Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Revision, 1

No, I didn't forget that I had to write a post about how different the revision process is from the editing and copy-editing process. It always helps if you're working on a project when describing techniques and it happens that I am! I'll go over the revision process while revising The Quantum of the Past.

Besides, it beats being outside in that miserable heat... 

**Disclaimer: The techniques I'm going to describe will help me prepare my novel for self-publishing. This means I'm going to work in a manuscript format that may or may not be accepted by a traditional publisher or literary agent.**

So, here goes...

The First Revision

Note: I will refrain from using the word "edit" and its derivatives in my descriptions to prevent confusion when I talk about the editing process. Here I acknowledge that in everyday use, revision and edit are interchangeable. To a writer, however, these are not and cannot be interchangeable. And also, I will refrain from using qualitative statements about the reader experience or how "they" will react to this or that--at this point I'm focusing on the fundamentals of fiction.


So, what was I doing with The Quantum of the Past all this time? You saw the progress bar go up by certain percentage points every day and on a certain day I said I had finished. Now the progress bar reset for "revision 2", but didn't one revision suffice? 

A revision requires reading. This whole time I've been reading the manuscript of The Quantum of the Past, from beginning to end. But the reading is more involved. It's a type of reading I call the first revision. I didn't pick up the manuscript as soon as I finished it either. It has sat in my computer since last October. 

And here I will go at length when describing this process. My goal is to push away any writer looking for a quick fix to their problems. I am not posting for them (and there are honestly maaaaany other places that will cater to them). This is for writers who want to enrich their understanding of what it is that we do. 

Note: A revision is not the same thing as a rewrite. There are many places that use both terms interchangeably, but like revision and edit, they are vastly different processes.

The first revision requires the following of me:

  1. An initial check of the language, dialogue, descriptions, narrative.
  2. Tighten the continuity of the plot.
  3. Fix errors.
  4. Note places that are problematic for future revisions.

1. Initial check of the language

While drafting a story, I like to push forward to complete the manuscript. Overdoing one element or another is a consequence of this and so is awkward language, but it's worth it; having a draft of a novel is better than none at all. Here is an example from The Quantum of the Past:

The wife entered the room at this precise moment and said something in Spanish though Miles knew she spoke English too. Enrique answered and the two exchanged a few comments and laughed and Enrique said something else and she laughed and all the while Miles stared and smiled out of courtesy, but it bit into him to see them alienate him like that and it bit hard.

It's a little confusing with so many "and"s joining the elements of that second sentence. As a side-note, I did this so much in my manuscript that it constituted a good 20% of my work.

It seems like this overuse should go in the "Error" section, but that would be hasty. The real problem is that, for stylistic reasons, a writer may depart from accepted rules of English grammar usage. Fragments are acceptable, and so are single word sentences, and an overdose of conjunctions like "and."

The easy way for me to fix this is to separate elements in the problem sentence, like so:

The wife entered at this precise moment and said something in Spanish. Enrique answered and she laughed. The two exchanged a few comments more, laughing. All the while Miles stared and smiled out of courtesy, but it bit into him to see them alienate him like that.

I had to evaluate the information the sentence introduced and then delete what was unnecessary. Here, the word "unnecessary" is completely subjective. You may have reworked that sentence differently, based on what you deemed unnecessary. I could also have kept most of the information in the problematic example by simply creating more sentences.

Another example of awkward language is redundancy. I cleared away redundant phrases or comments. Like this:

He put the hat on his head and stood up from the chair and left through the door.

Do you see? Saying that he put the hat on his head is redundant. It is assumed that the hat goes on your head when you put it on. Also, it is redundant to say that you are getting up from the chair, especially if you've already mentioned that this person is sitting on one. And unless the circumstances are peculiar, it is assumed he/she will use the door to exit.

He put on his hat and left.

It would also be redundant to say that I put my gloves on my hands or that I kissed you with my lips or that I chewed the steak with my teeth, etc.

Note: Please do not conclude that I am a subscriber to a Minimalist philosophy in fiction. Eliminating redundancy is not Minimalism.

Here I will say that I'm never on the lookout for grammatical errors like dangling modifiers, sentences without subjects, problems with subject-verb agreement, and the like. It is my belief that if you attempt to write fiction, then you have an expert's knowledge of English grammar.

This doesn't mean that I never find these in a manuscript. It means that if you repeatedly make these mistakes, then perhaps what you need is a remedial course in English, not a blog post that discusses the revision process. Or at least keep this in your bag during revisions (I do):

As for dialogue, I gave it a first look, not too thorough. What I was mainly worried about was dialogue that lingered on and on for no reason other than to speak. Again, I looked for redundant statements and unneeded tags. Because this is just a first reading, it would be counter-productive to obsess over what the dialogue sounds like. That's a project for a future reading. 

2. Tighten the continuity of the plot

The main reason I read the manuscript the first time is to tighten the continuity of the plot. My stories always evolve as I'm writing them, so that elements, names, plot points, change as I write. I think it is counter-productive to stop drafting to go back and straighten everything out. It is more efficient to rework these altered elements during the first revision.

