“Dig, Don’t Fix”: Notes on revision from Robert McGuire

Last week, I sat down with one of my  writers’ groups to discuss the novel I’ve been working on.

Stack of edited copies of my novel.

Marked-up first drafts of the novel. I have a lot of work to do.

I’ve posted ad nauseum about my troubles revising this project, which served as my creative thesis when I graduated from the Fairfield MFA program. I tried retyping the novel. I read chapters in craft books. I made timelines. I set goals. I wrote new scenes. Nothing seemed to work. I didn’t feel like I was making the structure of the plot any cleaner or stronger. I felt like I was cluttering it.

So last Wednesday, when I sat down with the members of a writing group who had read the whole first draft of my book, I was a little apprehensive. I’d read it myself and noticed lots of holes where I thought there were none. I noticed lots of mistakes. I was certain that my three colleagues – Daisy Abreu, Robert McGuire, and Ioanna Opidee (who starts her own revisions today) –  would pull the thing apart.

Except  they didn’t.They gave me lots of good advice and three marked-up copies, and this will sound cheesy, but they also gave me hope for a story I’ve been falling out of love with.

And here’s another thing a member of that writing group gave me: notes on revisions for this blog post.

A few weeks back, I asked my readers for revision advice. Robert McGuire, who interviewed me earlier this year for his blog, Working on a Novel, wrote these notes on revision after I chided him for not commenting on that post. I’ve edited out some of the specific references to my novel, but I want to share his advice with all the writers who happen upon this blog.

Robert’s advice is really on point. He teaches writing at the college level and is very disciplined when it comes to his own craft, and his advice is worth reading. Also, his blog, Working on a Novel, is an electronic journal inspired by John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, the diary/letters/journal that Steinbeck kept while writing East of Eden. I’m reading that now (Robert has kindly loaned me his copy) and I’ve begun journaling in the morning before work, as Steinbeck did. I don’t know if this journaling will last, but right now, it’s helpful. I realized that one of the things I lack now is someone to talk to about my work. When I was in my MFA program, I was constantly talking about my novel. I talked to my mentors and teachers about the work I was doing. I talked to other students. I was immersed in the story and in the lives of the characters. Now there’s not nearly as much chatter about the work I’m doing and if I want to stay immersed, I have to talk to myself. I find that so far, it’s been helpful.

But enough from me. Here’s Robert:

Wheww. Congratulations on writing a complete draft of a complete novel. One foot in front of the other. It’s a big achievement.

First, let me give my response to your blog post about how to revise.

Craft books, of course! No, actually, when I have been at this stage with my books, I discovered that it’s really hard to find good practical advice about the revision process. Drafting, yes. Editing and proofreading, yes. But not RE-vising. The big messy muddle in the middle doesn’t seem to get as much attention.

Nevertheless, a couple sources spring to mind. I really like the Jane Smiley book, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel, and in it she has two chapters especially about writing, the second of them being about how to look at your draft and look at it critically. I also benefited from some focus/prompt questions I found in one chapter of an otherwise unremarkable book by Jesse Lee Kercheval called Building Fiction.

One technique I remember picking up somewhere was to think of the plot in terms of questions that were posed by the book and that the reader was asked to care about. The idea being that you want to provoke questions in the reader’s mind – plot-wise, character-development-wise and thematically – and ultimately satisfy those questions. I had a little diagram, totally unique to my book, that had surface-level plot questions and more implicit thematic questions, some that pulled the narrative along for only a section (i.e. the “acts” in your book) and some that were overarching for the whole book. Then I would go through and ask how each scene interacted with those questions. Was the scene relevant to the focus questions? Keep the reader caring about the questions? Complicating things without digressing? That was a big help in figuring out what each scene needed to make it work as part of the whole.

