Friday, April 13, 2018

Finding our way through revision hell: the early circles

Writers sometimes think Dante didn’t have anything on them. Instead of descending into hell, he should have tried revising a book, we say. Although considering that he wrote books, maybe he did have some experience in the hellish nature of revision. Maybe that even gave him insight into deviously devilish methods of torture. Or at least of all the sins writerly flesh is heir to. 

But while Dante had the poet Virgil as his guide to the underworld, writers – at least those of us in Texas – have our own local guide to the underworld of writing – Tex Thompson. Energetic, cheerful, and outrageously hatted, Thompson was willing to share her take on The Seven Deadly First Page Sins with a recent meeting of the Dallas Mystery Writers.
Warning – the next few posts are only the low-calorie version of the program developed by Thompson and fellow writer/author Laura Maisano, who I wrote about last year in “What’s so hard about book 2: sequels, series and spin-offs”. You’ll have to persuade your writers group to let either Thompson or Maisano speak if you expect to receive the complete program. But who ever said revision was easy?
Dante opened his Inferno with an admission that he had lost his way in the dark woods of life. But how does a writer know she’s lost her way in the hundreds of pages of her novel?  And of all those pages, how to tell if it’s the first pages that led her astray?
image: Wikimedia commons
Hint: if your critique partners or the doomed strangers you press your book upon say the opening feels like throat clearing or has too much backstory, or if it just plain leaves them bored, prepare to plunge into the abyss.
Dante mapped sins onto a map of descending badness – from the sins of the flesh, through the sins of violence to the ultimate in badness – sins of fraud, with you know who at the very bottom. However, “In writing,” Thompson assured us with determined cheeriness, “all sins are equally bad.” 
Some of them, though, are easier to fix. 
Sins of the flesh are those things we’re all guilty of – the things we evolved to do, but then took to excess. In life, we know their fixes are easy. Push away from the table, take a walk, don’t be a grabber.
The Thompson/Maisano writerly stand-ins for those sins of the flesh are the sins of sloppiness. All too human/writerly, yes. But like sins of the flesh, they’re the first things readers/editors/agents see, the things visible even on that dreaded first page, and therefore, the first excuses they have to throw out books/manuscripts/queries into the reject pile.
These include sins of carelessness -- misspellings, weird capitalizations – or not, punctuation errors, grammatical errors. Stuff there’s no excuse for, given the number of word processing programs dedicated to spotting them and marking these sins with those little squiggly underlinings. And sins of wordiness.
 A basic Microsoft Word program will catch most if not all of the sins of carelessness. Although oriented more toward business use than literature, even when I get annoyed by it, it still makes me think. Some audience members also suggested Grammarly as a more story-oriented program. Another mentioned the Hemingway app. Thompson’s suggestion was to try more than one program in tandem.
For the  “wordiness” issue, we’ll have to rely more on our own eyes, avoiding as much as possible distancing words such as “he thought” that come between our readers and our characters; and eliminating easy inferences – stuff the reader can figure out for herself; unnecessary detail; and repeated/redundant references. 
Just as, with fleshly sins, we can’t stop overeating if we haven’t already satisfied our healthy hunger, remember not to become fixated on correcting writer sins of carelessness or wordiness in a first draft. Before that happens, we’ll have run our eyes as well as our writing programs over them.
And remember – redemption is possible!
(Next time – revising the writerly sins of excess)

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