Thursday, June 18, 2015

Revision Round Table 2: Judith Tarr, Elizabeth Moon

So you've finished your novel -- but have you? That first draft needs work, but where to begin? In
this round table series, I asked professional authors how the approach revision -- not polishing, but truly re-visioning a story.

Judith Tarr:

How do you approach revising a book?
I prefer to revise than to write first draft. Revision is my reward for slogging through the draft. Since I do most of my "prewriting" either in notes or in my head, and generally have my plot either outlined or again, clear in my head, my drafts tend to be very spare but pretty much complete. My editor will usually tell me to expand; I've never had to cut, I've always had to add. Sometimes a lot.

Of cuss the editorial letter can make me say bad words, because in my dreams I submit a perfect draft that needs no more than a light waft of proofreading before it bursts out upon the world. In reality, if I'm lucky, I don't have to add or change much. If I'm not...well, there was that time I had to rewrite the whole thing with a different but much more appropriate protagonist. Or the time I had to add 50,000 words. Or...

What makes revision different from polishing or rewriting, or is there a difference?
Revision for me is what I do after I've received outside input. Usually that's the editorial letter. I don't use beta readers in general; have pulled in a reader once in a while for expert advice or clear-eyed input, but mostly it's just me and my ms. until it meets its editor.

Do you work things out in your head, work only from the manuscript (and if so, on the computer or a printed hard copy), some combination of both?
I work on the computer with my editorial letter in hand, with however many passes the ms. needs. Picky stuff first (wording, clarifications, continuity notes, etc.). While I'm going through to get the small stuff cleared up, the back of my mind is mulling over the big stuff: expansion of character roles, plot elements, worldbuilding notes, and so on. Those get done in waves as I can handle them.

I try to find the spot where a change or expansion has the maximum effect. A change in a word or a line at the exact right place can resonate through the whole ms. That's the dream change.

Or, doing the minimum required to make the book work according to my vision and the editor's input. It's the lazy writer's technique, and if I do it right, it makes a huge difference to the quality of the work.

Do you write out takes, read sections aloud?
Nope. I try to make every word count. No exploratory drafts. Sometimes I'll have an outtake in draft, when I go off in the wrong direction, but by the time the editor sees it, I'll be adding rather than subtracting.

Reading existing text aloud doesn't work for me, though I'll often speak the words as I type draft or revision.

What advice, if any, would you give a beginning writer?
No one's work is perfect. No one's. Expect to revise. Embrace it. Stay true to your idea, don't let it be gutted by wrongheaded input, but also be open to what your editor has to say. She's probably right--or if she's not, what she has to say might show you how to make your work better anyway.

In connection with this: Let your draft be as messy as it needs to be; just get it on the page in the way that best serves the project and your individual process. Revision is where you worry about cleaning it up and making it shine.

What's been the most useful thing another writer has taught you?
Every process is different. Every writer has her own individual way of getting a project written and revised. There's no wrong way to do it--just a whole lot of different ways to make it happen.

Judith Tarr has been a World Fantasy Award nominee for her Alexander the Great novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and won the Crawford Award for her Hound and the Falcon trilogy. She also writes as Caitlin Brennan (The Mountain’s Call and sequels) and Kathleen Bryan (The Serpent and the Rose and sequels). Caitlin published House of the Star, a magical-horse novel. When she is not working on her latest novel or story, she is breeding, raising, and training Lipizzan horses on her farm near Tucson, Arizona.


Elizabeth Moon:

How do you approach revising a book?
As re-vision--as re-seeing the work in light of what I wanted to accomplish and what's actually on the page, so that its gaps can be filled, its flaws corrected, and so on. 

From there, it's a process based on my mother's advice about building something: first concentrate on the design, then the construction, and finally the finish (finishing out, giving it "curb appeal.")  Just as, in building a house, you don't start by painting one side of dry wall panels before you know whether a room will have two windows or three, I don't bother with the later stages until the first ones are complete.

Design/structural means making sure the story makes sense as a story, and the kind of story I was trying to write.  (IOW, the story has a good arc and doesn't switch gears from a madcap adventure to a blistering social commentary in the last chapter.  That's the next book.)

Writers who outline well solve these problems in the outline, but I can't outline, so I look at things like "story arc" and "character arcs" and whether things happen in the right order at this stage.  If it's a multi-viewpoint book, this is where entire viewpoint sections are moved as needed to provide the best flow for the reader, the best "Story" shape. 

I try (not always successfully!) to do the design/structural revisions during the original several drafts, ending with the "main draft" that will go on to the next stages.  Once I have the parts of the story in order, it's time to look at construction-level stuff: the actual writing. 

What I'm looking for in this are paragraph level gaps or sources of confusion or boredom for readers.  I want to make sure all the parts are sound in themselves and connect with each other smoothly.  Infodumps, unwanted repetitions, character "breaks," messy clumps of writerly enthusiasm all meet the Chainsaw of Correction. Sentences out of order within a paragraph, consequences before actions (embarrassing how many times I do that in draft!) meet the Comb of Untangling.  Rough or nonexistent transitions get troweled into place and then faired in smoothly to prevent reader-jouncing confusions.

At this point, the finishing work starts--and I hand off some of the work to a couple of good nit-pickers. While they nit-pickers are looking for misspellings, grammatical errors, continuity problems…I'm reading it aloud for flow, listening to the word-music (is it too legato for that scene?  Too staccato for that?  Is the beat too regular?  Does it really express the POV's internal state?) and other details that make it shine. 

What makes revision different from polishing or rewriting, or is there a difference?
Rewriting is what an editor asks me to do. It derives from the editor's vision, not my original vision--and requires merging the editor's view of the book with mine.  Starting with 24 hours of internal whining and bitching and moaning before I'm ready to agree that yes, chapter 23 sucks rocks and we all missed that, and yes, that lovely passage in chapter 31 is totally ear-candy and self-indulgence just like the alpha reader said, and I ignored, hoping to sneak it past the editor.  But no, you can't make me take out the puppy: he's going to bite a villain at a critical moment later in the story. (Three whole volumes later, as it turned out, but he did.)  (And thank all relevant deities for editors who catch what others have missed.)

For me, polishing is the final stage of revision. 

Do you work things out in your head, work only from the manuscript (and if so, on the computer or a printed hard copy), some combination of both?
Always from the manuscript, and usually a combination of digital and paper.  Whenever something gives me trouble I print it out.  I scribble notes to myself on paper. And at times resort to models.

Do you write out takes, read sections aloud?
Sometimes both, but always read sections aloud.  The out-take writing is usually to clarify something about a character's motivation.

What advice, if any, would you give a beginning writer?
Nobody has to know what you actually wrote, as long as what you end up with works. Write freely; revise as much as it needs.

What's been the most useful thing another writer has taught you?

If you can't figure out what's wrong--read it out loud again.  The answer's in there. 

Elizabeth Moon, a Texas native, is a Marine Corps veteran with degrees in history and biology. She began writing stories in childhood but did not make her first fiction sale until age forty. She has published twenty-three novels, including Nebula Award winner The Speed of Dark, three short-fiction collections including Moon Flights in 2007, and over thirty short-fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines. Her latest book is Kings of the North (second book of Paladin's Legacy) a return to the world of The Deed of Paksenarrion, and the third in that group, Crisis of Vison, is due out in 2012.  The first book of Paladin's Legacy, Oath of Fealty, is now in paperback also. In non-writing hours, she enjoys nature photography, gardening, cooking, Renaissance style fencing, messing about with horses, and music, including singing in a church choir. And wasting time online, of course...

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