The Art of Fiction: Revision Decisions!

June 30, 2006
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook 
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The Art of Fiction:

Revision Decisions!

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

July 2006

"The other women in my writers' group were thrilled to learn I was working on this novel again. The problem was, I wasn't."

—Lenard-Cook

This past winter, I began rewriting a novel that had been in my closet for several years. Suddenly, a month ago, I simply couldn't go on. Oh, I'd look at it—its notebook still sat on my desk, challenging me. But instead of continuing to write the new material I felt the novel needed, I worked on a short story, an adaptation, a book proposal, reviews, essays, and columns—anything, in other words, but the novel I'd planned to spend the spring revising.

Finally, with my writers' group due to meet in two days, I took my computer along while one of my tires was fixed earlier this week. It was a perfect New Mexico morning, so I sat outside at picnic table, and typed, in that half hour, five new pages. The other women in my writers' group were thrilled to learn I was working on this novel again. The problem was, I wasn't.

". . . I'd lost my sense of the bigger picture. What did this material want to be? I wondered."

—Lenard-Cook

It wasn't that the new scene wasn't a good one, or that the characters weren't true to themselves. Rather, I felt that I'd lost my sense of the bigger picture. What did this material want to be? I wondered. Where was it going? Why did it matter?

Brainstorming

Then it occurred to me to put this problem to these other writers. Whose story was it? I asked them. Whom did they care about? Their immediate answer was the character in whose point of view I was currently telling the story. But then, after a moment, one of them said she thought it was really an earlier character's story, and a moment later another said she thought it was still another's.

Then my dear friend Barbara asked the question I most didn't want to hear: Did I really need the character who's been central to this narrative for twenty years? I sputtered an objection. Then I at once began to think about what would be left if that character were no longer central to the fiction. She'd still be a part of it, but it would no longer be her story.

". . . I pulled up the most recent file and gave it a new name. Then I deleted 150 pages I knew didn't belong."

—Lenard-Cook

As soon as I mentally shuffled this character offstage, I began to visualize three novellas. And I at once started getting excited about the material again, something I've not been for a very, very long time. That's how I know I'm on the right track—when I can't get the fiction out of my head.

And so, when I got home that afternoon, I pulled up the most recent file and gave it a new name. Then I deleted 150 pages I knew didn't belong. That left me with forty pages for one of the novellas, which I imagine will be about eighty pages when I'm finished. Next I went to an earlier version (there are, in my current computer, about twenty attempts to work with this material) and found 25 pages that, with some revision, might work for the second novella. I copied and pasted these into the new file, too. Finally, I went to a much older version and found about ten pages that could be used for the third novella. Then I printed it all out. I can't wait to get started all over again.

"I really thought it was that character's story. It took someone else asking me if she was necessary to shake me awake."

—Lenard-Cook

Questions of Revision

While it took me twenty years (and some very honest friends) to figure out what this material wanted to be, you're likely hoping it won't take you quite so long. The thing was, I really thought it was that character's story. It took someone else asking me if she was necessary to shake me awake.

What I'd recommend, very highly in light of the above anecdote, is that you work through the questions that follow with the people in your own writers' group. You can certainly do this alone, too, but if this episode has taught me anything, it's that someone else may provide the very insight a particular fiction needs to allow it to come into its own.

"Whose story is it? This is the character who should be central to the fiction."

—Lenard-Cook

1. Whose story is it?

This is the character who should be central to the fiction.

2. What is it about this character that makes the reader care for him or her?

Readers want humanity, not perfection. Put your characters' weaknesses on the page and your readers will root for them.

3. What does this character want?

Plot = desire.

4. Why does s/he want it?

Character = motivation.

5. What is standing in the character's way?

Conflict = plot.

6. Are the seeds of the end planted at the beginning?

Try reading the first paragraphs of a few favorite fictions to see how this works.

7. Does the fiction start moving forward from the first sentence?

Your first sentence determines whether your reader will care enough to read the second. Period.

8. Does every scene further the narrative?

Those that don't should either be deleted or rewritten to do so.

9. Are there extraneous scenes?

Delete them. They do not belong in this fiction.

10. Are there scenes that are missing that need to be there?

This has more than once been the final—and best—thing I've done for a fiction: made it complete.

" May you all have a Barbara to help you with your own revision decisions."

—Lenard-Cook

If your writers' group is a good one, you've learned to trust each other enough that you can ask each other the tough questions like the one that Barbara asked me. That question rattled me right out of my rut, and I needed rattling. May you all have a Barbara to help you with your own revision decisions.

About

Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

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Copyright 2006-2008 by Lisa Lenard-Cook and Authorlink.

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