The Art of Fiction: Revision Toolkit Part 2

June 29, 2007
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 
Revision Toolkit: Part 2

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

July 2007

"The more terse the style, the more weight not just each word, but each comma and period, carries. "
—Lenard-Cook
Fiction writing is at its best when it’s about your reader rather than you. This month, I’d like to explore some of the tools that will help you connect with that reader, including the difference between a terse style and not saying what needs to be said, and how simply moving words around on the page can help you discover your fiction’s depths.

The Iceberg Cometh

Anyone who’s read the work of Ernest Hemingway could come away believing that terseness can take the place of depth, but in fact the opposite is true: The more terse the style, the more weight not just each word, but each comma and period, carries. According to Hemingway himself, the words he left on the page after stripping everything else away were “just the tip of the iceberg.” Still, Hemingway noted, you “had to know the rest of the iceberg was there, supporting the tip.”

"It’s in reading this first draft and discovering what it wants to be that you will decide what part of the iceberg you want to expose . . ."
—Lenard-Cook
Note the phrase “words…left on the page after stripping everything else away.” Some writers write a lot and then must do this stripping away in revision, to find what’s at the heart of a fiction. Other writers (I fall into this latter category) must dig beneath what they’ve gotten on the page in their first draft to determine what else is needed to add that depth and heart.

No matter which kind of writer you are, however, your first draft is just that, a first step. It’s in reading this first draft and discovering what it wants to be that you will decide what part of the iceberg you want to expose and what you’ll leave to the reader’s

"One of the greatest difficulties of writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, is that the only tool we have is words."
—Lenard-Cook
It’s Only Words

One of the greatest difficulties of writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, is that the only tool we have is words. The eternal problem of the writer is finding the right words to translate things that resist them, so that someone else — that reader, again — will understand what the writer is trying to say. This effort means that one begins all over again with each fiction, no matter how accomplished a writer one is. No less a master than John Steinbeck noted (in Journal of a Novel) that “the craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness.”

". . . simply get your first draft down
on paper and then fix it later."

—Lenard-Cook
It is largely because of this difficulty that I repeatedly encourage you to simply get your first draft down on paper and then fix it later. No one — not Ernest Hemingway, not John Steinbeck, not Margaret Atwood, and certainly not me or you — gets it right the first time. Revision, as I’ve noted in other columns, means “re-seeing,” and so allows you the opportunity to see if what’s on the page comes anywhere near what’s in your head.
"How do you use mere words to show someone else the picture in your head?"
—Lenard-Cook

The biggest question, of course, is how: How do you use mere words to show someone else the picture in your head? (And not just show: You want your reader to hear, feel, taste, and smell the things you’re imagining, too.) The answer is to take your time. This is work. If it’s work you love, as I do, you’ll happily move words (and commas and periods) around on the page until what they show matches what you see. If you’re in it for another reason, you’ll want to skip this step. But if you do, not only will others not see the same thing you did, few will want to read your attempt to make them do so in the first place.

"I’m continually amazed at the chutzpah of writer-wannabes . . ."
—Lenard-Cook

The Joy of Working

This brings me to two of my pet peeves, shortcuts and sycophants. Sure, for enough money, you can hire an editor who will do your hard work for you. But if you choose to do that, you are not, to my way of thinking, a writer. Or you may, alternatively, suck up to every published writer you meet, suggesting that their broad knowledge can be used to make up for your lack. Writers are an insecure lot — we spend far too much time alone — and the right praise at the right time will get you lots of free information. But at what cost? Will you know how to find other information yourself, or will you simply suck up to the next source, when you need it? I’m continually amazed at the chutzpah of writer-wannabes, who ask me for everything from my agent’s email address (without, mind you, having yet written a word) to detailed instructions on manuscript formatting.

"What irks me is those who don’t want to take the time to read columns or books, or attend a class or conference. . ."
—Lenard-Cook
I’m happy to share my knowledge: Witness this fortieth column for Authorlink, my teaching schedule, and my forthcoming book about writing. What irks me is those who don’t want to take the time to read columns or books, or attend a class or conference, but rather want to pick others’ brains in order to save themselves the trouble
"But if writing is something you love — and if it’s not, why are you doing it? — you should be happy to do both the work
and the homework."

—Lenard-Cook

But if writing is something you love — and if it’s not, why are you doing it? — you should be happy to do both the work and the homework. I own and regularly refer to over fifty books about writing — and that’s not even counting the essays, letters, memoirs, and other sources. I used two of those references (Hemingway and Steinbeck) for this column, and I enjoyed digging up the right quotes. I also have a decent-sized library of both old and new classics, everything from Native American mythology to Sherman Alexie. These books are my instructors as well, and it’s my belief that without studying these masters you’ll never be a master yourself.

"My advice, in short, is to do your homework, love your work. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

My advice, in short, is to do your homework, love your work, and revisit the results with enthusiasm and desire. But, of course, there are more tools in my revision toolbox, and next month, I’ll share a few more.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, will be published in April 2008.

 

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