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the first cut is the best, on revision

I'm sure most of you already know the joy of cutting. Cutting is good. Cutting feels like god.

Yesterday, I chopped about 4,000 words, the plan for this revision being to go through all the line edits and cuts suggested by the wonderful editor friend, meanwhile noting places where more extensive cutting/replacement will occur and using some of my favorite notations (CDB-could do better and JSI-just say it! and, a new one from the Koch book, MEGO-my eyes glaze over). Alongside this, I have a document where I'm typing up notes and ideas and making structural observations. Right now, I'm just beginning to be able to see how the structure will change, tighten, get that unity a good structure should have that pulls the reader through. There's work to be done before I try and do that fully though, and I very much intend to go through the entire manuscript doing the preliminary cutting first. There's a myth, I think, that it's hard to kill your darlings, that it hurts. But this is only true in certain stages of writing, maybe. Mostly, I love it. I love how clean it feels, I love how instantly improved a page is when something subpar is removed, or how interesting a dynamic gets just by pulling it into stronger focus by getting rid of the dross around it.

Cutting is the best. It leaves all these holes and possibilities and, perhaps most important of all, makes the work something so different, you are forced to come to it with new eyes. When what you knew and had affection for is gone, you can replace it with something excitingly unfamiliar and loved.

Koch's The Writer's Workshop (which I insist you all buy) devotes two chapters to revision and, much as I learned the hard way, I was doing it wrong. Now, trust me when I say that this is not a book the prescribes one way of doing things or even seems to favor one genre over another, it's not. But I was going about this all wrong. I had actually suspected all along this might be the case. I know how to revise a script. How to pull it apart, how to move scenes around, to delete them and replace them, to structure it. It's a tight form and it demands lots of rewriting.

Books are different.

This is where I smack my head with my palm.

Books are way different.

Mainly, they're bigger. Which means harder to get a handle on. The structure is much more fluid and digressions can actually be made to work. I didn't know how to tackle this huge mass in terms of revision, how to approach this getting rid of the okay and replacing it with the better, so I made what Koch identifies as a common novice mistake. I polished a mess. From his rules of revision:

If you imagine that a second draft can be created simply by sitting down and starting on page one, stop: You are about to fall into a classic trap. You are not yet ready to polish anything. I've repeatedly seen novices slaving away at polishing rough first drafts before they really had taken charge of the shape and structure and character alignments of the story itself. They had not yet taken possession of the narrative voice, they did not yet really know who their characters were. Polishing happened to be the only technique of revision they knew, and so they were polishing, hoping that it would release the things they needed, the way rubbing Aladdin's lamp released the genie.

It won't. Do not polish a mess. Polishing can't give your story its shape. Polishing can't show you what action you need or reveal your characters' roles. Polishing can't even give you the sound of your dialogue or your voice. In a second draft, you are going to be hauling huge hunks of prose to completely new places, cutting whole chapters, banishing irrelevant characters, and adding new relevant ones. With or without the help of your scenario, you are going to be dealing with structure. It will be hard work, but the nice thing is that once it is done, it is likely to stay done. You will not be restructuring much in third or final drafts. That is when you'll be polishing.

Intellectually I knew all this, and yet I did it anyway.

(Momentary digression: I forgot to come completely clean the other day. I circulated a terrible and even more embarrassing zero draft to a group of trusted first readers who all gave me similar and good advice and incorporating that advice did improve the next draft, 1.0, very much. The biggest change that was made was the removal of a fantastic element that didn't quite fit.)

So, even though this is technically draft 1.1, I'm treating it as that all-important second draft he talks about above. And seriously, you should buy that book if for nothing else than for the discussion of story, plot and structure, and how they relate to each other. I don't think I've ever understood that before. I'm still understanding it. But that's a post for another day.

Anyway, my head feels as if it's a room full of cotton and I believe I'm getting a cold. I plan to push on anyway. And there's some good news. The editor--who has beyond demonstrated what it is to be classy and cool*--saw my entry and has graciously offered to set aside the draft I sent.

Honesty is a very good thing. To work!

*I say this not because she may be reading this entry, but because it is true.


  • At 12:43 PM , Blogger lights up said...

    I am envious and terribly, terribly impressed. My own first novel is hidden somewhere on my hard drive where it has taken up a new name and identity so I never have to run into its hideousness or track it down and kill it. I wake up screaming in the night from dreams that I have accidentally clicked on it, wondering, "what is this document titled, destroy me? and why is it in a folder titled 'black holes'?"

    the horror, the horror...

    You are a strong woman, Gwenda Bond.

  • At 5:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I think what I like best about revision is the feeling that things can only go up. When I am putting down a draft, I am tarnishing the perfect, Platonic book in my mind. In revision, I am invariably buffing and scrubbing the hideous stain on the page.

    But the kind of deep cutting you are talking about is scary, brave stuff. It forces one to keep the shape of the book in one's mind in a way that always seems slippery to me.

    Good fortune to you and your revision. Am very much enjoying your thoughts on the process (and the book rec).

  • At 1:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Nice entry. Great advice and analysis.

    Jeff VanderMeer

  • At 12:53 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Belatedly (I'm catching up on bloggery after a long inlaw weekend)...

    On the strength of this entry, I ordered the Koch. Because I'm facing the maw of my first draft, and finding it hard to decide how to reshape the thing.

    (And I've been guilty of the same thing you have -- sending out a mess before it's ready. I'm trying to look at it as part of the learning process.)


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