where the writers are
Where the Story Comes Alive

Last week I finished a first draft of my second novel. Two days after writing the last line, I turned to the first chapter. I had planned to give the whole draft a rest, but about month or so ago, I read that Joyce Carol Oates writes the last chapter and the first chapter of her works-in-progress simultaneously, to ensure consistency of voice. I'm no Joyce, but I thought it made sense--knowing what I now know about my story ending--to plunge right into revision.

Many months ago, when my dear friends at the Writers' Group read my opening chapter, each member questioned whether or not the first chapter really was the first chapter. Guess what? It may have been the means by which I propelled my novel forward, getting words on the blank page, but once there was a full draft, one where major story lines were revealed and character transformations set down, it was clear to me it wasn't the true beginning of the story.

In previous posts, first drafts have been referred to as the journey of discovery draft. The first draft has also been compared to sculpting, while subsequent drafts compared to painting. At this year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, Lisa and I attended a brilliant workshop on revision given by Karl Iagnemma. By giving participants three versions of one of his fantastic short stories, Karl showed us his process, one he likens to using different types of sandpaper, as a framework for revision. He suggests beginning revisions on the broadest story level, then moving on to the scene level. Finally revising paragraphs, sentences, and words.

Hallie Ephron, in her terrific book, Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel, talks about flying high, what she calls big picture revision, and flying low, the little particulars in need of refinement.

The way I see it, there are three levels of work to be done in revision:

  1. Reworking--This is the work of wholesale retooling of a part of the story.
  2. Rewriting--Perhaps a chapter is partially moving the story forward, or exposing some of what readers need at a particular point in the story, but portions or parts need to be rewritten.
  3. Refining--This is the final polishing that every manuscript needs. Though it's tempting to skip this step, either because of exhaustion related to 1 & 2 or belief that you've done all you can do to tell the story, this step makes all the difference in getting an agent's or editor's attention.

So I'm off to rewrite and refine my work-in-progress. Does anyone else have a model they use for the revision process. While some find it a daunting task, I think this is where the real magic of story telling happens. This is where the story comes alive.