Monday, March 18, 2013

the rowboat in the stream

As I work to revise the current draft of Go Home, Miss America, I pause to think about what I’m actually doing when I revise a novel. I don’t know what other writers’ first drafts look like, how rough they are or how much work they require to expose the intended story and put the major sections into the intended order. The Astrologer went through about seven major versions, with the basic skeleton of the book (by which I mean characters, themes and plot) rearranged, sometimes drastically. The version that’s made it to print is essentially a completely different novel than the first version I wrote. I am of two minds (at least) about that, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. One of the many lessons learned from writing The Astrologer (also known as “Ophelia’s Ghost,” “So Honest A Man,” “The Stars Are Fire,” “The Secret Parts of Fortune” and “Killing Hamlet”) is that I need to have a pretty solid idea of what I intend the book to be before I write very much in the way of prose. I need to have the overall structure in mind, I need to know how the story ends, and I need to know a lot about what things in the story interest me, so that I can develop those ideas as I write my way from end-to-end of the first draft. The idea is to have a first draft that, while far from being anything like perfect, is a good approximation of the book I had in mind when I originally sat down to write. There will of course be drift along the way, and the second half of my novel is usually closer to what I intend than the first half is, so most of the heavy lifting in the revision process will take place in the first 30,000-40,000 words of the narrative. That’s where things are most vague and tend to point in lots of directions, where I start down paths regarding character or theme only to abandon them when I realize, a couple of chapters later, what I really want to do. But even with all the false starts polluting the first half of the novel, usually I have something pretty strong to work with. Usually there’s not a great deal missing.

But there are missing elements, and there is all that pollution. There is also a great deal of rough, or lazy, or inexact or cliché-ridden prose, because I try hard to draft quickly and what I end up with is often more of a sketch of the idea than a real development of it. So revisions to novels, for me, come down to three tasks that I attempt to do simultaneously, more or less:

1. Justify the story outcomes (how things are left at the end, that is) with the necessary foreshadowing and development. That’s one of the larger tasks with Go Home, Miss America, as one of the storylines concludes with an action that might seem to come out of the blue, even though I had it in mind the whole time I was writing the novel. The ending was inevitable to me, but not to the reader. I did not adequately prepare the ending, so I need to go backward through the story and make sure that the argument for this conclusion actually exists and develops along the necessary lines.

2. Prune away the wrong turns, where for example Catherine Lark’s mother locks herself into the bedroom and weeps for a week holding a photo of her late husband and a rosary. That’s just over the top and not at all what I want Catherine’s mother to be like. It was an idea that didn’t work, so out it comes.

3. Fix the prose. This is a huge topic because the book, the story, is made entirely of prose. There is nothing else on the page but prose, so the book is the prose and the prose is the book, so concerns 1) and 2) are tied into working with prose, because each word in our language has a specific meaning and so the words I use must exactly fit my intent. That’s pretty obvious, I guess. But there also needs to be a propulsive, forward-moving drive to the prose, an interconnection and overlapping of speech rhythms (and non-speech rhythms too, because you can do things with the written word that are impossible with spoken English), and the sounds of the words themselves must be beautiful according to my aesthetic, which shifts all the time and is generally undefined and has to do with the speed and accents that inhere within Latinate versus Anglo-Saxon words, though I have no hard-and-fast laws about the poetry and music of the written word; I improvise within certain self-imposed constraints, you see. I got lost in that sentence, I think.

So the process I use when revising is to first read the draft, quickly, making notes about story, theme and character. What structural elements will need to be repaired, replaced or built? I make lots of notes and think about the new or altered scenes I’ll require, and I don’t do anything with the book until I know how I’m going to fix the broken parts of the story itself. The prose is all going to change around, so there’s no point at this point in fucking around with the words, because at first the work is primarily conceptual. Though of course I like to get as much as I can of the new scenes written down as close to how I think they should be, because the closer I think I am to having the hard work finished, the greater my confidence when I start to push through 90,000 words.

Once the conceptual/story work is done, I just sit down with a printout of the book (I actually like to have print and bind copies of the manuscript that look a lot like trade paperbacks, because the size is convenient for editing on the bus or in restaurants, which is where I do most of my work. I have a couple of fine-point red pens and I mark up the pages of these bound manuscripts.) and read it from page First to page Last, marking up the text, cutting things that don’t work and rearranging the prose so that it means precisely what I intend at that particular moment and sounds as beautiful as I can make it at that particular moment. Note that “beauty” includes the idea of harshness, of ugliness. I mean some sort of undefined aesthetic pleasure more than I mean “prettiness.” The prose of Fitzgerald, for example, rubs up against the reader’s expectations and creates areas of discomfort (mostly by using startling adjectives that don’t quite seem to fit at first), but I still call his prose beautiful.

The image I have of the revision process is of me sitting in a rowboat, moving upstream against the current, with my fingers trailing over the side of the boat as I catch up and remove from the stream anything that doesn’t belong in the current. Sometimes I have to use a rake, or a big damned net to pull out the rubbish that floats by. That image, of me in a boat with dead twigs and leaves catching against my spread fingers, is the image I wanted to give you when I began to write this post. Probably I didn’t need all those additional words to get to this point, but they were the only footpath I could find that led from a blank page to the rowboat in the stream.


  1. "... an action that might seem to come out of the blue, even though I had it in mind the whole time I was writing the novel."

    This seems to be my fault as well, according to my crit partners. I drop things in at the end and they say "Where did this come from?" I mean, I've known all along what was going to happen, so it's no surprise to me, but I forget that readers aren't in my head. (Thank God, because the characters are enough.)

    I haven't had the luxury of using a printed book (or even printing out the pages) to correct my ms. (I miss the old days of my Smith-Corona.) However, I've found that I can pick out definite discrepanies in printed material than I can on a computer screen. (As you will soon see.) I think once I get my next book out, all of them are getting the "once over" once again on paper. I think it's a luxury I should invest in.

  2. Part of my problem with this book is that even though I knew how I wanted the storyline to end, I wrote the first half without an outline, to see what would happen. I blame Davin Malasarn for this. By the time I had an actual outline for the book, I'd written past the areas where I should've been foreshadowing and introducing the ideas that support the ending.

    I do all my writing with pen and paper. The computer is just a place to store the revised drafts. I can't do real writing on a computer.

    Also, I got a book in the mail yesterday. Mighty Reader read aloud the first couple of pages and the prose seems quite fine. I'll get to it in, I think, three weeks or so. I am ungodly busy right now, with almost no time to read anything. But thanks for the book and I will read it!

  3. I finally sat down to read this beautiful post! It's beautiful and frightening to me because it makes me feel like I don't do nearly enough with my writing once my draft is finished. Then again, I have my own things I do that I haven't taken the trouble to sit down and write out like you have here. I really should so I can see more of my process because there is a process, but I'm afraid I let most of it sit in my intuition gut and don't do much else with it.

  4. I just write these things when I'm trying to focus. I lack discipline for editing just now, and I'm trying to get into a routine, a rhythm with it.

    The longer we do this, the more we internalize the process and it feels intuitive. I find that it's harder for me all the time to speak intelligently about the writing process, because what I'm doing seems like following my instinct even though in truth--I think--I'm using skills and techniques I've learned over time. So it's all weird, Mrs Argyle. I read this post and I think, "No, this is all wrong. It's not like that at all." Except that some days it is.