Revising the Novel: On Sewing, Surgery, & Equations (Part 1)

I made a big push on the novel revisions this week, through the wee hours of Easter Weekend and into Monday morning. It felt invigorating; thrilling, even. I was immediately reminded of my time on the road when I was able to reside in this state of uninterrupted focus for weeks at time while supported by a residency. I’ve been posting word counts or snippets of thought in a small social media group of writers and been observing the members’ word counts a lot, lately. It has forced me to look at my own word counts and, rather than feel swayed by high or low numbers, what it taught me is all those little stitches into the sentences that I’m making along the way really do add up.
Add up to what, you might ask? As I’ve reverse outlined and found my way back into my old scenes, teaching myself how to accordian them out, I’ve been cutting useless words or untrue sentiments and adding sensory detail, line-level metaphor, and place-based depth. I’ve been trying to create natural tension between the characters on the page by making them talk just a little bit more, or by making them express one thing (but really desire another). So far, these moves have felt surgical to me, like conducting minor alterations that no one will notice by name, but everyone will notice by feel or by some sort of general energy shift and change overall. Perhaps a better analogy is quilting. At first glance, I don’t think you can really see the differences. But a closer look reveals an intricate, hand-crafted pattern. Even I don’t know what that pattern will look like when it’s all said and done, but it does have a bit of its own internal logic…

…Which brings me to another analogy: math. Equations, to be more specific. I’ve always felt that revision is like balancing equations, but I’ve never tried to articulate this analogy before. Each sentence has a certain weight and feel and can be balanced or unbalanced depending on the needs of the plot and characters at the time. There’s the internal structure of the individual sentence, and there’s also the overall balance of that sentence within the context of the paragraph in which it resides. Micro and macro math; tiny decisions with weighty implications. If it’s all sounding a little abstract right now, that’s because it is (and because I’m sleep-deprived). But I have a hunch that more than a few readers out there know what I’m talking about. Writing is mathematical, for much of its drafting, and I’m enamored with that part of the process. It’s absolutely satisfying to feel the imbalance and make it right. Conversly, to feel where an imbalance would produce greater dramatic affect, and to refuse resolution of the equation (and therefore of the emotion, of the tension) on purpose.

In the coming posts, I’ll look for verbatim sentences of this in my novel draft to try and demonstrate what I’m talking about.

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