Another way of thinking about the revision process is to think in terms of SAYS vs. DOES. (I take this from first-year composition texts.) This scene/book/graf/whatever SAYS ____. This scene DOES _____. I suppose it’s another way of thinking about the difference between what’s explicit and what’s implicit. And I suppose it helps connect a given scene to the whole. Because a scene can say something very well within its own boundaries but to do anything effectively, it has to be in communication with the rest of the book. At an early stage of revision, I would worry less about what a scene says than what it does. Ask yourself what the scene is doing to move the story forward, escalate tension, establish character, etc. When the answer isn’t clear, then you know you’ve got work to do. I suppose the follow up question is to ask yourself what the scene should do.

You and I have probably have opposite styles on the issue of “overwriting.” For the sake of getting another POV on the table, I’ll argue for not worrying too much about your father’s warning against overworking the book if for no other reason than it’s easier for writers to erase than for painters. Kidding myself about how good my work is a clear and present danger, and overworking it is only a theoretical possibility.

One of the main principles that make sense to me is the idea that revision is re-envisioning the book. Seeing it again. Seeing what it is and what it needs and what it could be. Seeing it differently. It’s really easy to get lost in line edits and feel like progress is being made when what’s really needed is a bigger picture re-evaluation. Of course, there aren’t bright lines between these stages, and it probably happens sometimes that struggling with a line edit reveals the larger structure of the book.

Last bit of experience: When I was drafting my first book, I noticed that I kept myself motivated by a kind of unconscious mantra. Just add sentences. No matter what, keep moving forward. Don’t worry about how good it is. Then when I was bogged down during the revision stage I figured out I needed another regular, simple reminder of what the work was. I finally settled on one. Dig. Don’t fix. Whenever I was tempted to fix something, it turned out I was avoiding something more essential. I needed to get down in the mud and make some more mud pies first.

There’s some of this POV that I think applies to your draft, and I’ll share that when our writing group gets together to discuss it. Good luck!

My fiction: Where the boys aren’t.

UPDATE (9:32 PM, EST): Rebuttal time! Read Phil Lemos’s take on our meeting, our disagreement and on writing women characters here.

Yesterday, I met with one of my writers’ groups and was accused of misandry.

My piece – a short story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a man who has disappeared – was up for discussion.

One of my fellow writers – the estimable blogger Phil Lemos – was deeply unhappy with an element of the story: the unnamed husband of the protagonist.

“I hate your husbands,” he said, smacking his palm on the table. “They’re all meat-heads.”

He went on to suggest that I only included the husband because I need dialogue in certain places in the story, and told me that the main character’s unnamed meat-head husband might be tolerable if the third major character in the piece, who is a woman, was made into a guy. Then it would be okay, because there could at least be one redeeming man in the story.

Phil was pretty fired up. He looked mad. Righteously indignant. Angry, because the sole representative of his gender in my piece was, to his way of thinking, a stereotype.

All in all, his reaction was pretty awesome. Validating, even. Why? Because I’m angry like that all the time.

I’m almost always furious in that exact same way when I see women portrayed in literature, film and music. I’m mad like that so often, it’s ceased to be table-smacking rage and morphed into a permanent state of indignation. I’ve been angry since the age of 12.

Recently I re-read my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was mad. I was mad that one of the main female characters is thousands of years old but is protected by her father as if she’s 16, and  doesn’t get a line of dialogue until the end of the final book. I was mad when the bravery of  Éowyn, who does one of the most heroic deeds in the series, is downplayed. She was only interested in going to war, Tolkien tells us, because a bad guy was filling her with lies and making her discontent in her role as a woman. I was mad that there were no female dwarves. 

And then there is the Bechdel test, about which I recently learned. The Bechdel Test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel who popularized it in a 1985 cartoon, is used to judge women’s presence in film.

To pass the test, the movie must 1) have at last two named women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.

Here’s how the films honored at last night’s Academy Awards stand up to the test:

Yeah.

So back to writers’ group. It was nice to see a guy as indignant as I am every day, but Phil had a point: I do often write men as jerks, or as ciphers. Recently, two of the husbands in my short stories have started off their lives as nameless characters. All of my protagonists, but one, are female. This does reflect a issue on my part: At this point in my life, I am not willing to write men as major characters in my short stories.

