Friday, September 5, 2014

3 Revision in seven steps, with wise words from writers by Kate Bassett

Kate Bassett is coming of the gate with a beautiful debut novel that's truly heartbreaking and exquisitely crafted. It's walked away with critical acclaim already, along with a coveted starred School Library Journal review. Want to know how she did it? Read on!

Revision in seven steps, with wise words from writers

by Kate Bassett

Revision. For some people, it’s the most exciting part of writing. For others, it’s almost as much of a swear word as “synopsis.” For me, it’s defined by a manuscript that’s been collecting dust for at least a month, a compiled list of notes from trusted readers, and most important of all: a new pack of Papermate Flair Pens, Post-It Notes and sticky a pretty folder or extra-wide highlighter or some other item I’ll never use but had to have in the moment. 

Kidding. Kind of.

My friend Sara Zarr calls it the “office supply” phase of revision. I actually subscribe to this method as Step One when digging deep into a draft that still needs a whole lot of work. Something about a fresh pack of pens puts me in hardcore, deep emotional well digging mode. Weird? Yes. True? Totally. While I don’t believe for a second all writers need to go spend 30-bucks (err...or more…) on “tools” to start revising, I do believe in ritual. Whether it’s lighting a candle, listening to an entire playlist, or eating an oven-baked s’more (with Nutella), having some significant moment before diving into a major revision can make a difference. Because it isn’t about the thing you do-- it’s about creating the head/heart space. It’s about acknowledging the habit, work, dedication it requires to take a story from a blob of ideas and characters to a cohesive, meaningful book.

Step two is my least favorite. It’s when I bust out the new pens, sit down with a printed (and spiral bound, for ease) manuscript and begin to read.

The first reading is reserved for general notes-- everything from axing obviously-able-to-go sentences/sections to questions about plot holes and new ideas I didn’t explore-- I try to keep these scribbles in one color.

The second reading is pacing-specific. I’m a “quiet” contemporary writer, which means I can think I’m writing a thrillerish book, but it has 50 pages of dialogue between two characters, in a bus station, about Polaroid photos. In an effort to avoid 10 unnecessary drafts, I take the time to go through every scene (sometimes breaking it down page by page) to ask myself this question: does this move the story forward? What’s the significance in the big picture? If I can’t answer those questions, I take out my red pen. And I draw big ol’ X’s through entire paragraphs/pages.

By reading number three I tend to feel frustrated. Impatient. Ready to send the manuscript to my agent. This is usually the time when I pause and dig up a quote or two from writers or other creatives I respect about the importance of process. I’m still pretty new at this whole author gig-- my debut releases September 8-- so I’m happy to borrow ideas from those much further down the path.

I’m a big fan of re-reading these words by David Foster Wallace before tackling my own work again.
In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.
Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

It speaks directly to the work I still need to do. With sticky flags on one side and another colored pen on the other, I read my book a third time. This reading, though, usually looks for three things at once: I flag all the threads in the book (different color sticky flags for each thread); this way, it’s easy to physically see if I drop one for, say, 80 pages. I also repeat that mantra “the reader cannot read your mind”-- and look for any plot points or character traits I see in my head but can’t find on the page. Finally, I look at the physical structure of sentences on the page. If I have 10 sentences that follow the same flow, or have some funky/out of place looking paragraphs, I make notes to rearrange and reconstruct.

Step three involves wine and chocolate. But that’s a whole different post.

Step four is the big moment when I open a new document, my scribbled and flagged and Post-It noted manuscript at my side, and start again. For me, this is the scariest moment. The one where I have to breathe air through my heart bars.
                                                                                                                                               Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.--Dana Shapiro
This is a big thing for writers. We create people. We create worlds. But we also put our hearts on the line, because if we don’t, the emotional truth of a story won’t ring true for readers. Another friend, Kat Yah, says this about how she starts to unlock the crossbars of her heart and open up to the most difficult (and perhaps most important) moments in her manuscript:

I take a deep brave breath. And then I take what I’ve written to places that scare me a little. I put it all there on the page for the world to see and let it go….

  • Feelings of Not Fitting In.
  • Wishing I could reinvent myself
  • Wishing for Impossible things
  • I let go of how I’m just a big cheesy crybaby in love with love.
  • I let go of the weird quirky humor that I never think anyone else will ever get.
  • I let go of how I’m probably Too Much and so everything I write will probably be Too Much, but that’s just the way it is.
  • I let it all go and it’s out there now.

It isn’t easy to face all those shadows. It requires bravery and copious amounts of water (seriously, hydrate). It’s in this place that the manuscript begins to shift into form though, and the feeling of Yes. This is the right track. will start flowing from fingers to keyboard to screen.

Step five is the gut check. The next solid draft is finished. Nourishment has been consumed and sleep/laundry/life has happened. I take a week or so to just think before I do my final run throughs. Walk in the woods, sit in the coffee shop, read books I didn’t write, hang with my family. During free moments, I think about the book I am still writing. I think about every character and their story arc. And I gut check again and again. Does it feel right? Am I missing something? Have I gone down the road of melodrama again? I carry a little notebook with me during this time to jot any last questions or ideas or worries. Sometimes, I’ll look back over the notes when I’m ready for a final read/edit and go “huh? What does Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds have to do with bubblegum under a car?” And I might never remember, but that’s okay. Other times, those notes help me snap into place the last bits of a puzzle I hadn’t quite completed.

Step six feels a like a repeat. I reprint and spiral bind my manuscript (again) in order to read the newest version.
But this time, I read it out loud. This time, my focus is 100-percent oriented toward sound. Writing is music without instruments. It has a beat, rhythm, song. Reading a manuscript out loud, from beginning to end, is the best way to find clunky sentences, repetitive or unnecessary words, and any other structural wonkiness that will pull a reader away from the story. I’m so antsy and ready to move forward by this point, I have to literally walk away (a lot). Removing myself and going to do something grounded and physical-- the dishes or cooking or a lake swim, anything-- helps me keep a fresh ear and forces me to slow down and really, truly pay attention.

Step seven is the spit, polish, shine. It’s the last touches before attaching the document and sending it off to be read by my brilliant agent, Sarah Davies, who always has incredible insights and questions and thoughts...that put me right back in the check out line at Office Max, excited for another round.

Which is okay. Because:
“You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.”-- Susan Orlean, New Yorker staff writer.

About the Book

Words and Their Meanings
by Kate Bassett

Anna O’Mally doesn’t believe in the five stages of grief. Her way of dealing with death equates to daily bouts of coffin yoga and fake-tattooing Patti Smith quotes onto her arms. Once a talented writer, Anna no longer believes words matter, until shocking discoveries– in the form of origami cranes– force her to redefine family and love.

As Anna goes in search of the truth, she discovers that while every story, every human being, has a last line, it might still be possible to find the words for a new beginning.

Purchase on Amazon | Purchase on IndieBound | Add to Goodreads

About The Author

Kate Bassett has a degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis and a minor in Psychology. She intended to go into teaching but wasn't very good at "classroom control". She moved on to become the editor of her local Michigan newspaper and has been there since. Even though she absolutely loves to travel, there is no where else she would rather be than in her hometown of Harbor Springs. Words and Their Meanings is her debut book.

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  1. Ah, great post, although I think step three should be repeated at least a couple of times.

  2. great post - think I need to tape these "Steps for Revision" on the wall next to my computer. And I agree with Rosi - step three should be repeated more than once.

  3. I agree, I should tape these to my wall. I especially like the s'mores step...


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