This is the part I always enjoy. The grunt work of writing the first draft is out of the way and I am now going through The Angel of Fire in Scrivener with an eye to improving it. I took a short break away from the book last week so I could come to it cold for the rewrite. In an ideal world this interval would be longer than a week, but even that small amount of time has given me some distance. Since it’s been several months since I wrote the earliest parts of the book, I have plenty of distance from them. Now its time to get down to revising.
What does this process actually involve? Pretty much what you would expect. I am going through the manuscript and re-reading it and making changes where needed. I will hopefully notice some of the sloppier bits of writing and have a chance to tidy them up. Of course, I won’t find all of my clunkers — no one ever does — but at least I get to weed out some of my more obviously bad sentences. I will also hopefully notice some of the structural glitches; the bits where scene transitions are very abrupt and jarring, where strange things have happened to the tension levels of the story while I have been dragging scenes around in the initial draft and so on.
This is the time for bringing things into focus. I try and tighten up the characterisation, sharpen up the dialogue and heighten any drama in an individual scene. Is Macharius commanding? How can I make him more commanding? Is our narrator frightened? How can I convey this feeling to the reader in the most effective fashion? Are people arguing? How does this advance the story? Are the characters really arguing about the thing under discussion or is this a manifestation of some deeper conflict between them? How do I make this clear? I try to make sure each action, each bit of dialogue, each bit of description advances the story or conveys character or, ideally, both. (At some point I will need to do a blog post about how to do this stuff but not today.)
I try to cut out all the stuff that is not needed. I tend to put a lot into the first draft that let’s me get a handle on the story. Often I think it’s good stuff when I am writing it but revision reveals it’s not what the story needs. Then there is usually a lot of cutting of redundant dialogue and scenes that don’t actually add anything to the storyline. Sometimes these can be excellent scenes in and of themselves, they are just not relevant to the project in hand.
In my recent Tyrion and Teclis book I cut out entire swathes of narrative seen from the point of view of the Archmage Caledor. These were scenes which told you his life story and the theory behind the creation of the Vortex but they were not stuff that the reader desperately needed to know– so out they went. They did contribute interesting fragments of information to scenes in which Caledor’s ghost appears so I’m glad I wrote them. They were not a waste. A lot of writing consists of this sort of fumbling in the dark. It’s not pretty but it is necessary.
Sometimes I will notice that there really needs to be a scene where there isn’t one, to explain something or clarify something or to foreshadow some future event, so that will go in, but mostly this is a time for taking stuff out.
While I am taking all of this stuff out on the macro level, I am usually putting stuff in on the micro level. I try to make sure there are enough eyeball kicks. This was a term used by the early cyberpunks. It refers to the sort of small, telling detail that lets you know you’re somewhere else — in the far future of 40K, for instance. The most famous example is probably Heinlein’s the door dilated.
In the case of 40K, putting in eyeball kicks consists of using a sufficiency of the background material in an interesting way. Courtesy of the artists and miniature sculptors, we all know what a las-gun looks like but what does it feel like to use? What does it sound like? Does it get warm in your hand? Does it crackle when it’s overloaded? Does the barrel burn you when you accidentally touch it after you’ve been firing it for a long time?
I go through the sections where people are actually doing stuff with 40K artefacts and I try and make sure that the reader gets some sense of their reality. My goal, in an ideal world, is to sneak an eyeball kick on to every 250 word page. (Scrivener makes this very easy to do by allowing you to view custom page setups.) I don’t do this mechanically though. One eyeball kick per page is a rule of thumb (which, incidentally, are the only rules you can ever apply to writing). Sometimes there may be many eyeball kicks, sometimes none. You get a feel for this sort of thing in the end. At least I hope you do or I’ve been doing it wrong all these years.
This is a time for a certain amount of wariness. Scrivener makes it very easy to write in a mosaic fashion. You can write scenes in almost any order and move them around to suit yourself. There are some dangers to this. It’s very easy to keep chopping and changing and moving things around till you lose sight of things, and you get jarring transitions between scenes or even scenes that are just drifted out of place in the narrative. It’s something you need to watch for. Hopefully there won’t be too much of this with Angel because I wrote the narrative in the first person singular and in chronological order. Of course, the time when you think you don’t need to bother is usually the time it’s easiest to trip yourself up.
Anyway, I think that’s enough talking about revision. It’s time to go and actually do some.