Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Revision, 3

And here we are again, you and I. My time is like one of those pie charts, with little slivers going to many different places. Therefore, though I should have finished this sooner, it was impossible to do.

Very soon I will begin to post about my progress in drafting Ascension, all the while I edit volume one of The Quantum of the Past. And then, in November, I will publish that work. And in between all of that is the series of posts about the Editing Process.

And so, here is my second revision.


The Second Revision

As you recall, my manuscript was rough around the edges after I trimmed thirty-two pages off of it and several chapters; all to give a total page count of 498.

Well, the task shouldn't be so difficult now, right? All I'm really doing is repeating the first revision steps.


That's not what I do during a second revision. Naturally, it involves reading. Lots and lots of reading. I read the manuscript of Absolution about forty times before I published it (not an exaggeration)--mostly during the Copy-editing Process, which left me with a novel 99% free of typos and other like blunders.

The second revision focuses on the following areas:

  1. The elements of style
  2. Analyze the story, refine the plot as needed
  3. Presentation

This doesn't mean that I'm abandoning the steps in the first revision; errors will still pop up every now and then. It means that my concern has moved to other areas of storytelling. I will return to the steps of the first revision, but only when I have a working draft.

1. The elements of style

No, I don't mean the book by William Strunk Jr. later revised by E. B. White. I mostly use that book for its tips on grammar usage and composition (I personally avoid that last chapter, An Approach to Style, which is nothing but a collection of preferences).
Here I have to finish what I started in the drafting stage. It's time to worry about more than the grammatical correctness of the language. This is where the novel becomes my work--the refining of the author's voice.


Consider The Hunger Games and Pure. The voice of one novel is almost indistinguishable from the other; they use a garden variety narrative style. But anyone who has read both works knows there are differences: The way the authors use their narrative voice to present the story.

In my opinion, Suzanne Collins is far more effective in The Hunger Games. This doesn't mean I will emulate her. I want the voice of my novel to be as unique to me as the story elements.  

In the section of this blog called Chasing the Coyote, I have shared more than one version of the prologue of The Quantum of the Past, and they were not all in the same verb tense. Why? Style.

It had to have these: Grave, not dark, descriptions; a sense of immediacy in the events; a devastating look at war. It was an introduction to the way I would later approach action, setting, and events within the main plot. Of course, it also kick starts the plot, but that seems irrelevant--almost.

Here is an earlier version of a piece of the prologue:

A flood of stimuli. The searing heat suffocates him. The ringing in his ears is like the scream of a banshee. In the air is the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh. This prompts his eyes to open and before him spans a desert as vast as the universe. And when the pain on his every muscle and bone finally registers, he convulses and vomits. A feeble groan dies in his throat as he tries to let out words. But what words can express any of this? 

Everything crashes back into place: The thunder of the machine guns from other Humvees; the guttural commands soldiers shout into the ether; the buzzing of bullets everywhere that is so much like the sound of mosquitoes that he tries to swat them.

And here is how some of that in the prologue after an obsessive second revision:

Stimuli awaken his senses in bursts--not all of it is understandable. The calidity of the air bathes him and he thinks that he is either in a furnace or his soul is forever damned in hell. The heat prompts his eyes to open and before him spans a barren landscape as vast as the universe. The sickly sweet smell of burning flesh comes next, surely from the casualties near the Humvee, but is actually the product of the burns that now cover most of his body. And when the pain finally registers, he convulses and vomits.

I removed the reference to the ringing in his ears and added the detail about the burns on most of his body. Why? The first version was acceptable and I could have published it like that. But my inner writer's voice said it wasn't right. Now, that nagging voice is a little quieter about the prologue...


During the second revision, I obsess over removing redundancy. Here is an example from my book:

Every step was fire that dried their throats and eyes and drained them of vital fluids.

Do you see what's problematic about this sentence? Here it is revised:

Every step was fire that dried their throats and eyes.

