August 07, 2014
Revision As Whittling
Revision: the enigma of writing enigmas, especially for beginners. Here’s a slice of some, a passage I revised in the first pass pages for I’ll Meet You There. Don’t forget, these are two sentences I wrote and re-wrote for two years as I worked on the book and STILL it wasn’t ready. On my last revision, I sat laboring over this sentence for several minutes. This after two years of thinking I’d revised it to perfection. After my editor, her assistant, the copyeditor, and countless beta readers had a go at the ms. I could have let it go—it was good enough, wasn’t it? No. It stuck out. I had a niggling feeling that I couldn’t ignore. This is what happened at my desk:
As I worked, the world around me ceased to exist. All I thought about was the feel of the paper under my fingers and the creature straining to burst from the collage.
As I worked, the world around me fell away, my world whittled down to the feel of the paper under my fingers and the creature straining to burst from the collage.
As I worked, the lobby fell away, my world whittled down to the feel of the paper under my fingers and the creature straining to burst from the collage.
So let’s break down Sentence #1:
This is a passage where the main character is getting into her artist’s zone. It was important to me that I truly evoked that through word choice, tone, and structure of the sentence. I wanted the moment to feel intensely personal and intimate, while drawing the reader into that sacred space through the language.
I cut “the world around me ceased to exist” because it was both a clich phrase and too wordy, almost pompous with that word “ceased.” Instead, I chose the more tactile-seeming figurative imagery of “falling away.” My proto is a collage artist and this expression seemed to suggest her medium, where there’s a lot of cutting happening. It also felt more in voice: Skylar is a teen girl. She wouldn’t say “ceased to exist” because she’s not an eighteenth century lord. “Fall away” is both poetic, as she sees the world through an artist’s eyes, and humble, as she’s a young girl who speaks simply, yet eloquently, about her experiences.
I chose “whittle” because it’s a word we use when discussing artistic craft, such as woodworking. Again, word choice being particular to the character. The word supports the phrase “fall away” because it suggests that though something is being lost (the lobby in which Skylar is making her art in), this is a good thing: whittling means taking away parts to reveal the true and beautiful whole of something. For Skylar, when she works and the world is whittled away, she goes into her safe space, where the world makes a little more sense and she is her true self.
I took out “all I thought about” because it was redundant: if I choose my words carefully and craft well, then the reader will infer that all Skylar is thinking about is her art. It’s also a phrase I noticed myself using too much in this manuscript. Part of my last revision was going through and taking those out or re-working them so that they read better.
Finally, you’ll see that I chose to turn two sentences into one. This was because I’d whittled down the sentence, yes? In bringing it closer to it’s true whole, I didn’t need two separate sentences. This served to create more flow, sweeping the reader through Skylar’s trip down the rabbit hole.
Original Sentence #2:
The whir of the fan provided a soundtrack to the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
- The whir of the fan and the soft sounds of cutting and arranging were my soundtrack.
- My soundtrack was the whir of the fan and the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
- A soundtrack played softly in the background: the whir of the fan and the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
My soundtrack: the whir of the fan and the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
So let’s break this down.
I kept quite a bit of this sentence, but I needed to re-work it because it always ready clunky to me. It’s a risky sentence: the my soundtrack part could be seen as a little showy. I considered going another way, but I liked the directness and simplicity of it. It felt in scene and was true to Skylar’s voice. This was a gut decision and a hard one because one of my biggest criticisms from my writing teachers is my tendency to go a bit too lyrical with my language. Nevertheless, this one felt right.
So what was wrong with the first four attempts?
I’m sure you can see that the “provided” is kind of having the same problem as “ceased to exist” in that it doesn’t read in voice. Would a teen girl say “provided”? I don’t think so, at least not my teen girl. It’s also out of the tone of the scene. Provided is a practical word and art is anything but practical. I wanted to highlight the sensory experience of collage, how Skylar is aware of the paper under her skin, the sounds in the room.
The next two attempts took out provided and kept the rest, rearranging to see which order of words had the best flow. Not terrible, but not quite where I wanted to be. Revision is very much feeling around in the dark when you’re at the sentence level like this and you’ve got to listen to the words, both in your head and spoken aloud. I should mention that I read all of my books out loud—every word—once through after I finish copyedits. It requires a pack of Ricollas and hot tea, but is well worth it. You have to develop an inner ear, yes, but speaking the words out loud really help you to see where the flow is off and you find all those little parts that don’t ring true. I make enormous amounts of revisions in this stage. When I’m at the sentence level like this, I also read out loud. These two sentences worked, but neither one felt right. So I had to keep going.
I really liked my last attempt – it was wordier, but had flow and got closer to a different structure for the sentence with the semi-colon. You have to be careful with this kind of punctuation and I still feel nervous about using it here, because it creates a beat that I’m not sure the sentence warrants (see, even now I have uncertainty about my choice…I may even change it in my final revision for the book!). The thing that didn’t work for me with this sentence is that it felt very narrated. Remember, Sky’s in her artist’s zone, speaking to us in first person. With “s soundtrack played softly in the background” we get a narrator setting up a scene. But I want the reader to be absorbed into this moment, in Sky’s skin. Sky vacillates between being plain spoken and a touch more poetic and so I opted for succinctness here. She’s bringing us along on the journey with this shorter sentence. Side note: phrases like “in the background” aren’t always necessary. You might find that your reader can infer far more than you give them credit for.
So, to recap:
The original passage, with both sentences:
As I worked, the world around me ceased to exist. All I thought about was the feel of the paper under my fingers and the creature straining to burst from the collage. The whir of the fan provided a soundtrack to the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
The final passage, with both sentences:
As I worked, the lobby fell away, my world whittled down to the feel of the paper under my fingers and the creature straining to burst from the collage. My soundtrack: the whir of the fan and the soft sounds of cutting and arranging.
I’ll Meet You There is over four hundred pages long. I don’t know how many sentences that is, but this is what you need to know about revision: see what I did up there, with just those two sentences? I did that with every single sentence in the book. And this is just craft revision, not big sweeping revisions related to plot and character arcs. I get deep pleasure from revision, but I know some people hate it and just want o live in that place of story discovery. I’m terrified of starting something: to me, there is nothing worse than a blank page. The joy of writing for me comes from digging in deep and making something better. Whittling. If you are not a big reviser, I hope you take this post to heart, both to show you the rewards of it…and the necessity. Writing is hard work. So roll up your sleeves and get whittling – I promise what you’ll end up with is a work of art.
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