why did she become so fixated on Ashley? What made her so headstrong and spoiled?

The present action has to do with a “will she or won’t she be able to do x, y, or z” kind of question. What happens in the present, ongoing action constitutes the novel’s plot. The plot is what keeps readers wanting to move forward.

So where does backstory come into this? Well, to understand why the character must change and why change is going to be especially hard or painful, readers must understand the baggage the character’s carrying with him or her. Readers must understand the character’s secret, psychic wound.

two circles, one big, showing the present action and backstory

If your novel has fully dramatized scenes in which characters are duking it out verbally or through stony silence, you are “showing” the state of affairs in the present action of the story. Somewhere along the line, you’ll let readers know why the tension exists.

Let’s play with two slightly different diagrams, one that looks at the balance between the ongoing action and the backstory. What propels a novel is the present, ongoing action. It’s generally believed that backstory slows a story down.

You may not believe that all your thoughtful passages about the character’s backstory could drag your novel down, or you might think your novel is the exception. However, I’m convinced that most readers will have their attention riveted on the page when you show them conflict in the present.

two circles with backstory much larger than present action

What do you think will happen when the past gets so large it dwarfs the present action? Readers fond of psychoanalyzing their favorite characters may love an author’s deep analysis. However, many readers will prefer to watch scenes unfold. These folks prefer the detective work of figuring out why characters behave the way they do.

When you’re “telling” about, rather than “showing,” unresolved conflict from the past, it’s as if you’re handing your readers an old newspaper. The reader may need that newspaper for background. The reader may love the intricacies of your character’s psyche. The information may even help the reader forge a deeper bond with your character. However, most readers will not find old news a compelling reason to keep turning the pages. At a very basic level, something must happen, or readers will not be satisfied.

It’s a question of balance. How much old news do readers need? Where should you place it? Donald Maass, author of The Craft of Emotional Fiction, believes you should not insert backstory until you are fifty percent through the novel. Only then can you afford to slow down the ongoing action and dive deep.

Look for Objects That Could Trigger Your Background Info

There’s another issue about backstory that comes up when you’re revising. When you introduce a walk down Memory Lane, you need to have some tangible thing in the present serve as a trigger for the memory. This could be a smell, an object, a sound, or a taste, such as a cookie like a Madeleine. (Think of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.)

That “thing” that is part of the present, ongoing action of the story serves as an anchor. The reader will come back to that thing when you’re done explaining what happened long ago. By anchoring the past in the present, ongoing action—and by anchoring it with a physical object that the reader can see, hear, touch, or taste—you will keep the reader from being confused. Trust me on this.

What to Do?

These are not the only issues writers confront during revision, but they’re central to the overall pacing of a book. Novels have an architecture. Only you can determine the right proportions for your novel. What’s pleasing to me might not work for you.

What I discovered in revising The Vermillion Sea was that I had not included enough of the character’s internal journey. I made substantive revisions to deepen the reader’s understanding of what was at stake for the character. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about some of the other issues I mentioned briefly, such as flipping a scene or bringing in a secondary character to mix things up.

For me, revision is all about discovery. It’s about standing back and taking a look at the novel as a whole. During revision, our characters have one last opportunity to speak to us. Revision is where we sit quietly and listen.

2 Responses to “Revising Fiction : It’s Not Just About Dusting the Commas”

  1. Pat says:

    WOW! While reading through this, I never realized the depth of writing, and writing and revising , rewriting and revision that went into writing a book! I have thought many times about writing a book but this is very intimidating for me.

    • Hi Pat, I didn’t mean to scare you off! Try writing, but don’t go it alone. You’ll get discouraged. Even though writing is a solitary endeavor, one of the most rewarding aspects of this career is the privilege of connecting with other writers and learning the basics of how to put a story together.

      If you have been thinking about writing a book but haven’t yet started, jump into one of the so-called MOOCs courses. Last year I wrote posts about these opportunities, and many followers of my blog have signed up. This will save you oodles of time and frustration. MOOCs are low cost and low risk. Do the assignments, and you’re well on your way to writing a book.

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