Out with the Old

Revising a manuscript on a large scale involves calculations that can reach back to the very inception of the project. What is the story you’re trying to tell? Why do you think it is unique enough to attract a reader’s interest? Such basic questions are obscured by the volume of words you’ve already produced. Or, the fresh ideas you had after reading over the manuscript peter out as you wrestle with all the intricacies you created in each chapter.

What frequently happens during a revision is that you add minutia. A sentence here or there that fits in the interstices of the tightly knit scene you’ve already written. Those sentences are loaded with the new dramatic emphasis you want to add, but they are still merely sentences. How many sentences have you written in the entire manuscript? Now count up what you’ve added. Do you think that tiny proportion is going to mean that much?

When I read a manuscript for the first time, I stop at the end of every scene and write a sentence or so about what happened. I also write down what I’m feeling about the manuscript at that point. For instance, a note on page 50 might read: “The book still has no plot.” This shorthand approach serves as a checklist for me when I finish the book. Like anyone else, I end a book with only overarching impressions that swirl as nebulous matter in my head. Nebulous is rendered concrete by reviewing the notes—that is, breaking the ineffable into pieces.

That is the plane on which a large revision should begin. Not in the weeds of each chapter. Forget a single chapter for now. Look at your notes and check them for how a plot direction is unfolding. Let’s say Mitzi is attracted to Harold. What are the steps you’ve written? How do they build toward love? If the steps don’t appear in your notes, you have to ask yourself: am I being too subtle? Is the reader going to care if it’s so subtle? 

You’ll have to comb through the chapters and find out what you did to create a building progression. Add whatever you wrote to the notes (or create a new chart devoted only to that progression). When you’re finished, now look at the notes. Have you really made a dent on the reader?

When you edit that way, you don’t get entangled in your prose. You have placed the interface of your notes between you and the story. You’re on a level above the prose, where sweeping changes can be made. 

Exercise: Readers respond to actions a character takes. When you write revised pieces of scenes or entire scenes, start with the notes, not the manuscript. Yes, when you finish writing, you will have to make the old and new mesh. What you’ll find, because now you’re trying to fit in good bits of the old scene to the new scene, is that you can more readily throw out what you didn’t like. 

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”  —Elmore Leonard

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.