Revising the Novel: On Sewing, Surgery, & Equations (Part 2)

Earlier in the week, I promised some sample sentences that feel like equations during revision. Now, I’m feeling that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a try. In order to demonstrate, I think I’m going to have to position the sentences in context within their respective paragraphs, because the balancing is easier to “see” in relation to other things. Here goes:

Aaseya saw two boys standing across the narrow village street, brown eyes as wide as grapes. A third, the smallest, crouched around the corner of a building like a shrew. The sun threw light across them in a wash of pale yellow, illuminating their black-topped heads into little, golden orbs. Almost like desert flowers, but no, there was nothings sweet about these boys.

This paragraph used to be simply two sentences long–the opening two sentences–followed by dialogue. By adding two more sentences of description, I felt I balanced the paragraph both visually as well as emotionally. The first two sentences are direct and descriptive, and because this is a limited 3rd narrator on Aaseya, the use of “grapes” and “shrew” suggest that she is in touch with her earthly surroundings. But the sentences don’t necessarily offer an emotional quality, nor do they seem infused with action. They’re frozen and don’t hit at anything more to come. I didn’t like that when I was revising, nor did I like the sparse description, because this location and scenario of boys beneath Aaseya’s window is going to play out several more times in the novel. I added the light, because the sun has a different relationship to each character in the novel and I wanted to be sure to include it. (Although looking at that image now, it seems a bit clunky.) I added the comparison to flowers and the emotional turn–“but no”–because it felt right for my character, Aaseya, and it also suggests that there will be action soon. Those two little words add tension to the entire paragraph, which is now a vivid image on the cusp of breaking into movement. The paragraph is balanced in terms of description, but the emotion remains unbalanced and makes the entire energy of the paragraph teeter on two words, “but no,” which are also physically weighted or located near the bottom half of the paragraph. The foundation is shaky, in other words, and that teetering is good. It keeps readers reading, I think.

The boy stood hesitantly and crossed the street. Aaseya marveled at his little brown calves as flat as kebabs, his twiggy arms hanging from shoulders that jutted outward like wings. That orphan looks half dead, she thought. She watched as he moved the pump slowly, his tiny frame working hard against the pressure. Within moments, water sputtered and hissed, then sang in a stream across his tongue. The boy gulped, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and gulped some more.

The change I added to this paragraph during revision is right in the middle: “She watched as he moved the pump slowly, his tiny frame working hard against the pressure.” On a literal level, I wanted to more clearly indicate the action in the paragraph and I felt the leap from Aaseya’s thought to the water flowing to be too quick. The boy needed to (and did) move during that time, but I hadn’t written that movement into my paragraph. Not all movement can, or should, be written…but in this case, I wanted to characterize the boy. The added sentences reveals his physical size and characterizes him as struggling, two important things that matter in this novel in particular. In terms of balancing sentences, the last sentence used to read, “The boy gulped, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.” I added “and gulped some more” for both realistic portrayal of his thirst and for the rhythmic quality the repetition of “gulped” adds to the sentence.

It’s worth saying that none of this is really conscious in my mind when I’m revising. I’m not thinking any of the thoughts I have written just now, nor am I actively strategizing. I’m subconsciously strategizing, sure, but on the level of present thought in the moment of typing or handwriting those revised words, I’m really not paying attention to any sort of internal chatter about why things need to be written the way that they do…only how those things feel once they come out. When academicians argue about whether or not creative writing is a skill that can actually be taught, sometimes I think that feeling is what they’re talking about. You can’t teach it. It’s very personal and abstract. But you can absolutely inspire it, you can bring your students to the cusp of it, and you can give them exercises that mimic that feeling by way of imitating others until they start to get an understanding for it on their own and eventually find their way to something that’s in their own voice.

The wind kicks up and the ground seems to move along with them. It’s easy to feel hypnotized by that sand, the way the topmost layer will suddenly lift and glide like a creamy brown, horizontal waterfall. There is nothing to stop the sands from blowing over the steep rims of these mountains, all the way to the next continent. Who’s to say there’s anything to stop the men from such disappearance, either.

That was how the mind worked in such moments. Twisted, private humor, like a teen jerking off in his parents’ bed. A curious sickness that makes Nathan shrink in shame and feel charged with life all at once. The nose went one direction. The ear went the other. The memory almost makes him laugh and before he knew it, he applied well-aimed, direct pressure to the wounds until Doc took over, then wiped the blood onto his DCU’s as he high-tailed it over to the two insurgents his men cuffed. He would kill them. But of course he wouldn’t, the two of them kneeling at his boots with bags over their heads, one of them just having shat himself and the other wailing some tinny, syllabic prayer into the hot air and how different was that, really, from Nathan’s own pitiful shortcomings leaking into this forward march of war?

This is from a section of the novel that is limited 3rd person on Nathan, the protagonist soldier leading his platoon on their last mission outside the wire. He’s remembering in this paragraph, so it might seem a little confusing without the rest of the chapter, but I think it still works as an example here. What I want to point out is the balance between sentences and sentence length in this paragraph. There are very short sentences that call attention to themselves and demand two short stops in the middle of the rhythm of the paragraph: “The nose went one direction. The ear went the other.” These are meant to be shocking both in terms of length and rhythm as well as content. The next sentence is quite long, perhaps even a run-on, and that is also intentional. The action Nathan is remembering was like a run-on, in a way–very rushed and heated, very fast and full of multiple actions stacked together. In this way, the length of the sentence complements the content, just like it does for the shorter ones, only this time it goes long and for good reason. The effect of these three sentences all in a row is one of tension. The reader is jerked to a stop, jarred by the content, then running to catch up. That’s how Nathan felt, too, and that’s punctuation working at its best. Doing the job it was meant to do, far above and beyond any actual rules about “proper” use.

After the run-on, another short sentence shocks: “He will kill them.” This is followed by a reversal of that sentiment and here we go, see-sawing with emotion and tension and now the rhythm is all over the place as that reversal turns into another run-on sentence that resolves with…a question. A question! And a needling, accusatory, pinpointed one at that. Here, the emotion that was going every which way all of the sudden spirals back toward Nathan and gets him where it counts. The paragraph has come full circle, from Nathan remembering and almost laughing to himself, to Nathan silenced by the way his own mind has just pulled one over on him…a gesture that is not unlike war itself.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.