Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revising 101: Axe It Like a Lumberjack

Revising.  Some of us hate it.  Some of us love it.  But in reality, it's the lifeblood of writing.
Anyone can write a first draft (really, anyone can...have you seen the Smashwords home page?).  But what marks you as different is the time you take to polish every sentence, the care you take in inspecting every word to make sure it really needs to be there.  This is how you show the world you're a craftsman, not just a hobbyist.
To give you guys some really funny examples, I've dug up some sentences from the first novel I actually finished.  These little gems have never seen the light of day, and with good reason.  As crappy as they are, they totally prove my point.  Even bad writing can get crisper and tighter and more effective.
Example 1
Original: He cast one final glare at Jean-Gabriel then turned and stalked back toward the ballroom.
Revision thought process: Why is the phrase “then turned” there in the first place?  If the glaring character stalked back to the ballroom, *obviously* he turned his back on Jean-Gabriel.  This useless bit of movement doesn't need to be stated.  Also, stalking “back toward” the ballroom is overkill.  Why not just “stalk toward" or “stalk back”?  No one needs three words when two will do.
Revision: He cast one final glare at Jean-Gabriel and stalked back to the ballroom.
Example 2
Original: Judging by the dull roar coming from inside, his brother’s guests were more than halfway through the cognac.
Revision thought process: Why does the noise need to be specified as “coming from inside”?  Why not just say “inside”?  Come to think of it, based on the context of the paragraph (not included here), you already know this character is standing outside a closed door.  Why give any locational descriptor?  
Also, does the meaning of the sentence change any whether the guests are “halfway” or “more than halfway” through the cognac?  Nope.  They’re drunk off their ass either way.  I'm also not happy with "dull roar."  It's a cliche. I could replace it with "raucous laughter," but even that feels tired. Let's go with something more descriptive (and also alliterative).  It's still not perfect, but it's better.
Revision: Judging by the shouts and slurs, his brother’s guests were halfway through the cognac.
Example 3
Original: Louis-Philippe obeyed, tying back the velvet curtains and opening the casements.  A cold breeze wafted through the room, swaying the curtains and ruffling the pages of a book open on the escritoire.  The cool air felt like water poured over him; he drank it in and felt it whisk away his fevered body’s sweat.  The fog began to clear from his brain and he could think clearly once again.  “Something happened out there, brother,” he began.
Thought process during revision:  Wow.  Talk about a bloated paragraph.  Is it really necessary to say the breeze swayed the curtains *and* ruffled the pages of a book?  People get the picture, already.  Plus, if you read this paragraph in context, you’d know that in the previous line, Etienne asked his brother to open the window.  So we don’t need the play-by-play informing us that Louis-Philippe tied the curtains back, etc.  
Also, sentences three and four say exactly the same thing.  Why the heck are they both there?  Come to think of it, who needs them at all?  Wouldn't it be creepier if the breeze led straight to the confession that something happened?  And what’s up with the unnecessary dialog tag at the end?  Axe it all.
Revised: Louis-Philippe obeyed.  A cold breeze whispered through the room, ruffling the pages of a book open on the escritoire.  “Something happened out there, brother.”

Revision on this level is a big pain in the ass.  But it's a necessary evil.  Once you get used to it, this kind of thing can actually be fun.  Picture yourself as an explorer, hacking your way through a jungle with a machete.  Get those annoying fronds out of your way so you can see the path in front of you!