What You Know When You Revise

Photo by Sandy Lawson
Photo by Sandy Lawson

A student in my writing workshop has been working on a novel for the past year. When Vicki first presented the just-begun novel to class, she read a beautifully written prologue that followed a middle-aged man as he drove through the countryside outside of Memphis, back to where his father once had a farm. In the process, we learned about the weekends he and his brother spent with their father (divorced from their mother) on that farm. The other students and I were all impressed by the piece, with its lyrical language and evocative descriptions.

For her first reading in the fall class this year, Vicki returned to that prologue. She said she’d gotten a little lost in the writing of the book and needed to get back to the beginning. Out of the eight of us there, only one person other than me had read the prologue before. I immediately noticed that Vicki had changed the beginning. Instead of starting with her main character driving in his truck, he is at work dealing with a couple of crises. On page three he tells his assistant he’s going out for a long lunch, and the prologue that I remembered from before largely picks up there.

After Vicki read, I explained to the other students what she had changed. I also told Vicki how much I thought the new material improved the opening. As wonderfully written as the original prologue had been, it had had a dreamy, out-of-time quality to it. And as intriguing as the main character was, largely through his memories and his lack of bitterness over his unhappy childhood, the reader couldn’t be certain why she should care about him. Now, however, we see him handling his trying job, see him interacting with the people he spends time with every day, and get a good sense of who this man is. We know enough about him to want to know more. So when he goes on his drive, and we see the place where he was raised and learn about how he was raised, we are that much more engaged.

Now the interesting thing is that Vicki probably couldn’t have written these new pages a year ago. She didn’t know these things. She didn’t know how her protagonist joked with his assistant; didn’t know about that innovative technique he’d use to handle two bickering employees; didn’t know that when he went to pick up some truck parts, he’d be the sort of man to all but lecture the young clerk about how much things had changed around there, and not necessarily for the better. Vicki knows those things now, because she has written a hundred pages of the book.

For this reason, I normally advise students and clients just to keep writing. Get the whole thing down. New ideas, plots twists, intriguing and unknown aspects to your characters will come to you during the course of the writing. So take notes. Write a scene that’s demanding to be written and add a reminder that it needs to go between chapters four and five. Don’t go back to chapters four and five and rewrite them in order to accommodate the new scene. You can do that during the revisions. For all you know, chapter four might end up in the trash, because during those revisions, you rewrote chapter two and it now covers everything that was in chapter four.

This is the exciting part about revisions. Your first draft has great stuff in it, but it also probably has holes. Your characters are strong and believable, but those incisive insights that make the reader nod in startled recognition might not be there yet, because you didn’t know the characters well enough the first time through. And continuity. You no doubt got some ages wrong, or you decided halfway through that the book takes place in a small city instead of a small town, so many changes needed there. The revision stage is the time to take care of these things, rather than constantly circling back to fix—and no doubt refix—them in the first draft.

Now Vicki did go back, all the way to the beginning, while the novel is still in process. But she didn’t change anything; and as she said, she had started to lose the thread of her story over the many months of having too little time to spend on it. Returning to the beginning helped her to find it again. And indeed, when she came to class the next week, she brought a new chapter that drew high praise from all of us. She’s back on track.

And for a taste of Vicki’s prologue, below are two excerpts, the first from the new material and the second from the original.

King is waiting for his computer to boot up when he sees the office manager, Yolanda, in the doorway.

“The Corelli brothers are hitting each other,” she says. “Mrs. Corelli asked me to ask you to break it up.”

“Me?” he says. “Why me?”

“I guess they’re scared of you. And you’re the only manager in the building right now.”

Muttering about the boys’ stupid shit, King opens his top desk drawer, pulls out a string of twenty or so firecrackers and a book of matches. He heads downstairs. It’s a slow trip for him — a messed-up knee moves an overweight body only so fast. A little luck’s waiting at the first landing. The fighting Corelli brothers have moved their act within firing range. He lights the first firecracker and throws the string over the brothers’ heads. It lands about five feet away from them. A half second later the explosions begin.

By the time the last firecracker has gone off, every employee in the building, with the exception of Mrs. Corelli and Yolanda, is down on the warehouse floor. The boys have stepped away from each other and are looking up at King. King smiles.

 

Back in the day, before the developers grabbed all available land, a wide reach of landscape was as easy to find as a prairie in Kansas. It’s not that way now. Where the honeysuckle and kudzu and briar used to run wild, threatening everything in sight, developers excavated the acreage and created a land of pure progress with strip malls and box stores. So much development, not even the kudzu can breathe under the weight.

King drives past the old farm, which is now yard-to-yard subdivisions. He heads north, ten or fifteen miles out into the country, until he finds a spot where land’s still land — where an open field will have a cow or two standing under the spreading arms of a stand of cottonwood trees or a few horses are silhouetted by the rise of pasture. Maybe he comes across a farmer riding his tractor and turning up the earth. He pulls his pickup onto the shoulder, has his picnic, and takes it all in.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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