It was redundant to add that the heat "drained them of vital fluids." Here is another example:

Half of the Sprite’s face had rotted off and what flesh remained was leathery, with the white of the skull showing in places and only ripped pieces of his wings remained. The bedridden man turned to Miles and he extended a healthy hand to him and a decrepit smile formed.

I underlined the problematic aspects of that passage and highlighted an unwanted repetition. Here it is revised:

Half the Sprite’s face had rotted off and what flesh remained was like leather, poorly concealing his skull beneath. The bedridden man formed a decrepit smile and extended a hand to Miles.

By eliminating needless information, like that "he turned to Miles," the sentences became less redundant. Also, by eliminating the second instance of the word "remained," I added variety to the phrase.


Cliches are generally seen as unwanted elements in a narrative. I am not so quick to judge these. Depending on certain elements of fiction, a cliche could enhance a text.

In daily speech, we make use of cliches to carry our meaning across when other forms of explanations fail or are insufficient. I consider this when writing dialogue and sometimes include a cliche if I feel it is within the boundaries of characterization (would this character use a cliche?).

I try to avoid the most obvious cliches when writing Third Person. For stylistic reasons, however, I may include them. What does that mean? There is a difference between including a sentence like, "She took the bait, hook, line and sinker!" and elevating a cliche into a theme or an extended metaphor.

For example, a theme of many Romance novels is actually the elevation of a cliche: Of love, better late than never. But you will rarely see one of these novels blatantly write it out (maybe in other ways towards the end)--wasn't it Hawthorne's advice in The Scarlet Letter to be true to your heart? Another example of elevating a cliche is the title of my novel. The Quantum of the Past is a reworking of the very common cliche: Don't cry over spilled milk.

In First Person POV, the use of cliches depends on whether I feel the character would use cliches. Again, I try not to just include cliches. In Absolution, the main character uses cliches in his narration and dialogue because it is thematically relevant.

What about those long lists of terms and phrases that you should avoid because they are overused? You've seen them on websites that offer writing advice. The payoff for searching and deleting/substituting these is not enough for me to justify the work. How does my novel benefit from eliminating the word "pleasant" or "Big/little" or "kind"? I guess I could go nuts with a thesaurus, but why? To appear sophisticated or verbose? Come on...

What I always consider when looking at those lists is my voice. Worrying about using "a lot" or about the number of adverbs per page hinders the development of my voice.

Note: If I know ahead of time that an Agent/publisher dislikes certain phrases, then by all means I delete them, only because it's part of the publishing game.

2. Analyze the story, refine the plot as needed

The plot is the sequence of events in the story. To me, the story is not the same thing as the plot. I may revise plot elements, but the story remains the same. It follows that if I revise the story, the plot must change.

There are several version of The Quantum of the Past. I mentioned that I wrote it last year when I meant to send it in to publishers. That version of the novel is obsolete. Now, I want to include subject matter considered taboo, like I did with Absolution. Why would I do that? To be original? As a response to reviews of Absolution? Social justice?

No. Because I can. I can satisfy my creativity without restraint. That's the beauty of self-publishing. (I will post about this lack of restraint in the future).

The reason Quantum was giving me such a headache was because of a shift in story. I had to revise some of the plot--erase some characters, create others, adjust events, settings, and characterization--in order to align the novel with this new vision. It is a shitty thing to do to a novel nearly complete, not just because of the extra work it created for me; it is a procedure that can go awry very easily.

But it has been done with legendary results. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is said to have been influenced in such a way that two distinct novels were the result (an amalgamation of text). There is debate about whether this is true and who or what influenced Melville to alter his novel into what it became. The romantic in me likes to think that Melville tried to do something different with the novel at a late date and the result is what you read in English classes today.

Did I succeed? I still have time to decide that.

3. Presentation

The main goal of the presentation step is to analyze the manuscript and transform it into a novel. So, I dot the i's and cross the t's. It involves analyzing.


If you remember, I mentioned in The Revision, 2, that the chapters I had compressed would be messy. During the second revision, I had to clean them up. One of the tasks involved is looking closely at chapter content. This takes time since you have to consider all the events in a chapter and whether they carry a tone across. If one or more events disrupts the balance within, it's time to relocate them; I may need to move content up or down a chapter.

