Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Revision, 2

Well, now that my laptop has overcome that DNS failure that's bugged me for the past two days--and my fingers have recovered from writing that lengthy post about the first revision--it's time I approach the next stage in the revision. No, not the second revision, not yet.

Before I start, let me mention some of my preferences while performing the revision process.

  • I work on my computer screen; the idea of lugging around a ream of paper is not pleasant.
  • My work stays with me in a USB drive so that if I need to, I can use any computer w/MS Word.
  • The place where I perform my revisions is irrelevant; it's unlike my writing process. 


After the first revision, the manuscript of The Quantum of the Past was 530 pages long, in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double-spaced format. The MS Word software tells me that it has just over 159,000 words; if I were to calculate the word count for a submission, it would be closer to 170,000 words!

Now, I want to get the manuscript to an ideal length (ideal according to me, not because of any industry standard--it is just MY preference). This isn't just a random whim, it's a technique I use.

I call it, playing the accordion. As you may or may not know, an accordion is a musical instrument you compress and expand to get it to play music. What I do is essentially the same. During the first revision, I'm expanding the accordion, adding details to the story to get the continuity straight.

After the first revision, I compress the accordion: I set a page or word count goal and then comb through the manuscript deleting, adjusting, compressing it to get it to that magical number I came up with.

The idea is to force me out of that comfort zone that I end up in after the first revision--I often feel the manuscript is ready after I've combed through it once.

For me, 500 pages in the format I mentioned or 150,000 words is an ideal length. Since trimming pages is easier than trimming words, I set out to nibble the manuscript down by 30 pages.

My novel is divided into 3 volumes. The first and third volumes are the shortest, while the second volume could be a novel on its own. This means that I'm going to focus on volume two.

Note: As I write this, I've already finished. And let me tell you, it was a fight to get those last eight pages trimmed!

To shorten a manuscript, I use the following techniques:
  1. Delete dead space.
  2. Delete unnecessary events.
  3. Combine chapters.

1. Deleting dead space

Every line in my manuscript adds to the overall page sum. Sometimes, I'll end up with a chapter that has a last page that looks like this:

It has five lines total and then dead space. It's not a terrible thing, but I am trying to delete pages. So, to trim this last page, I'd have to delete five or six lines within the chapter.

Note: I could also change the settings in MS Word to allow more lines per page, but that defeats the purpose of this exercise.

In any chapter, dead space will also look like the highlighted text:

There's dead space following the word "thing" in the dialogue highlighted. To get rid of those five lines at the end of the chapter, I had to revise that dead space.

Here is what it looks like revised:

The dead space is gone. You are essentially rewording sentences so that they say the same thing, using less words. 

Note: At this stage, it would be counter-productive to eliminate the dead space from chapters that do not have short last pages. I won't do this until it is absolutely necessary.

Note: If I had changed the font to Courier New, the dead space might have disappeared in the example above, but it would have created new dead space somewhere else. Again, the point of this exercise isn't to tweak the software properties, but to delete and compress material.

2. Delete unnecessary events

It would be wonderful if I could trim the page count by just eliminating dead space in the manuscript. Unfortunately, eliminating dead space only took me so far to meet my goal. I didn't despair though. There are other techniques and this section describes one of them.

You may or may not be able to tell, but The Quantum of the Past is relatively enormous for a work of Fantasy. This means that there more than likely is an abundance of unnecessary events described. Like I said in the post about the first revision, the word "unnecessary" is subjective. The truth is I could publish the manuscript as is and it would not be the longest or shortest novel out there.

But my inner author's voice is telling me to go through it and delete thirty pages and so I will.

As I executed the first revision, I targeted some events that were problematic for a number of reasons: Pacing; tone; relevance. Unfortunately, I can't give you screenshots of "before" and "after" the revision because it would take up too much room.

Example: In The Quantum of the Past, there was a chapter near the climax where the antagonist speaks with one of his men to discuss the details of the battle that follows. These events had some purpose, as a side note to the philosophy of the story. It looked good during the drafting stage, but after considering what it contained, I deleted the entire chapter. Sadly, this didn't help me with the page count since I deleted it during the first revision, not during the compression stage. 

Another trick is to summarize events I described in detail. Events, like I said, can be described in great detail or summarized. This means that every event described can be compressed or expanded, like the musical accordion. I choose the events to summaruring the first revision and then in this stage, all I have to do is turn them into exposition.

Note: For this technique to be effective, I had to maintain the pace and tone of the chapters I wanted to alter--I don't want to overload chapters with exposition. But during this step, I won't worry too much about it. In the second revision I will, when I consider the elements of style.

Note: This doesn't always work out perfectly the first time. That is why I always keep track of what I do by creating different files and folders for work that is in different stages of the writing process. The version I first write is what I call the Rough Draft. These are all different files in my computer and in different folders appropriately named Rough Drafts, Revised Drafts, Working Drafts.

3. Combine chapters

I mentioned earlier that I had deleted an entire chapter. But there is a difference between deleting a chapter and combining two. 

Combining chapters is a very difficult thing to do in a novel because each chapter, supposedly, has its own identity. It is a part of a whole with its own events and at times uses the elements of fiction in its own unique way. For example, look at the way that Fitzgerald jumps into Second Person in one of the chapters in The Great Gatsby (I won't say which, but it's a real wonderful thing to read because of what it accomplishes). Also, the first chapter of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is in the present tense and shifts to past tense and then stays there for most of the novel. And who of course there is James Joyce's Ulysses, whose every chapter utilizes different literary techniques. 

In my experience, I found that combining chapters works when the chapters are similar enough to one another and are in sequence (as in combining chapter 40 with chapter 41).

Also, I won't just delete the word "Chapter" in the heading, I'll have to trim the ending of one chapter and trim the beginning of the next. Why? The ending of your chapter may include mini-cliffhangers or foreshadowing (George R. R. Martin is notorious for ending his POV chapters with mini-cliffhangers that don't get resolved until you read the character's next POV chapter). I included these things too, so I will trim the endings.

Then, I will add transitional phrases or paragraph(s) to tie into the beginning of the next chapter. With that complete, I will have a new chapter that is the length of two chapters. Not much of a gain, right? This is where deleting unnecessary events, compressing detailed events, and eliminating dead space comes in handy again. I will accordion what I need to from each of the two chapters combined.

The point is to extract enough of each chapter to allow for a new chapter to emerge that is approximately the same length as one of the two combined. It will look ugly when finished. Again, I won't stress too much about this until the second revision.

The rough draft of The Quantum of the Past had 71 chapters total, not counting the prologue and epilogue. After this stage in the revision process, the total chapter count is now 68.


And when all was said and done, boys and girls, the manuscript of The Quantum of the Past was 498 pages long. I was officially ready for the second revision.