Making My Story Matter: A Second Look at Revision

A few posts ago, I wrote about revisioning my novel, a la Cheryl Klein. Now I’m back at it, with another book – Writing A Book That Makes A Difference by Philip Gerard.

I admit it – I’ve had this book for well over a year and haven’t even cracked it open enough to skim more than a page or two. At first glance, it’s dense – altogether different from Cheryl Klein’s light, but informative transcribed speeches. But on closer inspection, this is a winner. I suppose it’s important to know why I even picked the book back up, after many failed attempts. Last winter, an agent requested a full manuscript read of a YA novel I’m working on. She liked some bits, but overall said the book wasn’t about much. Those are my words (she was very polite) but it got me thinking. I knew the book was about more, but after the teeniest bit of scrutiny, I had to agree with her. But what to do?

I underwent a big revision, after a random and fortuitous email sparked an idea, an idea that raised the stakes in the book. At this point, I knew I wanted the book to *be* something, at least in my eyes. Not just a bittersweet coming of age story (which it still is). I wanted my book to make a difference. Or at least read like it did. So I picked up Gerard’s book.

Yes, I’ve skimmed a bit, but the book isn’t as dense as I’d first thought. And there’ve been lots of great tidbits including:

– Have each character “present different facets [of an issue] in their actions and words”. Gerard is referring to novels affected by didacticism. Using characters in this way helps alleviate preachiness. Though my story isn’t driven directly by an “issue,” this approach has helped me flesh out the sidekicks in such a way that they now (hopefully) aid my protagonist in reflecting on what’s challenging her. Duh, right?

-A quote from John Steinbeck, included in the book: “A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone. If this is done then the breaks we call chapters are not arbitrary but rather articulations which allow free movement of the story.” Wow. For some reason, this struck me something fierce. Mostly in that I’ve never quite reached that level of revision, and I mean that in the best of ways. Yes, I’ve reworded and rearranged and cut and inserted and and and, but this one quote raised my goals to heavenly heights. Could each chapter in my novel almost stand alone? Not yet.

Perhaps the most striking thing about reading Gerard’s book was realizing how I just hadn’t been ready to approach my novel in this way. I knew the people, but only vaguely. But my last revision helped me get to the place that I was even ready to delve into a book like Gerard’s, a book about meaning, a literary book (egads!). Now that I know why my characters matter (at least in my head), about why they as individuals will each make a specific difference in the story, my mental revision feels like it’s been expanded exponentially. Of course, now I have to actually do the revision.

With a big thank you to Philip Gerard.  His book made a difference.

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3 thoughts on “Making My Story Matter: A Second Look at Revision

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I especially like that first tip, about having different characters present different facets of your central issue. I have never thought about it like that, and it seems like a very good point!

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