By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Revision as Sculpture or Paring It Down to the Bone

On my fifth draft now and the revisions continue. The  journey has been illuminating and freeing. The metaphor that suggests itself for this process is sculpture, or shaving a shank of meat off a skewer till you finally hit bone. Here is the process I have followed:

  • Decide initial method, whether on the screen or hard copy. I have found I can do a great deal on the screen, with follow-up periodically on paper. Things jump out on paper that remain hidden on the screen.
  • Be brutal in checking sentence mechanics.
  • Make an initial run-through to eliminate superfluous qualifiers and modifiers such as "at any rate," "in general,"very," "pretty," etc.
  • Check for transitions from the ending of one chapter to the beginning of the next. In this, the app I am using, Scrivener, has been invaluable.
  • Do word counts on each chapter; identify chunks that can be cut from longer chapters, so that you achieve consistency in length. This improves the pacing of the work as a whole.
  • Check verb tense. Eliminate the "would" form of past tense and replace with simple past. 
  • Eliminate most adverbs and use vivid verbs, "dawdle"rather that "wait," "shuffle" rather than "walk." (Don't overdo it however. I had to abandon "His mustache cantilevered over his lip," even though I thought it was a brilliant word choice in describing the facial hair of a Prussian officer circa World War 1.)
  • Trim down all descriptions to the essential. 
  • Pare down historical background. Trust the reader to know what happened in the past (in the case of this book, the postwar period in Germany.)
  • Related to the above, keep the narrative in the mouth of the narrator; describe the situation from the narrator's point of view with minimal diversion to fill in background. 
  • Eliminate redundancies, often in the same paragraph. "I didn't have a clue about these things" and "I was ignorant about XXX": choose one or the other. Repeating the idea does not add emphasis; it belabors the point.
  • Check for consistent use of punctuation such as : and —.
Ultimately, the metaphors for this process noted above, sculpture and meat shaving, both seem valid. It has been a question of order. The butchery came first. Emergence — of form, of narrative arc, of meaning — has followed.

In closing, a nod to another master of the form. I highly recommend Tobias Wolff's much-praised memoir, This Boy's Life. This work is a brilliant study in the use of straightforward prose peppered with occasional metaphors of gripping beauty and jarringly funny insights. When I put in down, I resumed my revising with a newly honed knife and slashed away at my manuscript with happy abandon.

Happy Holidays all. May you create memorable moments for future memoirs during this most nostalgic of seasons.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful advice for writers! Thanks for posting.