Friday, March 19, 2021

Revising for Meaning--Beyond the Basic Revision Checklist

With the long winter wrapping up, it seems many of us are also wrapping up book projects.

I'm hearing from quite a few writers in revision. Behind progress reports and exhaustion lies the usual self-doubt: Are we there yet?

And more importantly, How do I tell?

I batter against this question with every book I write. You'd think it would be a no brainer by now. But each book is so different in what it demands. Sure, basic revision tasks repeat: the story has to be compelling and well threaded, the characters vivid, the setting or container of the story (its environment) believable. But the meaning is always different, and since I believe my maturity as a writer is growing, that meaning gets more complex. I have harder things to say, and the revision process is where I assess whether they are said. Or not.

I mentioned my basic checklist a few weeks ago in the February 12 blog post (read the post here). I recommended selecting two small and one larger task from the list each writing session to avoid the overwhelm that comes from picking too many big-picture revision tasks at once.

But how do you know when the list is done? Do you keep adding to it as you learn more about what needs work? Or is there a point when you stop?

Here's the line between content and structure--the stuff of that basic revision list--and meaningful, the thing you're trying to say in this book. Usually, as you work your way through the checklist, as you take care of smoothing and strengthening the content and structure issues in the manuscript, the meaning starts to show itself. You get to notice, now that you're working with the long view, how well you've done at translating the idea to the page.

In my storyboarding workshop, I often ask writers to think about this question: Why am I writing this book? What do I want to communicate to the reader? What message is most important to me?

I do this when I begin a book, when I am storyboarding for ideas, and I repeat the exercise when I have my first draft completed. Finally, I ask it again when I am revising. At each stage, the answer may be different. Sometimes the draft takes the story into new orbits, far from my original purpose. Often, though, the revision brings it back to the core reason I spent these last months and years at my laptop. I had something to say. I wanted to tell a story. In revision, I come home to what that is.

Are we there yet? is a multi-level question. You may be entirely "there" with the content, the stuff happening in your book. You may also be "there" with the way it flows, the structure you've designed via storyboard or other tools. But are you there with the original purpose, the meaning you had in mind when you first sat down to write?

Truthfully, most of my books evolve in their meaning during the writing process. I don't know what I don't know. Along the way, insightful readers and editors help me get closer to the core of what I have to say. Maybe I start out writing a novel about the complexities of forgiving someone who has caused terrible hurt. Along the way, it becomes a different kind of forgiveness, maybe of self. That's a favorite moment--a deeper, more intricate meaning has emerged, and I love the wonder of it. The book has become something beyond me.

Try this small exercise this week, if you want. No matter which stage you're in--the beginning steps of organizing ideas, the drafting of the manuscript, the revision process. See if you can revisit the why.

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