Monday, April 23, 2012

the chaos that is revision

My revision process looks a lot like my bedroom. It might seem like a tangled up mess to my friend who just opened the door looking for the washroom, but to me, there is a precise order to the chaos.

To start with, I have at least three documents open that I go back and forth on. The first is full of revision notes given by readers. The second is the manuscript itself, reduced to single spacing (because double spacing drives me batty, for some reason) and in this second document there are always tons of review tabs highlighting text and shouting: “This scene is unnecessary!”, “Character X should be more upset about Y!”, “THIS NEEDS MORE DESCRIPTION!”. (Review tabs can be aggressively bossy.) The third document is a mishmash of every thought I have about the book and what it needs. Sometimes these are roughly sketched ideas about plot or character. Sometimes they are actual bits and pieces of scenes that need to be expanded on or inserted into pre-existing scenes. This is the most unruly of the three documents, and kind of functions as an out of control To-Do list. As I’m filling up the list, I’m also picking one or two things and working them into the manuscript. Sometimes, it can be as simple as “Insert lilacs into scene 24.” Other times, it’s things like, “What are Character Z’s strategies for remembering? Figure this out and layer them in.”

The process can get ridiculously messy. But it’s also a ton of fun.

Often, the best parts of my stories come when I least expect them, which means I have to strategically distract myself so that my subconscious can go to work. Some ways that I do this: I bury myself in books or watch a lot of movies (not a usual activity for me - the movie watching, that is). I find that stuffing my mind with stories is helpful. There are intuitive patterns in the way that all stories are told, and I want to absorb them. Going for really long walks is also helpful. As is listening to my writing playlists over and over and over.

The thing that works best of all, though? Naps. Yep, that’s right. If I’m stuck staring at the screen with no ideas, I will sometimes tell myself: "I’m just going to go put my head down for twenty minutes…" This is a trick. The reason I do it is because the moment I place my cheek on the pillow, ideas start whacking me over the head. Which leads me to the next thing:

Because I’m relying on my subconscious to do a lot of the grunt work, I keep a pen and notebook handy at all times. (I do this even when I’m not revising.) If I’m walking and I think a thought but can’t hang on to it (or perhaps I’m thinking three thoughts and am struggling to juggle them all), I whip out the notebook and start scribbling furiously. When I get home, I transfer the scribbles into my tangled up list-like document, and get to work.

In some ways, revision is like trying to put a puzzle together - except without the lid that shows you what the picture looks like when it’s finished. Which can be frustrating at times. But it’s also kind of like an adventure.