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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Zu Vincent and Revision

My brain is hurting these days from revising Brimstone Soup. Some days, it's like new romance. Others, it's like pulling out my insides, wrestling with them, and then trying to put them back. I've had a few great insights, only to realize that I have no idea exactly how I am to implement them. Such is the beast, apparently. Just the other day, I read a post from another teen lit author who cited "Revision Depression," and I thought, "Aha, is that what I've been going through these past weeks?"

My writing friends assure me that this is normal, maybe even worthy of celebration. So, woohoo! Right now, I'm celebrating Chapter Two, version 6.3. Party on. What better way to celebrate than to get a massage?

As I lay there quietly, an idea began to form, maybe even a solution to this hairy knot I have found myself untangling. We'll find out tomorrow when the critique group reads it and hopefully (unlike last week) gives it a PASS!

In the meantime, I just read this wonderful post at Darcy Pattison's Revision Notes (which I am utterly obsessed with right now), a story on revising from Class of 2k8's Zu Vincent, author of The Lucky Place:

Revision is about shape. The shape your story is in and the shape you want it to become. Part of this shaping happens in line edits and choosing the best, most evocative words, but before you look at the nuts and bolts, look to your characters. Study, as John Gardner put it, the fortunes of those characters. And give those fortunes to us.

As Gardner warned, characters can’t be murky, as if seen through shower glass. They need to emerge exquisitely drawn in our sight.

Ironically, the way to do this is not to expand—but to narrow—characters in revision.

Think of Charlie Chaplin in his constricting black suit, with his tilty walk and twitchy mustache. He’s created in such thin detail he jumps to life on the screen. And that detail is thin because it exists only for the world of Chaplin, like the cartoon desert exists for Road Runner. Yes Chaplin is odd and quirky, but we see this so clearly because he’s tightly drawn in those details. And being tightly drawn, he’s made familiar.

Look for the Chaplin in your characters when you revise. Make them stand out by making them human, in all their odd vulnerability. Not only in their appearance but in their heart and in the heart of their world. Characters are shaped by this world and have something of their own at stake. They don’t simply react to another character’s desires, but have desires of their own.

That’s why shaping in revision isn’t just mechanical, but emotional at its core. It’s shaping the soul of your story until it rings true. Until the truth you hear in your head is sounding loud on the page.

As Paul Klee said of art, “Only after the writer lets literature shape her can she perhaps shape literature…. Art must enter the body… a painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world.” Rather, “You adapt yourself,” Klee said, “to the contents of the paint box.”

What characters have emerged from your paint box? How can they be more finely drawn? Characters don’t so much come from real life as from the story canvas you’ve created. They live in the world on your page and that world is woven not only from its people but from its plot and setting, too.

Even before you revise, listen to what your characters are saying and doing, look at the world you’ve set them in, because most often the answers to what you need next are already floating there, dredged up from the subconscious, waiting for you to notice. Waiting for you to dig in and give them final shape.

For more about the author, see www.zuvincent.com or the 2k8 website.

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