The Art of Fiction: Picking Up the Pieces
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
"I suppose I could have been daunted by the prospect of basically starting from scratch, but after so many years I was actually eager to revisit these characters. . ." —Lenard-Cook
The novel I've just finished has gone through more incarnations than the Dalai Lama. It began close to twenty years ago as a short story, morphed several years later into an entirely different short story, and then, at a writing teacher's suggestion, was turned into a novel for the first time in 1993. It then went into that closet of mine for ten years. When it came out again I tossed out quite a bit and wrote around much that was already there. The result was, in my agent's words, a mess.
She was right. Back in the closet it went, until this spring, when (for a number of reasons) the novel on which I'd been working lost its luster. This time, I began by deleting most of one character's sections, except for a frame at the beginning and end. Next I cut out everything that felt as if it didn't belong in the story I wanted to tell. By the time I was finished with all this slicing and dicing, I was left with about forty pages, a quantity approximately equal to the lengths of those two short stories with which I started twenty years ago.
What Does It Want to Be?
Despite the lack of pages, I knew what I had was a novel, not a short story. I suppose I could have been daunted by the prospect of basically starting from scratch, but after so many years I was actually eager to revisit these characters and find out what they had to tell me now, that they'd withheld every other time I'd worked with them.
". . . it may be helpful for you as you consider what that idea knocking around your head wants to be." —Lenard-Cook
As someone who writes novels, short stories, poetry, reviews, essays, and nonfiction, I'm often asked how I know what any given piece of work is. To answer this question, I've come up with a checklist, although it's not something I actually use myself – I always "know" what something wants to be. Nonetheless it may be helpful for you as you consider what that idea knocking around your head wants to be. A short story (unless it's by Alice Munro, which is a genre onto itself) shows a character in a state of flux. While other characters are present in a short story, it's generally one character's situation with which it will deal. Hence, short stories are almost always character-driven. A novel has a broader scope. Not only will it deal with a character's trajectory, there will be substrata and superstrata as well (at least if it's in the literary genre in which I write). You'll often find a number of leitmotifs, recurring ideas, or details that appear again and again. There may be a sustaining metaphor, or ideas lingering just beneath the surface that are important as well. A novel's larger idea (in high school, this was called the theme) is many-tentacled and won't always stay between the lines. Finally, a novel may be character-driven or plot-driven. With a few notable exceptions, most bestsellers fall into the latter category. A poem moves between the small and the large. Poems may be concerned with language, with an idea, with a feeling or sense of something, or, really, just about anything, but without a fiction's overriding concern for character or plot. A good, complete poem will often leave the reader feeling as if something s/he's always known but been unable to articulate has for a moment been made clear. Today's literary nonfiction and essays employ many of the tools of the fiction writer, which has resulted in much better sales in this previously marginalized genre. Recent examples include Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. Literary nonfiction can be separated from literary fiction by the simple "it really happened" rule.
". . . I approached the material in a new way that allowed me greater insight into my characters and their motivations." —Lenard-Cook
From Mess to Meaning
Let's go back now to that forty pages with which I was left last spring. Why didn't I just start over, or see what of the hundreds of pages I'd cut might be used in some way? In effect, I did start over, because even the forty pages that were left required a great deal of rewriting and revision once I'd filled in the gaps between them. But even though the novel is still about the same thing, I approached the material in a new way that allowed me greater insight into my characters and their motivations.
The novel grew slowly over the summer. I wrote a new beginning section to start, then moved two-thirds of the remaining material around until it was in the right order. Then I spent some time fiddling with how the reordered material read, to get everything just so for what would come after. When it felt right, I printed it out, scribbled all over it, and entered all the changes I'd made in a new document.
When I was finally ready to begin writing the new sections, I'd spent several months hanging around with these characters. They were who I dreamed about; they were who I thought about when I stared at the mountains out my window. I'd wake up in the morning suddenly knowing something else that had happened that I hadn't known before. This is the stage where my right brain is sending so much over to my left brain that it's all I can do to keep up. If you see me at this point, it's entirely possible I won't see you.
About a month later, I printed out a new draft. It was 130 pages long, hardly the length of a novel. I got out my different colored pens and edited and added and subtracted, moved sections from one place to another, wrote notes to myself, affixed sticky tabs where entire new chapters were needed. I began to see the shape of the thing. I could feel its direction and its scope. I knew that, this time, finally, I was getting it right.
"I can't say enough times or enough different ways how important revision is in the writing process." —Lenard-Cook
The Neverending Story
In late July I asked two of my first readers if they'd give what I had (160 pages, by this time) a look. I gave one a list of specific issues I had with the novel and told the other nothing at all. (I'm nothing if not scientific.) Their comments were fairly consistent: Both wanted more in the same places I knew I needed more. Both felt the characters were compelling, the story riveting, the basic idea clear and surprising. But meanwhile, while it was gone, I'd been reading my novel yet again myself (always a sign there's more to be done). And so I'd already done some more writing, in the very areas my readers had asked for more.
Once I'd added the new material, I'd achieved a respectable page count. I printed out a new copy and this time got out a notebook to record each scene and its purpose (I'll discuss this part of the revision process in a future column). This task is one of the last before I consider a book ready. If everything fits together as I want it to, I send it off to the next set of readers. I did that just a few days ago.
I can't say enough times or enough different ways how important revision is in the writing process. If you send something out to an agent or editor before it's ready, it shows. And then you don't get another chance with that person. It's worth the effort to get it right so that the first time's the charm, don't you think? I do.
This fall, I'll be devoting a column to your questions. If you have a nagging question about the craft of writing, email me in care of the editor-in-chief of Authorlink at email@example.com.