Posts Tagged ‘revising’

Radishes and Revisions

May 9, 2012

Next time I plant radishes, I’ll sow the seeds more thinly. But I’m new at growing vegetables. So I just sort of dumped them. Ten rainy days later, they had become a gorgeous green mass, as luxuriant as ground cover. Unfortunately, they need room to grow as big as, well, radishes. The seed packet says to thin them to two inches apart. So today I went out in the rain and did just that, getting muddy and feeling like a bad-ass. I had to take out more than I could leave, but the sprouts I aborted will add a spicy bite to tonight’s salad.

What does any of this have to do with revisions? Not much, except that thinning my radishes was my reward for sending my latest set of revisions back to my agent. Also, after I’d finished tackling some biggish issues in the story (Where is the ghost now? Who’s talking? Is that sex consensual, or rape?), I went through the text at a micro level and tightened a lot of the language. That is, I thinned out a bunch of verbiage that was clogging up the story.

Here, for you list fans, are 5 (five!) types of excess verbiage I eliminated. The sentences are from my book, but if you’re a writer, you could probably find similar examples in your own work.


I am not a member of the We Hate Adverbs Club. I kinda like them, in fact. Parts of my book are lavishly embellished with them. But those parts are written in a voice that is deliberately baroque. In the parts of the book where the writing is more simple, adverbs can just clog up the works. So, for example,

 “Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on conversationally.

should probably become

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on.

2.Dialog tags

“What’s a dialogue tag?” you ask.

“It’s the little bit of verbiage that’s attached to a line of dialogue and tells you who’s speaking,” I say.

“And you want to eliminate them?” you ask.

“Not all of them. Just the unnecessary ones,” I say.

“But aren’t they always necessary?” you ask. “If you don’t have them, won’t you get confused about who’s speaking?”


Come to think of it, in my first example, there are only two people in the conversation, and it’s obvious from context who would say what. The sentence above should probably read,

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted. ”

3.Telling and showing

You know the line, right? “Show, don’t tell.” It means that it’s better to demonstrate a character’s motives or feelings or whatever through dialogue or action than by explaining. I get that, and I’m pretty good at showing. I also have a tendency to tell as well as show. (My husband will confirm that I don’t just do this in my writing. I’ll say, “Monday is Memorial Day.” And then I’ll add, “So we shouldn’t put out the recycling Sunday night.” And then I’ll feel compelled to explain, “Because the town doesn’t pick up recycling on national holidays. And Memorial Day is a national holiday. So we should wait and put it out on Monday night.” It’s a wonder we’re still married.)

Here’s how it works in my writing:

Laurel hesitates, letting the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

Well, sure she hesitates. You can see that in what she does while she hesitates. That sentence might be stronger this way:

Laurel lets the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

4.Too many sub-actions

This is sort of like #3. It seems I’m not content to get the character out of the car. I have to document each step in the procedure – grabbing the door handle, pulling it forward, pushing the door out, putting one leg on the ground, etc. Okay. I’m exaggerating. But how about this?

 Neil steps forward with a grateful smile, his hand raised like a kid asking to be called on in class.

Unless the individual steps show something important (fingers fumbling, a fist swinging harder than intended, something spilling), why not just say what happens?

Neil raises his hand like a kid asking to be called on in class.

5.Too many examples

I managed to keep this list to just five items, but my natural tendency is to include every last thing that comes to mind. The house in my book is based on the house where I grew up. After my mother died in 1999, the house was sold. Setting my book there let me spend more time in a place I loved and missed. As I looked around the rooms in my mind, remembering more and more details, I had trouble not writing down every last paperclip and dust bunny. When I was revising, I spent a lot of time pondering sentences like this one:

Fringed cowboy vests and crushed plastic firefighter helmets and slippery skeleton suits spill from the costume box.

Could I have lost one of those details? Maybe. In this case, I kept them all.

How was it that after going over this book a billion times, I still found things to fix? Maybe it’s the advantage of having more distance. Maybe I’ve become a better writer. Or maybe the passages I fixed were newer material, which hadn’t gone through as many rewrites as the rest. In lots of cases, I was taking out things I’d put in as I figured out what was happening. Maybe those excess words are the extra seeds you sow, because until they sprout, you don’t know which ones you’ll keep, and which you’ll end up thinning out.

