Saturday, June 13, 2015

Nuke The Site From Orbit

The topic for this month’s Ramble is Best Revision Techniques. What are the most effective ways to revise your writing in order to make it stronger, clearer, more concise, or more engaging? Honestly, this is something I’m still learning about. And while most of my colleagues will be focusing on specific edits, such as noun or verb changes, I’m going to take a broader approach, looking at the overall picture of your story.

So you write a story, or a chapter, or whatever your little heart desires, and you send it to friends, colleagues, coworkers, neighbors, and everyone under the sun who is willing to look at it. They read it, mark it up, and send it back. A lot of those revisions will be line edits; typos, pronoun confusion, misused words, etc. But, if your readers are really paying attention, they’ll have other comments about your characters, plot, motivations, or settings. They’ll tell you what didn’t work for them, and why. Maybe they’ll give suggestions on how to fix, or maybe you come up with the solution yourself. Either way, you then go back into your story or chapter, cut out the junk, and insert your fresh new ideas.

This is where the problems begin. Because as it was, the chapter had a certain flow to it, a feeling of cohesion and order. As you go back, cutting stuff out and shoehorning new ideas in there, the chapter starts to take on more of a Frankenstein’s Monster feel. In the same way that the monster’s shoulder may not match the arm that’s attached to it, your story may suddenly has these jarring changes of flow or voice. Maybe when you wrote the first draft you were in a poetic mood, so the writing was more flowery, whereas now you’re adding more functional components that just don’t jive with the current language. Even though you’ve made the correct changes to improve the story, now the writing itself feels clunky and mismanaged.

So what to do? Like adding a clump of clay to a sculpture, you can go back over it repeatedly, smoothing out the seams and trying to force it all to blend together, or, as the title of this post suggests, you can start over.

"I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” –Ellen Ripley

Sometimes, and I would even go as far as to say, most times, if there are major structural changes that need to be made to your story, the best approach is to start over. Which sucks, obviously, and this is not advice that I, myself, follow often. I’ve already put so much time and effort into what I currently have, why would I want to go back and do it all again?

Writing is like making cookies. Maybe you accidentally use baking soda instead of baking powder, (because who can ever tell those two apart, right?). Obviously, this is going drastically affect the flavor of your cookies. So, you have two choices. Try to pick out all the baking soda, which won’t be easy if you’ve already added flower, or eggs, or anything else that the soda will mix easily with. Or, scrap the batch and start over, making sure to use the correct ingredients on the second go.

It’s the same as your writing. If something doesn’t work for your readers, you can go back and try to pick out the offending parts, hoping to get out every grain so it doesn’t spoil the taste, or you can start over with a new recipe that includes the right ingredients. You already know what worked in your first draft, so you know what to write again, and now you know what needs to be included to make it a better story. Starting fresh with both of these in mind means you’ll get your chapter or story right, and it will all flow smoothly and naturally.

It may be extreme, and like I said, I rarely do this myself, but if you want your writing to flow like the lazy river at a water park, smooth and seamless, trust me, this is the way to do it. 

1 comment:

  1. This is very timely advice because I've noticed lately that anytime I have to go back and fix a major component to a chapter, the flow is never as good as it was to start with. It's frustrating because you know you have to add in/take out information, but you're left with what feels like incompleted work. I am going to try your scene rewrite technique and see if I can make it flow better the second time around... Maybe I'll even use the original is a cheat sheet for my favorite passages. :-)
    Also, I like the quote… And the cookies.