I sat across the table from the pretty New York literary editor who looked to be all of 25 years old. Young as she seemed, she knew her stuff and had given a wonderful conference talk earlier in the day. I was excited to hear what she thought about the synopsis I’d sent her of my novel, The Life-Diving Days.
This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo - I’d had plenty of other novel critiques - but it was the first time I had asked for a professional opinion of my book as a whole. I thought we’d discuss plot-lines and structure, but immediately, the editor seemed put out. She said I had sent too many pages and admitted that she hadn’t even read the synopsis. (It turned out there was a mix-up with the submission instructions.) I don’t remember the editor’s name, but I do remember one thing. After trying to explain what I thought should happen with restructuring my book, she said, “If you know what needs to be done to fix it, then do it.” Needless to say, I left that conference in tears.
Over the years, I’d picked up revision tips at conferences and workshops, in my writing group, in magazines and books. I’d done what I thought were pretty thorough revisions – the first of which took a year and a half with a nursing newborn in the house. I hate to admit it, but it took me an inordinately long time to realize that what I was actually doing was line editing and proofreading. All good stuff, but what my novel needed was a structural revision. Even after that realization, it took me a long time to discover how to start. Quite frankly, the thought of examining the structure of a story that was 160,000 words was overwhelming.
After pulling myself together from the upsetting critique experience, I determined to “just do it.” It was time to stop procrastinating.
When I first started writing my novel, Hannah’s story was so heavy, I intuitively felt it needed a lighter counterweight. I structured the novel to go back and forth between two story-lines every other chapter: Hannah’s which was written in first person and her parents’ story about young love and sisterhood which was written in third person.
For the structural edit, the first thing I did was separate the two story-lines and read through each independently. I made lists of the letters Hannah’s parents had written to each other, as well as the newspaper clippings and other memorabilia I could integrate into Hannah’s story-line. There were scenes I could integrate, as well. For instance, instead of an entire scene where Hannah’s grandpa relays his immigration story, I could have the family pastor mention bits and pieces of it during his visits.
After that, I did a scene by scene analyses, writing out what each scene brought to the story. Did it help shape the story in a significant way? Did the scene move the main plot-line forward? What was vital in that scene for the reader to know? Once I looked at each scene objectively, I could decide if I’d chosen the best way to accomplish my goals within that scene. It helped identify holes in both story-lines that needed to be corrected. I also identified characters that were fairly superfluous to the action and killed them off. It was actually pretty fun once I learned, by trial and error, what I was doing.
After all was said and done, I ended up cutting more than 60,000 words and, I think, produced a better version of the novel, one that propels the reader through the story yet remains true to voice and to the characters. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that young editor did me a huge favor. We all need a good, swift kick in the butt once in a while!
Just for fun - here are some great quotes about revising:
“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” – Patricia Fuller
“The function of your first draft is to help you figure out your story. The function of every draft after that is to figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story.” – Darcy Pattison
“I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” Roald Dahl
And my favorite…
”It’s never too late – in fiction or in life – to revise.” – Nancy Thayer