Last week I wrote about revision, about how much I love the process of reworking and rethinking a manuscript I already have down, how I find revising so much more satisfying than “pushing a dirty peanut across the floor with your nose,” Joyce Carol Oates’ description of writing a first draft.
I asked for comments from my readers, your own response to revision, and I received a number of responses. Most, however, were in the form of questions.
The first and biggest question was from Mary Atkinson, a graduate of the VCFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I was once part of the faculty. She responded with the big question, in fact. I had said, rather glibly, I’m afraid, “… it’s always worth the risk of asking the deep questions that challenge a manuscript’s right to exist.”
My statement wasn’t glib because it wasn’t serious, but glib because I didn’t reach beneath my own words to clarify—even to myself—what I was talking about. And Mary, struggling with revisions on her own manuscript, asked me what those questions were. Which question, of course, required me to ask the same thing of myself.
What I realized when I unpacked my own broad statement is that, prior to the “deep” and truly challenging questions about the purpose of the manuscript, there are many craft questions we writers should be asking ourselves as we draw any manuscript to a conclusion. Here are some of them, though this list could easily be expanded:
Have I given my readers reason to care about my characters, especially my main, struggling character?
Does my main character stay in charge of her struggle—which means in charge of the story—and solve her own problem . . . or change in some way that gives her struggle meaning?
Does every single scene move the story forward? If any chapter or scene could be taken out without altering the outcome of the story, then it should come out . . . or if I insist it belongs there, I must figure out how to make it part of the story momentum, not just information I want my readers to know.
Have I inhabited my perceiving character or characters fully? And while I express that in multiples—more and more stories are written these days through a multiple point of view—I am always acutely aware of how much complexity and difficulty I introduce to both the writing and reading of a story if I choose to write through more than one perceiving character.
Have I provided a balance between narration, dialogue, action and introspection? And have I woven introspection throughout the story, not waiting for moments when nothing else is happening to allow my character to go off and muse?
Does the story hold my own attention when I reread it? If it doesn’t, what’s going on—or not going on—when my attention wavers? When I find myself with my nose pressed against a story wall it is, I have always found, because my character has lost momentum, when she doesn’t have enough at stake.
And then, at last, comes the big question I referred to last week, the deep question that challenges a manuscript’s right to exist:
Does this manuscript come out of a struggle relevant to my own life, or am I simply handing down “truths” from above, playing the wise adult for the benefit of young readers? If my piece comes out of my own honest questions, not something I’m determined to teach, then I believe it has the greatest chance to say something profound, something which gives it a right to exist for readers of any age.
And then there is a final point to consider, something another reader, Sarah Lamstein, brought up. Sometimes we simply have to wait, to put a manuscript on the back burner and give it time to simmer. That may be the only way to find out for ourselves what a manuscript means, where it needs to go, even why we are writing it.
And when we know all that … revision is the most satisfying kind of work I know.