Saturday, May 02, 2009

To See Again

"I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." - James Michener

Re-vision. To see again. I’m revising the 72,000 word first draft of my novel. The biggest obstacle is self-honesty. To revise, I have to find that place where I can be brutally honest with myself about what’s on the page and whether it works. It’s not as if I consciously lie to myself, but I cannot always see my own work clearly.

One way to gain distance is to physically put my manuscript in the hands of another writer, someone I trust. Preferably someone who’s also writing since I like to read something of hers while she’s reading mine. I hand this friend a list of questions along with the manuscript. At this stage I’m especially interested in the main character. Are her actions and words consistent? Are they plausible? Does she change by the end of the book? Is this change believable?

I also ask the friend to mark those places where she wanted to skim or stop reading altogether. I don't expect her to fix the errors. I just want to know where she popped out of the story. And, I’m not interested in grammar and punctuation, but rather getting the story straight and creating characters. It’s a trap to begin tweaking individual sentences when the big picture isn't right.

If such a friend isn’t handy, I must find the distance within myself. I may have to step away from the manuscript for a bit or imagine that it’s my friend’s work. Sol Stein, in Stein On Writing, suggests rewriting the title page and inserting someone else’s name as the author. We’re less likely to be misguided about someone else’s work. I have to do whatever it takes to find the self-honesty necessary to see the words clearly on the page.

I'd love to hear what you do to gain the necessary distance to revise.


Brenda said...

Nita, I always have someone else read it if I can. Writer's groups are great for this. Another good trick is to read what I have written out loud. Sometimes awkward phrases don't seem so awkward until I hear myself say them.

Nita said...

Ah yes! Reading aloud. Forgot to mention that. Thanks for the reminder.

Janis said...

I take it to writer's groups, and I read out loud. I also find it helps to have the computer read it outloud to me (using Ywriter) because it doesn't add intonations that can obscure weak prose. But the biggest challenge is finding a reader to go through a long manuscript for consistency of character and dialogue and voice.

Kat Good-Schiff said...

I love your point about how self-honesty is so necessary in the revision process. I think that's the necessary (and tough) awareness that we bring as editors, which helps us refine what came out of us more unconsciously in the first draft. I'm going to share this post with my writing students because I like how you've described your process.

Beth said...

Love the idea of having your reader mark where they were inclined to skip or skim. So many writers get hung up on the grammar & mechanics that the pure, simple storytelling lags. After all, it's all about the story!

Mary said...

A couple of years ago I took a non-fiction class with Maura Heafy at Ohio State (through Program 60 ... you don't pay, you just have fun!) Once she had us read a story, it was fine. Then we read what the editor blanked out ... it was practically the whole story. Then we read the author's revised story that was so much better. I learned from that experience that an editor can see through things and is worth his/her weight in gold. But I like your method of pretending to read someone else's work. Sounds interesting to me.