One of the details that changed in The Quantum of the Past was the name of the antagonists. Originally, the enemy were the Demons, but that changed to the Stagnant. This seems like a simple enough thing to change; have MS Word do a Find and Replace search. But it was not. It wasn't just the name that changed, but the idea of these beings.

At least, MS Word helped me a little. To correct this continuity hiccup, I searched the document for all the uses of the word "demon." I evaluated each sentence that contained the term and revised it. Even then I had to highlight these places so that when I come up on them during the second reading, I can further evaluate them to see that they were not confusing or erroneous.

The way in which the novel ends also affects the continuity of the plot. I sometimes start in one place and plan to end in another, but the details change even while my goals do not. Confusing? It helps to look at that graphically:

I always know I'm going to start at A and end at Z, but as I draft the novel, Z becomes a line with many different points. Depending on my author's intent, I may choose one point along Z over others.

Maybe B or F are the best places to end along Z because they allow for an easier transition into the next installment of the series (if it is part of a series). This means the novel will end with a cliffhanger or a new character introduced that asks that the others join him/her on a new quest. Examples of this are easy to find: The end of A Dance With Dragons; the end of the novels in the Pendragon series; the end of Mr. Winship's first book in the Vaempires series.

Maybe I want the series to continue but don't want this novel to be seen as just a piece of a puzzle. So I choose to end at C or E because they transition quietly into the next installment of the series. An example of this is how J.K. Rowling ends the first book in the Harry Potter series--it could easily be a one-shot. Another example is the way in which Lois Lowry ends The Giver, ambiguous but with the possibility of continuation. The novels in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe series also follow this technique.

Maybe I just want this to be a one-shot and decide on D because it gives the novel a greater sense of completion. The ending is definitive. There are no important lingering questions. Life goes on as usual for the protagonist and the secondary characters. The promise of continuation is not there and the author will make sure there is no sense of something missing. An example of this is the way Dashiell Hammett ends The Maltese Falcon.

The question for me while writing The Quantum of the Past was do I end in B/F or C/D? There was no question in the beginning that this novel was part of a series. But how obvious did I want to be about it? I chose C/D because I believe that novels in a lengthy series should feel complete. This is not the approach I took with my other novel, Absolution for different reasons--namely that it is part of a trilogy and I wanted each piece of the trilogy linked and so I chose B/F along Z.

When I made the decision to go with C/D, it meant the events of the plot had to lead to this conclusion. In other words, no cliffhangers, no stopping the action right in the middle. Foreshadowing and allusions to greater and future plots were my allies. 

3. Fix errors

There are several types of errors that I look for while performing the first revision: Logical; spatial; temporal; errors in the elements of fiction; forgotten specific details.

A) Logical errors occur when the novel fails to follow its own logic or world rules. This is mostly a problem of genre fiction, like Fantasy, but it occurs in Literary work too. But because The Quantum of the Past is Fantasy, I will focus on that.

Here are some of the circumstances that lead to this type of error: Flimsy world/magic rules; failing to establish an exception to the rules early on; not following magical rules; wrong consequences to breaking a rule; ever-changing rules; a dependence on luck to solve problems.

If you have werewolves that change only during a full moon, then it would be problematic if they suddenly change in the middle of the day or on a moonless night. If there is a toll to performing magic in your world, then it would be problematic if the main character overcomes this toll time and time and time again, just barely enduring the strain to save the day--there is a certain finesse to do this in a believable way. If your character overcomes the majority of his/her obstacles for no other reason than he/she is lucky, then it is problematic.

If the rules of your world change per chapter, then this is problematic (i.e. if you establish in chapter 1 that trolls can only come out at night, but in chapter 2 you present a special type of troll that can come out during the day and wipe out a village as a result, and in chapter 3 you establish that troll hunters are part of an all-male brotherhood, and in chapter 4 your female heroine somehow joins the hunters to find these mysterious new trolls, and in chapter 5 you establish that no magical weapons exist to kill these new trolls, and in chapter 6 a wizard comes who says there is one magical weapon left and the hunters must find it, etc.). Do you see how this plot is filled with exceptions to the rules?

Establishing few exceptions to rules is a simple way to clear this type of error. Maybe you mention that there is this rare breed of werewolves that can change at will, without the need of a full moon (like in the Underworld series). Maybe your character can suffer the strain of the magic toll because he sacrifices a bit of his soul to do so. 

And if luck is your main character's best friend, then reconsider for the sake of exploring the strengths of your character further (this means you, Patrick Rothfuss!). 

Note: I would never say that you should eliminate all instances of chance in your writing. Luck is a fickle thing that writers have to deal with creatively. The truth is that the strength of the story does not depend on how much of it you include (just look at The Name of the Wind). 

B) Spatial errors occur because the action in an event is confusing and so characters are in places they ought not to be or it is difficult to picture how they interact in a given space/setting. I noticed that these occur more frequently in events where many characters must interact and the action consists of more than dialogue, like fight sequences, dances, banquets, parties, etc.

