Friday, May 12, 2017
Finding the Story
A couple of weeks ago, I announced on Facebook that I had finished the rough draft of Legends of the Five Directions 4: The Vermilion Bird. Social media being what they are, I’m assuming most readers of this blog didn’t see that post, which probably disappeared among the many other updates of their friends. But for me it marked the transition from the process of discovering whether I have a story to my favorite part of writing: the first revision stage.
This may seem like an odd preference. Isn’t the first draft more fun? Well, in some ways, yes. If I could outline worth a darn and stick to the plan, no doubt I would like that first run-through best. In the first draft the story is brand-new and shiny, and I follow the characters almost in awe as they come to life on the page.
But as I’ve confessed before, my outlines are sketchy at best. I try to have a plan for where I’m going, although I don’t always get there (Vermilion Bird is a perfect example: I had a reasonable sense of where my main couple would end up, but several other characters kept me in suspense almost until the last chapter). Sometimes I also draw up a list of midpoints to keep the book focused, but usually that’s a waste of time, since by the time I hit page ten, someone has done something unexpected and there I am, back in the woods. And while the exploration is a blast, and I learn what’s going to happen as I go along, the nagging sense that I may never reach the end or even have a story, in the sense of a well-connected tale that starts off one place and ends up farther along the same path, gives the whole process a somewhat frantic air.
As a result, I like the second draft best. By then, the general arc of the book is in place. I understand who the characters are, what pleases and worries them, what they recognize as troubling and what they have buried so deeply that only the developing story events can bring the truth to light. Of course, there are byways—and even highways—that go nowhere and people who show up in chapter 15 and have to be introduced earlier, details I forgot were already covered and others that somehow slipped through the cracks. But the trunk of the book exists, and the rest is a matter of pruning and grafting, planting and uprooting. At this point I go through the novel several times as quickly as I can, adding and subtracting until I have a more or less clean line from beginning to end.
That is not the end of the revisions, by any means. I do individual runs for style, to remove clichés, to check for (historical, psychological, typographical) errors, to adjust for readers’ comments, to monitor that the dialogue sounds like something real people would say and excludes modern slang or post-medieval concepts of the universe. Only when I can’t think of anything else to fix does the book move toward publication. By then, I’m usually so sick of it that I can’t look at it anymore, at least for a while.
But that second round is special. The story is present but still new and exciting, rich with hidden depths and twists to uncover. It catches me up, to the point where I forgot to write this post yesterday. And now I have to get back to work. See you next week!
Images: Phoenix purchased from Shutterstock.com; Emperor Babur of India supervising work on his garden courtesy of the British Library.