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 —.
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.