Tag Archive for big picture revision

It’s Revision Week at Jamespreller.com!

This week we’re all about the revision process here at Jamespreller.com. I’d say that we’re celebrating revision . . . but let’s not get carried away. It’s not really a party.

I’ve found that one of the keys to revision involves a mental trick: I try to never allow myself to think I’m done. So I reserve some energy, some well of enthusiasm, for every writing project, no matter how close we get to publication. Because once I let down my guard to relax, that makes revision almost impossible and truly heart-breaking.

Last week I needed room to spread out, so took over the kitchen table upstairs. Even though the book, Before You Go, feels thisclose to finished — this stage marks the third time through the entire “finished” manuscript (not including dozens of edits I’ve made along the way) — I still needed to take one last macro look at the entire thing.

Often revision is confused with little tweaks and fussy details, but at it’s core revision is exactly that:

Re + Vision. To see again. It’s like a painter stepping back from the canvas.

On the table, on the lower left there’s a marked-up manuscript that was returned by my editor, Liz Szabla. I love Liz, and I’m grateful every day that she’s in my life. But if there’s ever a moment of strain in our friendship — a silence over the phone, a clipped response — it’s during the revision process. Because I want to hear only how wonderful I am, and that my book is perfect. Liz has a different agenda, and we have to work things out. Really listen, really hear, and in my case, most of all, to trust.

That’s why it’s so vital to still have a reserve of energy in the tank. This is the 18th mile of the marathon, the dreaded wall, and it’s tempting to give up.

I grabbed a stack of index cards and wrote out the basic events of each chapter. This, again, is what I think of as Big Picture Revision or Macro Revision. I’m looking at Chapter 8, for example, and thinking about sliding it up to Chapter 4, actually grafting it on to the first few pages of Chapter 4, while eliminating large pieces of old Chapter 4. This, naturally, will effect the content of chapters 5, 6, 7 and I’ll need to really examine those, too. For example, in the book Jude meets Becka outside on a bench at Jones Beach. This has been their first conversation since the first draft of the book. I probably wrote that scene ten months ago. And while the dialogue has evolved over time, the basic meeting has been unchanged from the beginning. But now at the 11th hour I’ve decided to blow things up, flip it around, to turn their second conversation into their first meeting. It feels more dramatic, and more true (more accidental, less intentional).

I didn’t ask Liz for permission for this — that’s not how she edits — but I did bounce it off her over the phone for a reaction. As always, while Liz will react to concepts, she reserves the right to see how it works on paper.

Back to the photo: The yellow lined pages come from various notes I’ve made over the past months, isolated ideas that have come to me, often while I’m in supposed to be asleep in bed. Very sloppy, in a kind of shorthand. Again, revision: These pages represent new ideas, new scenes or paragraphs or moments, that I may insert into the story.

I was thinking about a failed memorial garden in Jude’s backyard. To translate my lefty scrawl:

came of it. Some scraggly annuals,

a crumbling rock wall,

and weeds, weeds, weeds.

The second and third text blocks represent Jude’s awareness of a neighbor’s watchful eyes, and it’s a new layer I’ve added to the story. Extremely minor, but it needs to be there . . . it tells us something important about Jude, I think. It still remains to be seen how it works on the page, in the context of the entire book.

It reads:

— Mrs. Taranto — Molly, outside,

watching him with those eyes of

hers,  that looked at

[edit: the next word is stinging, to be inserted before eyes]

him with such tenderness and pity

that it burned his skin and

made Jude look away.

More, later. As always, thanks so much for stopping by.

Big Picture Revision

Essentially, revision comes in two stages: 1) What I think of as “Big Picture” Revision; and 2) All the little details, which is really better understood as “copyediting.”

I think kids groan whenever revision is discussed for many reasons, and probably the most basic is that they want to be done; revision translates into “more work.” Who wouldn’t groan at that? But also it’s the work itself, because for so many revision overwhelmingly represents the second stage, all the boring little details; the fun is definitely over. These kids want to splash bright, bold colors on a wall . . .

. . . and we’re asking them to paint the trim. Nothing wrong with that — you’ve got to paint the trim — but I sympathize with the groans.

Sometimes when I meet with students, and we talk about revision, I remind them of the root meaning of the word, re/vision. Literally to see, again.

It’s why so many writers talk about needing to step away from the work, like a painter backing from the canvas, in order to see the work from a new perspective.

How can the story be funnier? More exciting? Of course, the essential element is that you’ve got to care, you’ve got to take pride in your work. Not every student has that feeling about his writing — and I’m not at all sure you can teach that — but I’m certain that revision is a hopeless process without pride in one’s finished product. Which is equally true for house painters.

Back in the day when I was a copywriter, I’d often send out these thirty-page packets to as many as fifteen different readers. They were all invited to make comments, criticisms, suggestions. Then I’d get all those packets returned, many covered with heart-breaking scribbles, unfriendly remarks, sentences crossed out, hacked at, sometimes improved, sometimes ruined. I’d take all those comments and have to consider each one . . . and revise.

The mental trick I learned was to intentionally try to save energy for that stage, even to the point of holding something back in the first draft; because once you think it’s perfect,¬† once you think you are done, after you’ve given 100% and all the creative energy is spent, then all those comments will crush you. So it’s important to understand the process — to know from the very beginning that, toward the end, you are going to have to paint the trim.

One quick example I like to give kids, because it always generates lively discussion when I ask them to revise with me: I tell them how I once wrote a scene in a Jigsaw Jones book, where he’s in the art room and needs to search someone’s desk. I wrote the chapter and it was okay enough, though maybe a little flat. In revision, at my editor’s suggestion, I tried to think of how I could make it funnier. It was a scene set in an art room. Did I have any memories of funny things that happened in school? Did I know someone who had a funny memory? And what about an art room, anyway? There’s glue!

Glue is funny. And there’s paint — paint that can spill or splatter. The comic possibilities unfurl. The paint spills on whom? Jigsaw? Big Maloney? Maybe the teacher! See: We’ve circled back, we’re brainstorming; we’re throwing around paint again.

In the end, my revision to that scene was minor, and not really hysterical; it just added an extra beat to the rhythm. But the thinking process behind the revision was fun. I enjoyed it. How do you make a scene more scary? Or move it along faster? How do you make this thing . . . better? That’s the heart of revision, an opening up of possibilities, before that final narrow focus of copyediting.

NOTE: I’m going away for a few days to visit friends. Maybe we’ll even take pictures!