The Ladder to Perfection

In my most recent post, I discussed the revision process and why it is hard, but necessary. This got me thinking about my approach in reviewing first drafts, and how each round of reviews builds on what’s already been done.

First drafts are messy. The writing is clumsy. The characters’ motivations may not have been fully developed. There are gaps or inconsistencies in the plot.

When I come back to a first draft I’ve written, I invariably find I’ve done too much telling and not enough showing. It’s the cardinal sin of writing. Let’s say there is a scene where a star athlete meets a young woman in the bar. He’s interested; she’s not. There’s some give-and-take dialogue. Next thing you know, there’s one of those transition paragraphs: He somehow managed to get her phone number and within a couple of weeks, they were sleeping together. I would never write it that way. Why? The reader feels cheated. How exactly did this star athlete turn around this woman’s attitude? We don’t know. We only know what the author “told” us.

The first part of that scene is based on a scene I’m currently working on. I wrote the dialogue for the encounter between the athlete and the young woman. It was fairly pedestrian stuff. Now I need to go back and add texture and a layer of tension. She doesn’t like him at first. There’s some verbal jousting. Perhaps there’s a well-timed interruption by his friend. What is driving him? What about her? What motivation might she have to want to go out with this guy, who she doesn’t really like when they first meet? So my challenge is to start with the dialogue. Sharpen it. Challenge the characters to go deeper than the typical bar scene encounter. Focus on what’s going on in their heads and how that translates into authentic dialogue. How can the setting enhance the scene? Maybe it is loud in the bar and he leans in close to her, creating an unexpected intimacy which she likes.

When I think about the rounds of revisions, I envision a ladder:

  • First rung. The writer gets the basic gist of the scene on paper, but there’s too much telling.
  • Second rung. The writer focuses on showing, through dialogue, pacing, setting, narrative. The more description the better.
  • Third rung. The writer delves deeper into the character’s motivations—which hold the key to any scene in a novel.
  • Fourth rung. The scene is really coming together. The writer can focus on things like foreshadowing. Should he add a siren in the distance? A sudden fight that breaks out?
  • Reaching the top rung: The view from up here is awesome. All of the elements of the scene are working together to create a cohesive whole.

It could take several rewrites to get to that top rung. The important thing is the writer cannot be satisfied with one or two rounds of revisions. The writer must continually ask: how can I make this scene better? Keep challenging yourself. Climb that ladder to the top.

How many revisions do you need to reach the top rung?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Ladder to Perfection

  1. Yes! I go through my manuscript quite a few times – and in different ways — using the outlines you’ve described —- a few times on the computer doc, and on my kindle, and printed out — now that I have a Kindle Fire, I’m going to let it “talk my novel to me,” and then when it is done with all the editing processes at my publishers, I still am not done, I take the very last chance to look at it before it goes out to print and I scour it – the last book I read aloud and I’ll do that again.

  2. I like the analogy of ascending ladder for depth and cohesion. The first few rungs often happen for me as I sketch out ideas, characters and plot points in longhand on paper, the middle rungs as I transition from my sketchy notes to the computer and a few more added rungs for me as I work through adding the details. I like the thought of finally reaching that top rung, a place for final review and reading out loud for pacing and pitch. I’ve got a picture of a ladder, top resting just above the crest of a roof. I may just pull it out to provide a source of inspiration for a little while – thanks!

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