As a feminist, I don’t see it as a problem: My short stories are about women and often about women’s issues. I don’t think that, as Phil said, my story needs at least one sympathetic man, because the story is not about men at all. This particular story is not even about gender. It’s about a character who happens to be female, and all the other characters are incidental to her and her problems. And why should I pander to male readers by throwing them a nice guy that they can relate to? How many bimbos and good wives and princesses-in-need-of-rescue and hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and passive-aggressive old women have I had to suffer as I’ve read my way through classic and modern literature? Can’t guys just shut up and endure my series of meat-heads and dullards and blustering old men?

No. No, they can’t, for lots of good reasons, but mostly because I’m an artist first. Being angry and making good art is not always the same thing. In the case of this story it’s definitely not.

Not an hour before Phil’s critique of my story, I came down on him – hard – for his treatment of the female characters in his novel.

“If I were reading this and the two major female characters were stereotypes, I might not finish reading this book,” I told him, “and it’s a book that deserves to be read.”

Another guy in the group spoke up: “Yeah, but how many women are really going to read this book?” Phil’s book is about football.

I then argued that lots of ladies would want to read it, and thought to myself that even if 70 percent of women don’t want to read a novel about sports, every novel deserves a cast of well-rounded, non-stereotypical characters – not just for the ladies who might read it, but for the education of the gents as well.  No need to continue writing stereotypes.

*Cough, cough.* Well. I guess that applies to my work as well. Will loads of straight manly men want to read about the internal struggle of a passive aggressive dental hygienist who wants to escape her marriage and her life, and resorts to stalking a stranger? Probably not. (It’s possible that women won’t want to read that either.) But whoever does read it deserves a cast of three-dimensional characters.

Don’t get me wrong; I hope someday I can write something artistic, which makes many men aware of how I feel when I see female stereotypes blithely inserted into fiction. But until that day comes, I don’t want to cheapen my writing with two-dimensional stereotypes.

With that in mind, Phil and I are going to be challenging each other to writing exercises. I will challenge him regarding writing women, and he will send me exercises aimed at improving my men.

Virtual book signing

News!

The official release date was tomorrow, but I’m told that my  book, Beware the Hawk, is already available on Amazon.*  There will still be a lot of hubbub tomorrow – I’m starting my blog tour over at WordVagabond and the book will be available at Vagabondage Press (no relation), but this is like a soft opening.

Signing Pen

A mentor gave me this pen to use at my very first book signing. I was bummed that I wouldn't be able to use it - until now.

So, for those who have asked, Beware the Hawk is an e-book. This is awesome for lots of reasons – it’s easy to download, it stays in print forever, it doesn’t weigh anything and it’s not killing trees. In short, it’s kinda made of magic. But one thing you can’t do with an e-book? You can’t sign it.

That’s a bummer, because book signings are fun. One of my writers’ groups once published an anthology and held a book signing and it was amazing. I could have signed books all night. I considered coming home and signing every book in my bookshelves, but luckily my roommate at the time, (who was also in the writers’ group, but who also had books on the shelves that she probably didn’t want me to deface) distracted me.

I digress.

Anyhow, I was sort of saddened by the fact that there would be no book signing at first, and then, during a conversation on Facebook, I realized that I don’t need to have a physical book to have a signing. In fact I don’t even need to be in the same room with everyone to have a signing. Here’s the deal.

From now until next Monday (Jan. 23, 2012), people who buy the book can send me an email with their mailing address. I’ll send you an autographed Post-It that you can put on your Kindle, Nook or computer while you’re reading my book. Not very fancy, perhaps, but who doesn’t like getting mail that’s not a bill?

So, if you want your autograph, send your mailing addresses to annjoconnell<at>gmail<dot>com. (Just until Jan. 23. Because this week is a special week.)

Then keep an eye on that mailbox. Now, if only I could figure out how to do a virtual reading.

* If you want to help a woman out, get it from the Vagabondage Press site. Both the publishers and I get better royalties and you get the book in three formats. Also, why reward Amazon for releasing the book early?