Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Layers of Complexity - Revisions

My friend Janice has a great recent post about keeping up with the fundamentals of writing even after you feel confident that you know them. It's here, and she directs her readers to an interesting post on dialogue by Sara Crowe, here.

One of the things I take away from this is that what we as writers create is larger than our own conscious ability to grapple with it. Thus, even when we "know" a lot of things, it's not possible to hold them all in our minds at once, and it's good to go back later and look consciously at the hints our subconscious has tried to leave behind.

My novel, now in final revisions, has been a real challenge on this score. It's got layers upon layers - so many that I suspect most readers won't even notice a lot of them on the first read-through. I discovered when I first started describing the content of Through This Gate to people that when I gave them the kernel of the story - the query paragraph, really - they had no trouble grasping it. But when I talked about some of the different things I had put into executing the story, they mistakenly guessed it would be difficult to read.

My critiquers tell me it's not difficult to read. Thank goodness.

But this post is intended to be more about writing than about reading. When you're putting together a draft, the most challenging parts of drafting can take a lot of your attention, siphoning it away from other aspects of the manuscript. There's nothing wrong with this. It's totally appropriate.

For example, I have a character who speaks in verse. I can't just write his dialogue all at once. I have to understand the content first, then try to hash out the verse, then go back on a third pass and make sure the verse isn't clunky and the content is appropriately conveyed with all the nuances it needs. On the first pass, I have enough bandwidth to think about the progress of the scene as a whole, the tension etc. required to keep the scene moving forward. On the second pass, I'm not paying attention to the scene at all, but merely trying to get the meter right. On the third pass I'm trying to take the metrical side and the whole-purpose side of things and make sure they match correctly: the verse doesn't distract from the content, nor does the content destroy the verse.

The other thing I've noticed with these revisions is even quite late in the revisions, I keep making tiny error-catches. Spots where I've been so concentrated on the language, and the drive of the story, that I've lost sight of things like the direction from which the sun is supposed to be coming, or what outfit the protagonist is wearing right now and the fact that if she gets turned upside down, yes, her skirt is going to flip up over her head.

My friend Janice also did a post on copy editors, and why we should treasure them. Well, this is one of the reasons. They are trained to tease apart the levels of a story and catch things on all of them - hooray for them!

But in the meantime, we as writers have to keep track as best we can.

It's easy sometimes for me to get demoralized while drafting, thinking about all the revisions I still have ahead of me. But then when I get to them, I generally find I love finding the extra layers of significance. It's perhaps a bit like aging wine; it gains so much complexity and quality with a bit of extra time. Some of my friends and I also like to use the sculpting metaphor, where you take away layers of stone to get to the statue inside. With each level I reach, I discover that being there gives me more insight into the next level.

I try to forgive my conscious brain for not being preternaturally able to capture everything. And I try to trust my subconscious to point things out for me. Then on the second revision, the third or the fourth, I pick up each hint it's left for me. That part is the Easter egg hunt - and I love chocolate.


  1. Good post, Juliette! I find myself battling this kind of stuff all the time, particularly since the story is so darn sprawling. For instance, I forget all the time that my protagonist has only three fingers on one of her hands and when I go through to revise, that's something I'm going to have to really watch out for. I trip over dates and how old people are and such too. Not to mention that I forget character names with startling regularity. The last time I started editing the beginning, I made a list of tiny details to make sure I carry through the book as I went along; city flag colors and other such minutia. I'm also contemplating making a family tree, to help keep the relationships straight, but I think I'll wait until I'm done with the draft though. :-)

  2. Hi, Traci! I'm glad you appreciated it. It's great to see you visit. I could see how that three finger thing could be easy to lose track of! I keep lists of character names in my mega-world, too.

  3. I've got to keep a family tree - I'm writing about one family spread out across several alternate realities.

    Which means I've got to keep a list of all the things which make each alternate reality...well, alternate.

    (Hey, I can post again!)

  4. David,

    I'm thrilled that you've been able to post. It's definitely good to keep track of small details in a systematic way.