Revising old Writing 1: Not Quite Pulling Teeth- Alma Boykin
Hi, this is Alma. Many of you know that I also write non-fiction under another name. Well, several years ago, I needed to go back and take an 82K word manuscript and rewrite it into something saleable. Yes, this was a dissertation, and a well written one as such things go, but not something that would leap off the non-fiction shelves (unless an earthquake hit the shop). It had to be re-written. I’ve also rewritten (and am currently rewriting) science fiction, and the processes are similar in places, and different in others, although historical fiction might be in between. So for those of you/us who have found an old manuscript, puffed the dust off the top (or converted the file from Peachtree to Word), how do you go about massaging/beating the book into something better?
First read it through. Then set it aside, cry, beat your head against something soft, and get your sense of “arrrrgh, this is terrible!” out of your system. Because the more you have written since then, the worse it will seem. I’d written and “sold” another non-fic book, plus several fat novels worth of fiction before I returned to the Dissertation/Draft (which will be called DDraft from here on). The prose was rougher than Warsaw Pact toilet paper, the transitions didn’t exist, and big chunks of description more-or-less repeated several times in the DDraft. The first two problems I recognized, the third one not-so-much. I read the thing and wondered how on earth the committee had passed me because the prose was, ahem, not deathless.
So I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. First I tried to take out as much academese as possible without confusing things. I could no longer assume the readers knew the specialty’s shorthand. I’d tried to do some of that in the original, but it needed more. I also tidied up typos, corrected errant footnotes, and tried to smooth the chapter and sections transitions. At this point it was pretty basic stuff, more editing and polishing than a real re-write. Jargon either got dropped or defined better, so that an educated, interested-but-not-familiar with the scene reader could make sense of things. By this point a publisher had expressed interest in my proposal and I sent DDraft off.
It came back with a bunch of recommendations for revisions and changes. (Aka, the Alpha Reader attacked.) The repeated landscape chunks needed to be removed or relocated (don’t describe scenery just because you love your descriptions, no matter how poetic and stirring they may be, alas). I needed to improve some sources/foot notes, and to try and prune the statistical underbrush. And could I find out what became of some of the characters that I had abandoned at the end of chapter 6?
Ooohhhh kay. I took a deep breath and set to work. I printed the beast out, everything but the technical stuff in the back and the bibliography. Then I spread things across the kitchen table and began circling landscape chunks with a red pen, dragging them into different chapters, moving them to the introduction, combining them, or eliminating duplicates. I was relocating scenes and trimming infodumps, in other words. Once I did that, I had to go back and polish to make sure that things still flowed. In some places they did not, so I shifted more material, or re-wrote the entire sections to flow better. Which meant re-working the footnotes, something fiction writing is blessedly free of, more-or-less. I tracked down the sources I needed and added that to the notes. Then I attempted to convert some of the roaming numbers into text, bumped them to the appendix, or just took them out. When I’d made the changes the Alpha Reader suggested, I sent it to the beta readers.
How would this work for fiction? Well, the scenery trimming and shifting would be the same. Yes, they are going through the mountains. You don’t have to describe the same mountain from each direction, then explain what it looked like on the map, then go into detail about the alpenglow on the evening before the giant spiders attacked, and the little cloud cap that formed the next day, and so on. Unless the mountain is a character, in which case do not list every tree that grows on its flanks.
Can you massage the infodump into the text? If you are David Weber, skip this step, but the rest of us are probably not quite as skilled, and our readers are not reading specifically for the data onslaught. Does the pedigree of the Princess of Pollonia, traced back ten generations, really matter to the other characters? What about the genealogies of the other five protagonists, and the bad guy back fifteen generations? Yes, it’s cool, and makes a fantastic chart on your wall, but STOP. Make it into a chart and add it to the book if you need to. Or touch on the high-points, so we know that the Pollonian royal family is related to the Weederian noble house six generations back, but not closely enough to cause problems with the arranged marriage. The point is to take out the tedious if you can. Sometimes you can’t, unless you put them into an appendix, like C.J. Cherryh did in Angel with the Sword, where the “why” of the harbor and planetary history is a very nice bonus chapter.
Now, at this point, if you’ve gotten the big stuff taken care off, you can go to your beta readers. In my case, I got a second alpha reader and two betas. I say this because of how the next layer of reviewers approached the book. I’ll continue the saga of Alpha Reader 2 here, and carry the process along in another essay, for reasons you’ll soon see.
Alpha Reader 2 (AR2) gave me a critique that left me in tears. I closed the file, went to my bedroom, and pounded the pillow, wailed, and came unglued to the extent that the cat was trying to figure out how to call the crisis hotline. Everything was wrong, from the title page to the bibliography, I kid you not. The title did not reflect the book’s contents. The book’s hypothetical parts were wrong and inappropriate for this sort of work. I needed more of X and less of Y and why didn’t I discuss this and that should be a separate chapter and I needed more about Z and I used the wrong words here and that chapter just did not work. DDraft lay on the screen like a dead fish and I wanted to quit. Or find out who had killed my baby and track them down and heave a road-killed skunk into their bedroom.
Three weeks later I returned to the manuscript and the review. What could I salvage, what made sense? I moved some things, did a little more secondary research, and added a chapter at the beginning using what had been jammed into the introduction. I re-did the not-entirely-imaginary bit. The title got revised. Under the cold light of day, and after letting my anger fade, I found a few things I agreed with, which led to a research trip and adding material, plus catching up on two books that had come out since I graduated.
Not all terrible Alpha Reads have salvageable material. This one did, once I got past the tone and my frustration. Structural problems have been found and addressed, backstory got fleshed out and incorporated, while excessive elaboration in other places went away. DDraft was reading much better.
To Be Continued . . .