Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NaNoReVisMo #2: two flavors of facts

The nice thing about having knowlegeable people around when you're editing or revising something is that you can enslave them as fact-checkers and constantly holler "Do drug dealers measure out weed with a scale or a ruler?" or "Would mixing baking soda with helium *really* create an anti-gravity wonder fluid?" or "Is it plausible for my character to choke on a credit card?"

Revision is a time for making sure the physics and chemistry of your world are sound, that you haven't completely botched the slang of whatever underworld you're trying to portray, and that you haven't confused hepatitis with haemophilia.

INTERN has seen some embarassing mistakes. Doctor characters who take someone's temperature to see if they have epilepsy. Fir trees whose "leaves" turn "brilliant orange" in the fall. Improper use of the word "do-rag".

This is the easy kind of fact-checking: the kind you can do on the subway, merely by polling wise-looking travelers and trying to read Wikipedia on your cell phone.

The more challenging (and painful) kind of fact-checking involves your characters' emotions.

"Would my main character really feel satisfied when her mean neighbor's house burned down, or would she feel lingering regret?" "Maybe I need to change how Ebenezer feels in that scene where he makes out with Britney, since I added that new scene before it where she reveals her base digust for him."

Too often, revision only consists of adding new scenes without adjusting existing scenes to account for the changed dynamic. It's like taking a go-kart, adding an extra wheel, and then expecting it to run the same way.

A little emotional fact checking can fix this:

In Draft 1, Ebenezer is overjoyed to be making out with Britney. In Draft 2 (now that we've added that extra scene) we realize that our Ebenezer can't possibly feel overjoyed—now he feels used or humiliated or angry-yet-lustful. If the Britney-Ebenezer makeout scene doesn't get revised, the manuscript stops making emotional sense.

INTERN suspects that the reason many emotional inconsistencies stay put in manuscripts instead of getting revised is because old scenes can start to feel like they're set in stone, and somehow "meant" to be how they are. In fact, old scenes are the ones that most need to flex, or even get cut, because the characters they portray are no longer the real characters in the book.

Now that INTERN is reading this over, it sounds kind of obvious. If this were a novel, INTERN would have to go back and revise the end of this post to reflect her authentic emotional state of fretful perfectionism. Since this is not a novel, INTERN is going to finish this post exactly how she planned to:



  1. This is totally true. Wrangling the pace of the WiP it will suddenly cross my mind that these are not, in fact, historical events. I made them up. So Susie Cupcake doesn't actually HAVE to be at the sock-hop when the action goes down. This would make her confusion in identifying Joe Cool as a jerk much more plausible.

    Then I berate myself for my inflexible stupidity and get out the red ink.

  2. Things I've seen in published books recently: horses lying down to sleep. Fourteenth-century guns described as "rifles". The Iditarod beginning in Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks.

  3. I think the real reason emotional (and other) inconsistencies stay put is just exhaustion. And confusion. After the 20th revision, the author doesn't even remember if this draft is the one where Ebenezer loves Britney or hates her ... and doesn't even care anymore.

  4. Makes me wonder if Britney and Ebenezer will end up together once she gets over her base disgust and he stops feeling emotions so complex they require hyphenation. Until next time, I suppose. Yay NaNoReVisMo!

  5. Wonderful slam us in the face truths come out of these last two posts. Thanks for being so honest!

  6. Woo-hoo! Right back at ya'. My WIP is impossible to revise at this point. My head is spinning. But good advice anyway.

  7. And then there's the sadness of discovering that your entire premise/plot is based on the idea that fir trees have leaves. Those are fun revisions.

  8. Yay for Revismo! I'm on draft three now and plan to have it finished by the end of this month. I've done the fact checking and now doing an emotional pass on the MS - and deleting a whole lotta navel gazing that snuck it's way in on draft two. Revismo! Woo!

  9. Anonymous 12:39, my family raises draft horses. They do lie down to sleep.

  10. I don't think I'd want to make-out with a guy named Ebenezer, either. That name conjures up some guy that's not really, um....visually pleasing.

  11. Sometimes,the added scenes themselves must be purged. The flow of the story, that initial visceral meat that splats down onto our word processors, may wrankle at all the spices and sauces of our later revisions. Often, like a good steak, it just needs salt and pepper. Let the meat stand on its own and whatever you do, don't overcook it.

    Gee, if you read that and thought "But I like my meat well done," then maybe you also like to make 20+ revisions. Don't get me wrong, unedited equals trash and mush, but overworking also produces confusion and stalemate.

  12. This is a very true point about revision. It's why I have to let a story sit for a few months before I come back to work through the next revision draft. My general rule for revision: when in doubt, delete.

  13. Yes, I have places in my novel that, on rewrite and revision, get passed over because they feel more like foundation for the story, since those are the places the book/story took off from. I can see that you're right, however, and that when I see those, I need to take a few minutes to assess whether they're actually doing the job I need them to in the story. And if not, I'll have to kill those little darlings.

  14. The Intern is very wise. So often, writers lose perspective (or become exhausted, as some have suggested) in the attempt to fit it all together.

    A book is a tough thing to wrangle. Keeping it all in your head at the same time can be difficult.

    Focus on the central conflict and the state of mind of the character you are writing about. At every stage, these should be evolving but ultimately consistent.