A Thread, Not a Patch

The revision of a novel can be viewed through a perspective that is short-sighted. The course of writing a first draft is an expansive process during which discoveries continually pop out. Revision, by contrast, is a more clinical stage. You have a body of work, with all its gnarly tendrils, and only vague notions of how to make it better. How you decide to reenter the story makes a crucial difference in whether the additions will fit in the whole seamlessly.

The first step is determining the dramatic weight of the change you want to make. Let’s say a beta reader comments that the central love affair goes too smoothly. Al and Joanie have sex on page 40 and then keep on having invigorating sex (yawn) for the rest of the book. All happy—mostly dull. So you decide: Al will have an affair. That will cause waves.

In real life, we know that there are two types of people: the ones who proceed cautiously and the ones who rush in. The latter better suits the temperament of an artist—the prize is to the bold! Yet a revision is a form of weighed improvisation. That is, you have to consider the long view as well as the immediate objective. 

We’ll continue with the example. Sure, you can sally forth and write a sex scene with Al and a third party, yet you should have already considered two larger calculations. Why, if the couple was so newly in love, would he have an affair in the first place? What sense does that make? Second, what are the long-term ramifications? Is Joanie really such a tool that she would take him back in the same chapter? 

The problem is, the revision is a patch. That approach works fine when the addition is minor. You might change Al from having “mousy brown hair” to “surfer-boy blond.” But you have to remember what the original criticism was: the romance is too smooth. That means the romance in all those chapters in which it is featured.

You need to stage a series of scenes. Al has to have a reason why an affair would appeal to him. Is it a drunken accident? Is he prone to thinking with his little head? What is the sex scene like, with that woman other than Joanie? How long does he hide it from her? How long does it take for her to forgive him? All of these questions contain tons of suspense—not so smooth now.

Exercise: When considering advice for revision, think of what the characters are like first. If Al was a playboy before meeting Joanie, he would regard an affair differently from a loner who hasn’t had a girlfriend since seventh grade. If Joanie is not so sure Al is “the one,” she would react differently from a woman expecting a ring any day now. After adjusting them to weather the affair, you may realize that you know both of them much better.

“Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.