Telling Time

April 21, 2012

There’s a minor moment in my novel in which two kids squabble over a portable music player. The first time I wrote that scene, back in 2002 or so, the player was a Sony Discman. I later updated it into an iPod. Revising it now, I have just come across a note from my agent. Shouldn’t the iPod be an iPad?

The comment got me to thinking. In what year does this story take place, anyway? When I tell people what my book is about, I usually use the word “contemporary,” to distinguish the present tense plot from the parallel tale that weaves in and out of it, and takes place in the past. No one ever asks what “contemporary” really means. I guess people just assume I mean now. So when I used the word back in 2002, I meant 2002. And when I use it today, I must mean 10 years later. But can I really just keep pulling the story forward?

No. It’s not just that when iPads give way to wePads or iPutzes or whatever, I can’t keep going back and updating the technology. The bigger issue is that my main characters, who are the parents of school-age children when the book takes place, have back stories and memories involving the Kennedy assassination, acid trips, and other details that anchor their childhoods at the time when mine took place, in the 1960s and ‘70s.

And then there’s that parallel plot line, which involves, among other things, early 20th-century immigration, 78-rpm records, and the early adulthood of my “contemporary” characters’ grandmother. I can’t make her stand still in time while her descendants move forward. Not without eventually inserting an intervening generation.

The bottom line? I can’t just keep floating the “contemporary” time period forward. I have to anchor it in time. But when, exactly? Does it take place before or after the terrorist attacks of 2001? The New York City skyline appears in a few places. Does it include the World Trade Center? A high school student in the contemporary story listens to a lot of music. What is it? This same kid has a cell phone. What’s the earliest year when this would be plausible? Two lesbians living in New reconsider having a baby, but the idea of getting married never comes up. Do I bring up the possibility, or call “contemporary” pre-2005 or so?

Timing is everything.

Cutting and Pasting … and Pinning?

June 5, 2011

I’ve just started reading What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. There’s so much to love about this book: the warmth and humor between these two good friends; the leisurely, literary exemplars of the largely lost art of letter writing; the insider look at literary life in twentieth-century America.

The letters span five decades. Eudora writes from Jackson, Mississippi, Bill from New York. Both wrote short stories and novels, and they regularly read each other’s work – he not only as a friend, but also in a professional capacity, as Eudora’s editor at The New Yorker.

In September, 1953, Bob sends Eudora his latest story, “What Every Boy Should Know.” He tells her, “It’s the only copy I have with me – the other having gone off, but I thought it would amuse you anyway to read the past-up version.”

Eudora replies that it’s a lovely story, and spends a paragraph telling Bill why she likes it. Then she writes,

I do see from this how elegant rubber cement is. I’m so used to writing with a pincushion that I don’t know if I can learn other ways or not, but I did go right down and buy a bottle of Carter’s. The smell stimulates the mind and brings up dreams of efficiency. Long ago when my stories were short (I wish they were back) I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as whole and at a glance – helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction […] on the whole I like pins. The Ponder Heart was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (So it’s economical.)

Pins! To hold a story together! I’m old enough to remember the days when “cutting and pasting” was something you did with scissors and bottles of rubber cement. But pins???

For years, I wrote my first drafts in spiral notebooks, with Flair felt-tip pens – green, brown, peacock blue and, by the time I was in college, black. Second and third drafts got typed, but never first drafts. In my romantic, pseudo-flower-child world view, typewriters were impersonal machines that would interfere with my natural, creative flow. But once I finished something in longhand, there was nothing as satisfying as typing out my words – and often making small changes in the process. Subsequent drafts got marked up and retyped until I was satisfied, or gave up. (I usually gave up.)

I promised myself that when I sold my first story to The New Yorker, I would invest my earnings in an IBM Selectric typewriter – complete with feather-light keyboard touch, correcting ribbon, and interchangeable font balls that would let me produce beautiful typed pages in different fonts.

