Week twenty-two: Ignore the leaf blowers

It is week twenty-two of 2019. How did the writing go for you this week? I’m writing this newsletter while trying to block out the sound of the leaf blower being wielded next door (puzzling, since we are more of a taco truck kind of neighborhood than a leaf blower kind of neighborhood), which is a fair metaphor for the kind of week it has been here at the garret.

Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to block out the external or internal noise. Recognize the draw on your energy, then try to keep going anyway. Maybe the week’s work will have to be heavily revised somewhere down the line (you’ll encounter it again and remember, “Oh yeah, that was the leaf blower week”), but if you can keep the words flowing, even at a trickle, that’s better than stopping altogether because it requires exponentially more effort and willpower to start back up.

Now, on to this week’s book, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, by Janice Hardy. Some books about revision are contemplative or even lyrical (Susan Bell’s Artful Edit comes to mind). Hardy’s book is on the other side of the spectrum, focused on practical steps that will help an author analyze their work and fix the flaws. There are a lot of energizing nows and nexts. Hardy wants you not just to contemplate but to do. 

The book is organized as a series of workshops focused on elements like character or point of view. Each workshop is broken down into a series of sessions, which are in turn broken down into a series of steps. In most cases, these are in the form of questions to ask about the manuscript. One of my favorites in the book helps writers identify a character’s flaws and fears, which are important aspects of motivation and conflict:

  • What are their flaws?

  • What do they fear?

  • What are their prejudices?

  • What makes them uncomfortable?

  • What makes them furious beyond rational thought?

  • What makes them change the subject or walk away from a conversation?

I think those last two are particularly revealing. As Hardy points out, they help you identify what your character feels strongly about and what your character might be trying to avoid or repress.

Hardy provides excellent suggestions for how to unclog a “boggy middle,” as well as astute questions for diagnosing common problems with endings. She also gives advice on how to evaluate, organize, and prioritize comments from beta readers, critique partners, and editors, which is something I haven’t seen in other writing guides.

I think Hardy is less good at explaining the why, and there aren’t many examples to help illuminate the dark spots. For authors without much craft knowledge, I’d recommend pairing this book with a more comprehensive guide to novel-writing, such as Jessica Brody’s  Save the Cat! Writes a Novel or Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.

When read front to back, Hardy’s book feels somewhat repetitive and recursive. The book is an omnibus of what originally appeared as three separate titles, and that explains some of the repetition. While Hardy advises authors to skip around to the areas they need to address and provides some helpful internal links to specific sections, the book does not have a comprehensive table of contents that would allow readers to get straight to the section they need.

However, I think Revising Your Novel is also recursive because that is the nature of the revision process itself. Novels are like big shaggy balls of yarn with lots of loose ends, and it’s not always clear what will happen if you start pulling on one of those loose threads. Will the novel cohere into a stable and pleasing shape, or will it disintegrate into an untidy pile? It would make life easier if a novel were more like a Lego construction, which you could consider from all sides before carefully detaching a section and moving it somewhere else. You can strategize, but generally you just have to plunge back into your big ball of words and see what happens.

Whichever stage you are in with your novel – drafting, revising, or still dreaming and planning – make some progress this week, however much you can. 

Here’s to ignoring those leaf blowers, y’all,

Next week’s book: Brian Shawver, The Language of Fiction: A Writer's Stylebook

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