Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Revising "Cocke & Bull"

I've spent a good deal of time this month revising a novel called Cocke & Bull. I have gone through all but about the last 25 ms pages, which I'll get through in the next couple of days, and that will complete the first run through of the revisions process. The story and the characters seem pretty solid to me and I don't think I'm looking at any massive rewrites when I make the next pass at the story in February. What's left to do all has to do with the language, the prose. There are passages that I know aren't quite right yet--the language is workmanlike and gets the job done, sure--that I'll have to take another look at and reshape somehow. Maybe I'll have several looks at those passages before I'm satisfied.

I'm a proponent of constant revisions, of John Gardner's idea that you should go over the work again and again and again, because you will see different things each time; you will have different distractions running through your brain each time and these distractions will allow you to make new connections between the story on the page and your own subconscious and you'll find new images and elements to bring to the story; you will read your own prose in a different way each time you read it. All of this is good for you as a writer, and good for the story.

What's become clear to me over the years is that my first take at anything is usually not my best effort. The underlying idea--writ down in the white-hot heat of the fictional dream--might be brilliant enough (or near-brilliant, Mr. Nevets), but the prose itself is usually not quite there. I have a sort of shorthand I use when drafting, especially in action scenes, that makes few connections with proper English grammar. When I'm writing it for the first time it seems as if I'm scribbling down actual English, but upon review I see that it only approximates my mother tongue and I have to insert parts of speech and untangle all the prepositions and rearrange my subordinate clauses. I am alarmed at just how much red ink gets spilled onto my pages, but at least I am aware of how much red ink is needed and at least I buckle down and do the work.

I worry that the voice--which becomes more complex and Old Testament as the story goes along--is too heavy at the end. I worry that the scene where the God of Israel Himself enters the story is too over the top. I worry, in short, that I will here or there lose my readers. I try to put all of these worries out of my mind when I'm going over the ms, because losing my readers is the least of my concerns. Have I written the book I intended to write? That's the thing. That's the only thing.

4 comments:

  1. I love how organizes and systematic your approach is, and I hope some day I feel on top of it enough to have a similar sensibility about how I write and revise.

    I agree with you about the value of multiple revisions. It's true that you pick up new things because of your attitude, your context, your mindset, whatever. I sometimes worry about the cycle becoming an unholy mobius strip that ensures a book never gets completed, though.

    p.s. I've long been willing to use an unencumered "brilliant" in association with you and your writing. It is our own reticence to accept such that inspired the modifier.

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  2. Okay Mr. Bailey, I'm going to beg. Can I read it? I promise I will not crit or beta or give you any advice on anything (Cuz you're just too damn smart for me) but I really really want to read this.

    Besides, I gave your their names.

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  3. Nevets: You flatter me, sir. I am unworthy of "brilliant." But I am a big fan of disciplined process.

    Anne: Maybe. It violates my self-imposed rule against letting more than three people see the MS before it goes to my agent. But as you say, you did give me Claypoole and Diggins.

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  4. "I'm a proponent of constant revisions, of John Gardner's idea that you should go over the work again and again and again, because you will see different things each time; you will have different distractions running through your brain each time and these distractions will allow you to make new connections between the story on the page and your own subconscious and you'll find new images and elements to bring to the story; you will read your own prose in a different way each time you read it. All of this is good for you as a writer, and good for the story."

    I'm a proponent of this, too. ALL the way. I've found I do this with every single book I write. I edit as I go, read the book about 80,000 times, and then some more. It's time-consuming, but worthwhile.

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