What helps me most to fix this type of mistake is event planning. In Urban Fantasy it is possible that you have pictures of the places where fights, dances, dinners, etc. occur. They key is to have a well-defined idea of the setting where the action takes place. This way you can visualize the characters and even make diagrams of a battle, fights, and other social encounters. 

This is one error that I take the time to fix. I can't stand my own work when the action is confusing and I can't keep track of what the characters are doing. It was especially challenging for me when the main characters were joined by half a dozen others with very unique abilities. 

C) Temporal errors occur because events of the plot do not take place within the alloted time-span of the novel. If your heroes must return to the holy city with the sacred artifact before the next full moon, that gives them a specific timetable to complete their quest. But if the events require more time than the premise allows, you have a problem. 

I fix these errors easy with a calendar. Mind you, that it may mean the deletion of an event if it doesn't fit in the timetable or an increase in the allotted time (maybe they have until two full moons from now). There are cheats, of course, like magical artifacts that can make the characters travel faster or that slow down time.

In The Quantum of the Past, I had to use a combination of expanding the timetable and measuring (to a horrid degree of accuracy) the amount of time each event took the characters to complete and how far along the calendar it moved the plot. I had to examine traveling modes, walking, vehicle speeds, horse speeds, etc.

Here I talk about trying to fit events into a tight timetable, but what if the opposite was true? If your characters have only two events in their quest and they finish them fairly quickly, it leaves a ton of empty space. 

The temptation is to use what I call filler-events to close the gap. If your characters enter a sub-plot that has no real connection to the overall plot, then it's possible you're doing it to fill a gap. A timetable that's too loose requires me to go back and fix the timetable and the plot. Shrinking the timetable works, but that means reworking key elements of your plot. It's tough work that requires an enormous amount of thinking and creativity because you are basically doing a soft-rewrite. 

D) Errors in the elements of fiction describe mistakes in characterization, dialogue, and other elements of fiction. The most common ones I make are characterization errors.

To be memorable, I try to give my characters a certain way of thinking and speaking. If you think about it, that's the way we are. Someone who is a political conservative won't be anywhere near an abortion rally; you might find them at a right-to-life rally. Someone who is a vegetarian or vegan would be out of place in a Burger King or McDonalds. A chauvinistic male would find it difficult to watch a romance comedy. Etc.

The examples I gave are extreme. Most men and women are not. And neither should my characters. But I do like them to have their opinions about things and act accordingly. Errors occur when characters act and say things that violate their characterization in a blatant way that is not the result of personal growth.

Writers will make this type of error to advance their plots. If your vegan decides to, what the hell, eat a burger and it ends up being tainted with germs so that they become sick to the point of nearly dying and they have an epiphany about their lives as a result, and then it advances the plot of your story--which was that a woman in her mid thirties was trying to find herself in middle age. That's a blatant disregard for characterization to advance the plot.

Current Urban Fantasy trend: Another example of this error is the tough-as-nails heroine making a foolish decision that she never would have made under other circumstances and which the bad guy (who is also her lover) takes advantage of--all to build the tension of the events that lead to the climax.

E) Forgotten specific details are the result of specific details of characters and/or settings changing as the novel progresses. In the prologue I said MC is a dark haired man with gray eyes, but by the end of the novel I describe how MC's blue eyes and blonde hair radiate after completing the quest. Oops! I have made this type of mistake with these items too: A character's car color/make; furniture in apartments/dwellings; shoes; clothing; and unique characteristics like family crests.

MC: Main character. The problem is that the most forgettable specific details are the ones that don't really play a role in the overall plot; we all remember the lightning bolt on Harry Potter's forehead, but what color were his eyes (yes, I remember that they were like his mother's)? This is also true of specific details in the secondary and tertiary characters. And, settings where very little action takes place are a source of this type of error too.

The only solutions I've come up with are: 1) To keep track of settings with a setting sheet and characters with a character sheet; 2) A careful set of eyes when performing revision readings; 3) a careful and willing test reader.

Disclaimer: Just because I'm talking about these errors now does not mean that I will always catch them during this stage in the revision process! Some of these errors are notoriously difficult to spot and they sometimes require a second set of eyes to find--and sometimes they are never found, right George R. R. Martin?

Examples: If you want an example of these errors in action, read The Angel Experiment by James Patterson. I don't want to rag on a popular book, but this particular one has the five types of errors I talk about in this section! And it is part of the reason why I think that having your work edited by "an industry expert" doesn't necessarily produce a quality novel.

4. Note places that are problematic for future revisions

Of course, a thorough reading like the one I described above leaves you exhausted. This means I can't solve all the problems I find while reading. Or I won't really understand why a chapter or event is problematic until I've given it some thought.

So, I leave them alone. I highlight them in the document and move forward. My mind works on the problem subconsciously; my progress does not stall as a result. 

That's all I can really do. I mean I am human.


That was it, right? That million word post had to be the entire revision process...but it's not. What I described in this post is what I do during the first revision. My future posts on the subject will explore the second revision and the working draft.