Revising A Book by Exploding It In My Mind

Hey friends, thanks to everyone who has bought and read my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry. It’s really nice to finally have it out there! I’ve heard from a bunch of people about it–only good things, obviously, because what kind of psycho contacts the author of a self-published e-book to tell them negative stuff about it?

If you’ve read and enjoyed the book and haven’t written a review on Amazon–it would be really nice if you would. Thanks for taking the time!

ANYWAY, I am in knee-deep in novel revisions. God knows how anybody manages to write or revise one of those things. When you read a book, especially a good book, it seems so simple, as if they just sat down and put some characters on the board, and the story just happened, as simple as a kid acting out the tale with her dolls. For at least one of my novels, [Enter Title Here], it did happen just like that.

ETH has a bit of a confused plot, but I don’t think it really bothers people. Stuff happens, and you go with it.

However, it’s never again been so easy. Nowadays, I always need to do tons of rewriting, and with each revision, the book gets simpler, more elemental, and becomes more like itself. The conflicts sharpen, the pitch becomes more comprehensible, and the character arcs become more powerful and archetypal. It’s kind of a pain!

Lately, I’ve been revising the first half of this book over and over. Usually, unless a book needs a total rewrite, what happens when I revise it is the book kind of explodes in my mind, and I’m able to pick apart the pieces that need reshaping. If I’m lucky, when I explode the book, there’s an empty space that screams out to be filled–a place where something is underimagined or underrealized, and I’m like oh, I’ve just been handwaving this question and now I need to finally answer it. But sometimes it’s not like that, and you really have to move the pieces around and start questioning your original assumptions in order to make things work.

For me it’s helpful to return to three questions:

  1. What is actually happening on the page? – It’s very easy to write something in the text like, "They were best friends!" But sometimes the problem is that they’re not actually best friends. They just don’t seem like, feel like, or act like best friends. The temptation here is to wade in and start forcing stuff into place, writing scenes where they swear eternal friendship, but the thing to do is first to just notice what is going on: What are the conflicts? What are the relationships? Not what do you want them to be–instead, what have you actually written?

  2. What, specifically, is creating this effect? – I’m a big believer in the idea that a story is composed of specific things: events, settings, motivations, relationships. People aren’t "friends" in the abstract sense: they’re golf buddies; they’re workplace acquaintances; they’re cousins. Their relationship is structured by the things you’ve written for them: how do they get together? How do they talk? When do they hang out? What do they talk about? This is also the case for everything else in the book. Everybody and everything is embedded in a web of other things, and those things exert influence on the part of the book you’re working on right now. Oftentimes, what you need in order to fix the part you’re working on now is for some of the other things to be different.

  3. Why did you write it how you did? – Your unconscious throws up the events on the page. And it throws them up, oftentimes, for a reason. Now, this isn’t always true. Sometimes you just goofed, or gave in to a cliche. But oftentimes, on some level, you wanted there to be the tension you’re talking about. Like, maybe they’re not friends because they’re workplace acquaintances, and your protagonist changed her job. Now you could fix that by making them roommates instead, but do you want to? Maybe the weakness of the relationship–its lack of stability–is exactly what you wanted!

  4. Can you keep the good, remove the bad, and heighten the conflict? – But you also can’t just throw up your hands and be like "I meant it to be this way!" It takes a very talented writer to make a tale out of feelings that are wishy-washy or not-specific. And, largely, you don’t want to write those stories. You want to write stories that, even when they deal with anomie, are brutal in their sense of longing. And that means strong feelings need to enter in somewhere. But strong feeligns pervert a text, because, unless there is a countervailing force, a character will tend to follow the source of strong feeling, and that will lock the text into place. So oftentimes to make the story work–to have conflict at all–you unconsciously undermine your own characters. A perfect example of this is the first Star Wars sequel movie: The Force Awakens. In that movie, Finn and Rey are constantly trying to evade their responsibility to fight the Empire–there is simply no reason for them, given their personalities, to want to fight–so they struggle against the narrative. And that’s what the writers wanted: they wanted reluctant heroes. But if they had ever given either of the characters strong personal stakes when it came to fighting the empire, the characters just would’ve done it, and the story would’ve been over (emotionally speaking). So they undermined the story by never really giving them that reason to fight (Finn, in particular, only ever fights because he’s friends with Rey and wants to save her). Whereas, if you look at the Mandalorean, he is also a reluctant hero, but he has a reason to fight (Grogu) and also a reason not to (his own character and the overall impossibility of his task). They changed the terms of the story–the Mandalorean constantly has to recommit to his quest, precisely because it is so difficult, and yet because he loves Grogu, he’s constantly willing to do it.

  5. What specific elements should I alter? – The specific thing that they did in the Mandalorean that made it work so much better is that they left him without a clear source of guidance. If he’d had a General Leia to constantly give him concrete tasks, it would’ve been harder, structurally, for him to appear reluctant–and in that case he would’ve needed a weaker link to Grogu or some more concrete reason for betraying his charge, and that would’ve undermined the whole narrative. Because then he would’ve been more unlikable, and they would’ve needed to show his face more, give him more concrete connections. Essentially, they made choices in telling their story that made their central conflict sharper, and because of that they didn’t need all these deus ex machina effects like they just happen to run into Han Solo, who just happens to lead them back into the heart of the conflict with the First Order.

Anyway, so after you’ve realized what story elements you’re going to change, you usually get back to writing, and then you realize, whoops, now some other stuff is out of alignment. So you make more changes and sort of pat the story into place. It’s a process.

But the main thing I want to communicate is that brute force revision doesn’t help the work. I’m talking about Save The Cat style patches where you’re like, "The hero is unlikable, let’s have them save a cat in Act One." I mean, that stuff works in that unsophisticated audiences buy it, but it harms the integrity of the work. Good revision incorporates these conflicts and ambiguities, it heightens them, and it brings them into the core of the story: Why is the hero unlikable? What elements are making them seem that way? Why did you put in those elements? Can we structure the story such that their good qualities and their bad qualities are in opposition? Can we find the perfect conflict, or symbol or relationship, that cuts right to the core of their being? Or will we use tricks and short-term fixes to obscure the heart of the text?

The thing is, there is absolutely no reward for good storytelling in this way. It’s not highly in demand, even in Hollywood. Television shows, honestly, are most likely to have it, because their stories are primarily about relationships, and they can modulate and alter the relationships over time (like they did with Walter / Jesse in Breaking Bad or Don / Peggy in Mad Men). But it’s still a worthwhile exercise, at least in my opinion.

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