Monday, March 22

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, March 22, 2010 16 comments
There’s something about the warmth and bright sun that stirs my desire to tackle a messy corner of my house, especially one that isn’t functioning to its full potential. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little cleaning and tidying. Perhaps the furniture could be arranged differently to improve traffic flow or floor space. Sometimes I have to step back and think about how I’d ideally like to use the room, then completely reconceive how to achieve that purpose. Furniture may need to be removed or swapped for a piece that’s in another room, or a new purchase made.

While I was doing such a clean up in a few bedrooms over the weekend, I noticed some parallels in my current writing work. The revision process can feel very much like spring cleaning. My sense of needing to revise always starts from the feeling that a scene isn’t functioning as well as it could. At times, trims and tweaks and a rephrasing or three do the trick. Sometimes it’s the scene flow—actions aren’t happening in the right order or some element is hidden in a corner that needs greater emphasis. A bit of rearranging scene elements can usually cure these woes.

The scene plaguing me this weekend needed the more radical approach. While I liked the shape of the “room”—the scene “occasion” of gathering at a pub to drink to the memory of my MC’s father—it wasn’t serving much of a function in the narrative, other than to introduce some minor characters and thematic concepts. What it lacked was what Sandra Scofield calls "event"--the overall action that has impact and meaning and adds up to something significant with consequences. Every scene MUST have this, or it isn't pulling its weight.

Scofield describes event this way:
"something changes or is revealed or new questions are raised; the ground is laid for future events, or the meaning of past events is made clear; characters show themselves to be who they are make demands on one another. The protagonist acts and is affected in some way. This happens through decisions and external acts, the stuff of change."

My protagonist’s world wasn’t changed for better or worse as a result of the scene. Without that element of change, the scene was largely static and just taking up space. My protagonist had to enter the scene with one attitude/perspective and leave with another, based on what transpired in between. Once the nature of the attitude shift becomes clear in my mind, I can better decide what needs to happen plot-wise to motivate it. From function, I can determine what “furniture” from the earlier draft can stay, what needs to be cut and what new writing is needs to fill out the scene.

Until I meet my crit group deadline, this back-to-basics revision is going to be my focus for the next few days. And bluelines just hit my desk at work, so I have a significant pile of proofreading to occupy me, too. I'll try to squeeze in responding to comments this evening.

Has your revision process mostly involved cleaning and tidying? A little rearranging of existing furniture? Have you gone "back to basics" in a scene that wasn't working? How did you figure out what to fix?

Do all of your scenes include "event" as Scofield describes it? How could employing her concept strengthen your work?
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  1. With my last book after 3 revisions, I fianlly realized if it didn't move the story along it came out. I took out scenes, paragraphs and a whole chapter. The end result was what I queried with. From 130K to 95K.

    Now I'm on the first draft of my new wip, I can't really do any rearranging until the whole thing is done. Unfortunately, hopefully, my spring cleaning will have to be summer cleaning.

  2. I love axing scenes and sometimes I can be a bit too ruthless! I tend to over-write a lot in the first draft, so usually my second draft is asking myself: do I actually need this! Is it going in the direction I want; is it going anywhere? If not, it gets rewritten or chopped.

    Love the spring cleaning analogy!

  3. Awesome post!! I'm not revising, but I have gone back to re-start my project. I agree with Scofield, every scene, every description, every spoken word should reveal something about a character, or event, that is important to the plot. If it isn't, no matter how beautifully it is worded, it should be ruthlessly cut from the draft. Roger Ingermanson, author of the Snowflake Method which is my air and food these days, says it this way: "You cannot afford charity for a single sentence that is not pulling its weight."

    Good luck with your spring cleaning, both in your house and in your MS!!

  4. Laurel I love your posts :) They always motivate me to work harder at my writing, and I think of things differently that would work better. Thanks :)

  5. Well, for my MG novel which I had torn down and rebuilt a few times, I am on yet another pretty major renovation: moving around weight-bearing beams, adding new rooms, knocking down others, taking out windows and rebalancing with wall space.

    It's interesting you should describe revisiong the way you did in this post. Over at Writer Unboxed, a reader commented on the three levels of editing. Have a read.

  6. perhaps you need to visit my house a bit. I don't see anyone interested in spring cleaning.

  7. You have the best posts. :) It depends. Sometimes all I need is a little tweeking of a scene to get it right, but other times, like in the novel, I take a machete, a back hoe, and a fine-tooth comb to chop scenes and pages.

  8. I do it all! I am on another round of revising now, and I've cut some scenes that I really love, but didn't further the book in any way. Others I've only had to tweak and add more tension.

  9. This is the exact reason I am struggling with the middle of my ms. When my Laurel goes off to college, she meets a new friend, blah, etc... but how is it furthering the plot? It isn't. Yet.

    But rather than get frustrated, I am attempting to make it further the plot... somehow, some way.

  10. I couldn't finish my ms. I wrote the first part of the end a bazillion times. Each time I stalled. Finally clued in and deleted one more chapter. Magic. :)

  11. Anne: I'm impressed--35K of cuts. I'm trying to get 102K down to the 75-80K range. Tough work. But definitely, the rearranging is better left till you have a draft in hand.

    Talli: Great questions to ask one's self! I overwrite some places and underwrite others.

    Nicole: I've found that I can often "Frankenstein" a pretty line or image into a new place when the scene it had been in isn't pulling its weight. But sometimes, as you say, pretty words still just aren't fuctional enough to keep.

    Crystal: Thanks so much. I highly recommend Scofield's The Scene Book, it has grown me so much.

  12. Yat-Yee: Oh for sure, sometimes revision is far more like remodeling than cleaning. I'll check out the post you mentioned. Thanks!

    Scathing: when I was a kid, I would clean my friends' closets during sleepovers. Weird huh?

    Sarahjayne: The machete and backhoe have come through my manuscript! Definitely a gardening analogy for revision could be helpful too.

    Tara: those whole scene cuts can be painful, don't you think?

  13. Amber: Sounds like narrative summary could be your friend--not every thing that happens deserves a fully dramatized scene. Perhaps you just need to compress.

    Jemi: I've found that in places too--when I get stuck, I back up and look for where I took a wrong turn. Cut that material, then back on track.

  14. No, to most of those questions. I like the advice to make the scene an event. That the MC needs to change within that scene. I've always thought of the character's change as an overall picture, not the step by step, scene by scene journey, but of course, that makes sense. So, thank you for the tip!

  15. Mary: Scofield argues that every scene should have a mini plot arc, which a rising action, climax and denouement. I'd argue that for pacing's sake it's a good idea to split chapter-end scenes just before a scene climax, putting the rising action in one chapter and the climax and denouement in the next. It's an easy way to create a page-turner.

  16. I don't move scenes around, but I do a lot of adding and deleting. It definitely does feel like spring cleaning.