I’m in the final revision stage with my most recent novel. Since I write fairly organically, the revision process is always key and always difficult. When I first started this revision process, I took a class with local writer, Robert Ray, whose book on revision, The Weekend Novelist Revises the Novel, we used as a text. Over several weeks we did writing exercises, read aloud to our fellow writers and, in the final classes, handed out scenes from our novels and assigned our classmates to read through them — like a script. Yes, it was both exhilarating and humbling to hear the scene I’d chosen (a key scene that I’d been struggling with) dramatized. I’d thought it was pretty dramatic, but heard too much narration. Some of the other class exercises were excruciatingly difficult and some elementary. But Ray feels strongly about certain things and I learned that he is so very right about many of them.
First, he suggested that we go through our novels and write a scene-by-scene outline of sorts onto index cards, including the setting, characters, action, dialog and high point. Next we were arrange the scenes into acts: I, II and II, then plot them on a timeline. Ugh. This seemed so right-brained and uncreative to me that I balked at it. I did write out summaries of the scenes but got frustrated when I had trouble defining certain things within them like: what does the character want in the scene? what is the important object that follows the character? and, what are the turning points in the scene, the change that takes place? So I slogged along without plotting my scenes on a timeline or in acts but just kept going over and over them, tightening a scene here, dropping a scene there until I felt I had a pretty good second draft which I sent off to an excellent editor. [Thanks, Barbara!]
I guess I wasn’t too surprised when my editor told me that she was a little unclear about the amount of time that passes in the novel. It seemed to her that the action took place over the course of one year (yes, that was my intent) but in the very last chapter some things appear very fresh to the protagonist when, if she had it right, several months had passed between those events. She did have it right and so I began again with writing each scene/chapter onto a note card (color coded by point of view character) then taping them to poster board on my office wall. While going through the scenes, I noted the clues included in that scene about how much time had passed and wrote “week one, week two, etc.” on post-its that I attached to the bottom of the scene cards. Revisiting the scenes in this way helped me not only to plot the action on a timeline but also to see whether that time line actually made sense.
Yes, it was right-brained but also creative. By looking at these distinct scenes actually lined up on my wall like train cars, I could see the action better. Some scenes were long (maybe needed to be cut); some scenes needed more; sometimes there were too many chapters from the protagonist’s point of view and not enough from the other POV characters. I could easily see, with the different colored cards, where I needed to insert a scene from one of the other character’s point of view and how I could rearrange the order of the scenes to make the novel flow better.
Now all I have to do is one more read-through, a final check that there are no glaring errors in punctuation and word choice, that the novel feels cohesive — a whole finished story. Then I can send this baby out into the world. It’s about time.