I will summarize one instance of this in Quantum. There is a chapter titled The Battle of the Raven Mountains, which includes fighting between armies. But in a previous draft of the chapter, there was content of a different pace, interactions that developed the dynamics between the characters. So, I moved this content to an earlier chapter, which had a similar pace. It wasn't hard work and the overall effect is that the The Battle of the Raven Mountains has a darker, uniform tone throughout.


It is a misconception that the novel has to be linear; that is, the events cannot linger away from the plot; and the presentation of content is out of the ordinary/experimental. But some of the most memorable novels in literature are non-linear. Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and James Joyce's Ulysses are examples of non-linear forms.

Creating an effective non-linear form is tricky in a genre novel; too much deviation kills momentum. For example, The Quantum Thief includes interlude chapters that deal with events that take place prior to the events of the plot. These are confusing; only a second reading of the novel helped me appreciate their usefulness. And even that didn't help me connect with the main character any further.

This doesn't mean it can't be done: The Fellowship of the Ring starts off with an aside about Hobbits and The Return of the King ends with a "history" of the fates of the characters involved in the trilogy; G.RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire introduces a flurry of linear forms instead of just one, each colliding with others at different points in the story.

Why complicate things further by messing with the form of the novel? I mean, The Hunger Games is a vastly successful work that doesn't stray even an inch from a traditional form.

This is where writers differ. For a writer like me, who is not content with common modes of storytelling, creating non-linear elements is a must--one of my mottoes is to write the fiction that challenges my creativity.


Creating a skeleton of the novel helps me do this:

Section #: Title
            Prologue:  Title                                     pg#
            Chapter #: Title                                     pg#
            Chapter #: Title                                     pg#

And etc. all the way down to the Epilogue. Examining the novel this way gives you an appreciation for volume per section and volume per chapter. It's a bird's eye view of the whole thing that reveals areas of bulkiness and areas starving for content. This would help me if I sought a certain uniformity in content presentation--like if I wanted all the chapters to be 10 pages long.

But the true value of the skeleton lies elsewhere. How many pages after the climax is the end of the novel? If the number of pages is excessive (as defined by a careful observation of other like novels that are successful), then it is essential that I trim content. I don't want the novel to end 200 pages after the climax.

Also, using the skeleton I can highlight events that help build up to the climax and see if there are wide page-number gaps between these--the goal is to have a steady progression of tension.

Note: I could have done the Presentation step during the first revision, but that would have been a waste of time. During the first revision and most of this second revision, the manuscript is in flux and it only solidifies during this step in the revision process.

What does it mean when I say that a manuscript "solidifies"? Well, it takes on a different identity and I treat it differently as a result. After the Presentation step, what I'll have is the novel, for better or worse.

Note: There is one more thing I like to do after the novel solidifies, which is also part of the Presentation step; reading content aloud and looking for areas where I pause. My philosophy is that the first 50 pages should be as smooth as silk--I also read important places in the story. But because I'm self-publishing, I'll save this step for the Copy-Editing Process.


After a strenuous second revision, The Quantum of the Past came out with 71 chapters (two more than it had before I completed the first revision), but it only gained 5 pages total--now it is 503 manuscript pages long.

What I'm left with is what I call a Working Draft. Because I'm publishing this myself, and in three volumes, I split the Working Draft.

Now in the Works in Progress page, it shows that each volume is only at 75% complete with the second revision. Wasn't the novel solidified?

Yes. This only means that there is additional work to be done. But it is very precise. I already have areas in mind to refine: Specific chapters; battle sequences. Only serious errors would motivate me to destroy its integrity.

The key word after completing the Presentation step is refine. Whatever ideas I come up with from here on out won't alter the elements of the novel but refine them. For example, the prologue, which I've toyed with incessantly, already dissatisfies me; I'll have to go back and look at that first paragraph again.

And so, the revision process will settle down to make way for editing.


PS: This is a work in progress too. This means I'll add subjects as time passes.