Revision Guides

We can only hold so much information in our heads.  Thank goodness for paper and pen!  I am an inveterate list-maker, and offer the revision guide as a helpful tool for collecting thoughts and steering revision.

The revision guide is a catch-all, holding our vision for the next draft and a list of changes that will help bring this vision about.  The guide steers rather than dictates our rewriting.  Here are suggestions for what the guide might contain:

1.    A simple sentence articulating the heartbeat.

2.    Important themes and questions.  You can refer to this list while rewriting.  Do you stay faithful to your themes and central questions throughout?  Do they change and grow?
For example, here are some revision notes between the second and third drafts of my novel.  Hannah is my main character; two time frames (one in Minnesota, the other in New Mexico) intertwine.

•    Hannah:  “I didn’t want faith, I wanted certainty, to know I was making the right decision.”  [In draft three, I wanted to make sure Hannah behaved according to this desire and I wanted to explore the tension between wanting certainty and the need to make leaps of faith.]
•    Where there’s fear, underneath is the desire to control something.  What does H want to control?

3.    Movement in ideas and characters.  Where do the ideas you’re exploring begin, how do they evolve, and where do they land?  Who are the characters in your story, how do they change, and where do they arrive?  What is your emotional relationship to these ideas or characters at the beginning, middle, and end of your piece?
Again, an example from Hannah, Delivered:

NM:  H doesn’t trust self, doesn’t feel she belongs, self-conscious→ H trusts self, capabilities, longings.  Learns that she belongs, regardless.  PRIVATE SPHERE.  Central conflict:  What will it take for Hannah to break free of her constraints?
MN:  H doesn’t have faith→ H trusts something bigger than herself to uphold her once she’s reached the limits of her capabilities.  PUBLIC SPHERE.
1.  H works from a right/wrong, good/bad polarized way of thinking about the world (judging parents, others, self)→discovers realm of faith, which takes us beyond legalistic thinking.
Creative mobility in this world requires, at crucial moments, the strategic erasure of ethical boundaries.  They lose that mobility who cling to beauty, or who suffer from what the poet Czeslaw Milosz has called “an attachment to ethics at the expense of the sacred.”–Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes this World
2.  H immobilized by fear→H mobilized by will but governed by fear→H creates false fear structure to give self freedom→H acts from love
I had to face the shadow side of midwifery, of death being the soul sister to birth.  I could feel the power of fear and it threatened to choke the power of love…I decided to make death a friend, or at least an ally…Rather than ignore or run from it, I learned to acknowledge its presence and to listen to my feelings of love rather than fear. –Sisters on a Journey, 5

4.    Guidance.  If there’s any material (from your journal, from your reading) that guides your thinking about this project, print it in the revision guide.  Note the quotes I included above; they never appear in the novel, but they helped me think about events in the novel.

5.    Lists of large changes.  These can be concrete tasks in specific scenes:

•    Create a clear picture of H right away.  [CHARACTER INTROS]
•    Have H imagine her birth scenarios earlier, to explain her lack of surprise with Bill.  [CHRONOLOGY]
Or areas that span the entire book:
•    Who does H know in town?  Friends? [ROUNDING OUT CHARACTER]
•    Show H needing affirmation from the midwives throughout [CHARACTER CONSISTENCY]

Small changes to the text are better kept as marginal notes on a single, printed draft.

6.    Lists of tics.  We all have writing tics that span our work and tics particular to a project.  These are images, character gestures, word choices, sentence structures, etc., that are repeated too frequently.  Keep a running list to be addressed later in the revision process.  Here are a few of mine:

•    Straining chairback springs
•    Emotional swings at chp endings
•    Face flaring w/ heat
•    Fists
And overused words:
•    Shrug
•    Dread
•    Flutter

7.  Cut passages.  I use the bottom of my revision guide as a purgatory for my “darlings,” those passages I’m attached to but have cut from the previous draft.  This way they are still available to me should I need them—which is almost never.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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