My dreams of a Selectric faded around 1980, when we bought our first personal computer – a Leading Edge with a cool amber display, and an accompanying daisywheel printer. About that same time, I also lost my aversion to composing first drafts at the keyboard. But for years I continued to print out every draft I wrote, mark the pages up manually, and then key in corrections.

Now I hardly ever print anything out. Everything happens electronically, including revisions. It’s so convenient, and it’s much more economical than replacing toner cartridges, not to mention better for the environment than using all that paper. And I’m running out of space to file multiple drafts of abortive writing efforts.

Still, reading a Eudora Welty’s letter makes me a little wistful.

I’m still waiting to sell that first story to The New Yorker. If that ever happens, maybe I’ll invest part of my earnings in a pincushion.

Marked Up

October 11, 2010

Miss me?

Since the summer I’ve only posted here sporadically. Most of my writing energy has gone to revising my novel.

When my agent returned my marked-up manuscript in July, he wasn’t just fixing grammar or flagging inconsistencies. Mark questioned my characters’ underlying motivations and asked me to do the same. He called me on passages I’d jotted down as place holders and then forgotten to return to (how could he tell?). He suggested I reconsider my ending, which has an unconventional format that made it hard to follow. And he pointed out the biggest problem with my parallel-plots structure: the parallels needed to be clearer.

It was all a bit overwhelming. (And by a bit, I mean a lot.) There were days when I was sure I couldn’t do it. But after three months, I think maybe I have. Here’s how.

Once I’d finished freaking out, I took Mark’s suggestion to spend a week jotting down notes. I reverted to the comforting, old-school technology I used forty years ago, when I started writing: a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook.

One week and dozens of scribbled pages later, I opened the electronic version of my manuscript. My first task was to go through the mark-ups one by one, addressing as many as I could on the spot. I clarified ambiguous passages, inserted notes about character issues, cut over-writing, made specialized vocabulary more accessible, and rewrote the last chapter, keeping my non-conventional format, but making it easier to follow.

To keep track of what I was doing, when I opened the manuscript each morning I saved a new version with that day’s date in the title. The result: 57 versions of the complete, marked-up manuscript, and no doubt whatsoever about which is most current. Plus, none of my changes are irreversible — I can always refer to an earlier version.

To keep moving forward, when a problem seemed particularly perplexing, I flagged the issue and worked on something else. There was always something else to work on, and when I returned to the difficult passages, they usually turned out to be not nearly as insurmountable as they’d seemed the first (or second or third) time through.

After I’d addressed Mark’s comments, I started going through the book character by character, reading only those scenes that included that person, and reading as if the character in question was the center of my story. Because each character is the center of his or her own story. I traced narrative arcs, tweaked pacing and fixed inconsistencies and logistical mistakes. Since six characters needed fixing, I went through the book this way six times.

Along the way, I tightened my writing, cutting the fat. I found a lot of fat. I needed to add some new scenes, and had worried this would make the book too long. By the time I’d finished deleting an adverb here, a sentence there, the final word count is slightly shorter than when I started.

More to the point, thanks to Mark’s honest, keen-eyed observations and the hard work they inspired, the book is better. The writing is clearer, the scenes more focused, the action better paced, the various interwoven plots that comprise my ambitious structure work together more smoothly, and the characters are better realized.

I am absolutely certain of this. At least, pretty certain. Hopeful, anyway. I’ll have a better idea when I actually read the thing with a fresh perspective. Did I say fresh? That won’t be easy, since I’ve been immersed in this project for 10-plus years. But I’m doing what I can by taking a week off.

I’ve already filled the week with more plans than I can possibly accomplish: Get my hair cut. Get the car serviced. Get a flu shot. Get back into my garden. Get to some of the books I’ve been putting off reading (first up: The White Tiger). Get back into my blog.

When I get back to my manuscript, I’ll find out what more I need to do before I send it to my agent. Then he’ll let me know what else he thinks it needs. And when he and I are finally ready to submit it to publishers, if everything works out as we hope it will, a whole new round of revisions will begin.

I’ll keep you posted.