(Above: Borne, novel in progress: a page with notes for specific revision/testing at the top of each section, typed into the manuscript, along with handwritten notes to the side, and, in the first photo, additional testing in the form of questions, fragments, etc., written onto the folder in which the print-out resides.)
Next year, I will finally finish Borne, a novel that’s required a lot of testing and a lot of rethinking from time-to-time. Borne is set in a post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a monstrous bear. The novel is narrator by a refugee trying to make a life in the city.
These two short essays examine different aspects of that process. As mentioned in the Wonderbook chapter on Revision, writing and rewriting often occur at almost the same time. In the example below, a lot of testing and rewriting was required while the novel was in progress, in order to make sure I was on the right path. (Where possible, I try to use examples from other writers, but in this case, using Borne made the most sense.)
Returning to a Novel After Months Have Passed
When you return to a novel you last looked at a few months before and you’re like me—which is to say, there might be three typewritten alternative drafts and two explorations in handwriting—it takes a bit to get up to speed. Is this me complaining about my own work habits? No. The whole point of my process is inefficiency. Getting too quickly to where you want to go, getting there too smoothly, is antithetical to thinking through complex issues. You want roadblocks, confusion, chaos, and doubt. Unexpected, wonderful things come out of this approach, too.
But I did indeed spent two whole days sorting through variations and looking at the structure of the 25,000 words on the page. One thing that keeps annoying me is the amount of interesting exposition I need to cut to keep the foregrounded story moving forward. This is pretty basic, but sometimes your description is doing a lot of other things, like deepening character. Other things need to go or be rearranged. A separate pass just looking at this issue and experimenting with removing text can help clear the underbrush, so to speak, and allow you to see other elements with fresh eyes.
Taking the time to test and rethink the structure of Borne helped, too. I had thought of the book as being in two parts, and the sort of book where you receive much of the context up front. As I was looking over scenes with the title character, I realized I should experiment with a three-part structure, and suddenly the whole idea of what scenes had to go where changed drastically, as well as what kind of approach this novel needs in terms of context and divulging certain kinds of information. Whether you need to look first at the structural level or the paragraph level will depend on the type of novel you’re working on. But being able to identify which is most useful to do first will almost certainly make your life easier.
First off, thinking of the novel in three parts, roughly corresponding to stages in Borne’s development, meant that scenes involving other characters could now be spread out across all three sections. Before, I’d been thinking in terms of the narrator’s story arc, but that’s not going to be the structural determinant for the novel, as it turns out. Unspooling Borne-related stuff also allows this other spreading-out noted above. It also, for some reason, now means setting context will be situated more node-like at regular intervals along the way. This means the first place I go into extended description is much shorter, and the space created fills up with more of the emotional lives of the characters. And I can relax into that knowing the rest of what I need is coming later, and isn’t needed for reader understanding due to the new pacing and the new ways in which the past and present communicate with one another in the text.
It doesn’t even really matter if I wind up actually dividing the book into three sections in a way that is clear to readers–actual section breaks–or if I just hold that in my head as a construct and write chapters 1 through 20 without any section breaks. The point is, the re-think has allowed for better, more useful ways to distribute scenes and info, while also revealing what material isn’t needed at all. Something about visualizing the novel as a two-parter was also obscuring unintended repetition and wastefulness in what was on the page. This is all a dry way of saying that structure isn’t actually an abstract thing. It’s also not always an organic thing, in that you try out different approaches mechanically in aid of getting to a place where everything in the text becomes effortless and organic.
The good news, from my standpoint, is that because of this testing several scenes now bleed into part two, I am much farther along on the novel than I thought. It means I have new scenes to write in part one, but that’s preferable to being more adrift in the middle. This, too, is the advantage of thinking about the structure differently: I no longer have concerns about sag in the middle because of the redistribution of previously front-loaded scenes into that section. The third act is crystal clear in my head, so that was really the last challenge in terms of how to present the material.
Especially in a short novel, like Borne will no doubt be, getting it all right on this kind of technical level is key to the emotional resonance for readers. Testing Pacing, correct development, managing progression aren’t issues of craft—it’s intrinsic to success at deeper, more psychological levels. Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a perfect example—if not for Joyce’s craft, his insight into human relationships would be useless, because it would be deployed within a malformed novel.
On the Paragraph/Sentence Level
In case anyone thinks writing a novel is a swift or easy thing to do, above find the marked-up first page of Borne. Process-wise, I originally wrote the opening, set in an post-apocalyptic city, with no real sense of the character’s point of view. I was more interested in getting down the description/details and making it a tactile, real experience. So I polished that until it was in shape for that initial, very simple purpose.
As usually happens, you get a deeper sense of character as you write, and have to go back. Somewhere around 10,000 words in, the character clicked into focus and the next 10,000 words were different in style and voice. I let that run out to about a total of 35,000 words before coming back to the beginning, just so I would have enough text to work with.
But now that I’m going back over the manuscript, that first 10,000 words will change radically in voice as well as structure, and that will affect the next 25,000 because some events that occur later in the novel will be placed closer to the beginning and the whole thing will eat itself and regenerate along different lines. (Among the things that entails is fleshing out a character called the Magician, researching the history of traps, and reading Mike Davis’s Dead Cities.)
The page above had gone through five drafts to get the description down, but then I had to rip up the floorboards and construct a different kind of room, so to speak. Some changes have to do with the narration, some with moving around information, some with setting. And in more than a few places this draft had way too many words better suited for an essay. I was much too in love with the descriptions, which would work perfectly well if this were a short-short. But it’s not. It’s the opening of a novel that is supporting, foreshadowing, and setting up many different things. In an odd way, it has to be simpler to become more complex. And, since I now know I’m writing a novel not a novella the opening can simultaneously convey less pure information since I have more space to add in what needs to be added in to properly contextualize. So among pass-throughs I performed to test and revise were passes to:
- Replace complex words with simpler words
- Change sentences to better reflect the personality of the novel’s narrator
- De-emphasize the monstrous bear by cutting parts describing it and using them later
- Finding ways to give the reader a little more of the narrator’s past life right at the beginning
A lot of this may seem bloodless or mechanical, but it’s actually an extremely personal, intimate, and emotional type of drafting, as my aim is to remain true to character and to the integrity of the events that should occur. There are also issues of balancing types of scenes, as the past is integral to the present of the story, but big lumps of past inserted incorrectly will, from the reader’s point of view, just slow down the story. So they must be correctly connected to the other scenes, including transitions that aren’t arbitrary or surface but hardwired and integral to the narrative.
As a kind of side note, I’ve also had a great time on a sentence level applying lessons learned from Steve Erickson’s (author of Zeroville) edits to the excerpt of Borne that appeared in Black Clock magazine awhile back. In the context of finalizing the piece for his magazine, I thought of the edits as regular copy-edits, but in the context of revising and moving forward on new sections of Borne at novel-length, I now interpret them as character-related instead. Which is to say, most of the deletions and changes affect how the reader perceives the main character. What is understated by the cuts emphasizes different elements. What is now brought to the front also creates different emphasis. This in effect makes subtle but important changes to the character…and in charting why I think these changes were made, I have gained a much better understanding about the person I’m writing about, and this also now radiates out into my editing of the rest of the draft as it stands.
- Finch from Inception to Finished Layout (a higher-level view of the process)
- Genesis of Shriek: An Afterword (showing how a text changes from inception onward)
- Shriek notes that speak to revision (strange symbols being cleaned up)