2.18.2020

Concrete Conversion

Writing a novel entails a process of continually filling out details. These can be character thoughts, plot events, or descriptions, to name the largest categories. A vital aspect of this constant elaboration takes place during the revision phase. It consists of nailing down points that were vague during the initial rush of words. A general description about the heart of autumn, for instance, turns into a flurry of leaves stirred by a passing car. The better writer is engaged in an unending hunt for particulars.

Correcting for further clarity is an aim of most writers during the editing phase. Clunky lines are thrown out. Pieces of dialogue you thought were clear the first time have to be modulated to make sure they have the intended meaning. Much of this sort of work is instinctive; you read and react. Yet what I am talking about is a granular approach. Are you getting the most out of every sentence?

A comment about a character, such as “He was given to boasting at parties” can lead to a hunt through the book for a party you know the character attended. Yet he doesn’t boast there. So what does that comment mean? You need to add in a quarter page, perhaps before the main business he needs to accomplish at the party begins, in which he boasts. Then delete the vague comment.

The process can help tremendously when furthering a plot objective. An unanswered question about a character often produces plot tension, and the more sharply the issue is drawn, the more impact it has on the reader. You may have positioned Annie, for example, as showing up several times at crime scenes. Yet when you examine each one more carefully, you notice that you did not assign her any specific business that would cast true doubt. So, in each of those scenes you add a strange bruise on her cheek, or unseemly flirting with a detective, or taking selfies with the victim in the background.

The search for exactitude extends to the narration. So many first drafts have a neutral point of view—because the author is trying to figure out what is going on as the scene unfolds. Yet upon revision the storyteller can take firmer control. Maybe he adds, after describing the flurry of leaves, how dead leaves make him positively ill. The door opens to an anecdote about a mother’s collection of pressed leaves, which the narrator’s older sister swept up while the family settled the estate.

By the time the revision—or more likely, multiple revisions—is completed, the novel is stuffed full of details. The clumsy lunges of the first draft have been replaced with unceasing slashes of a sure sword.

Exercise: During a revision, always be aware that any object can be magnified to greater specificity. A “bottle of wine” has a color, or comes from a region, or sparkles in the light when it is poured. The more impact you want it to have, the more vivid it should appear.

“Concrete is heavy; iron is hard but the grass will prevail.”   
—Edward Abbey

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine


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