Revising the Novel: Printing the Pages

Writing is a physical act; it is three-dimensional. It can’t be limited to the distance between eyes to screen, fingertips to keyboard. It can’t be limited to the space between notepad and pen. When push comes to shove–or more appropriately, when deadline comes to call–one of my most anticipated stages of revision involves printing the pages and holding them in my hands.

Starting Tuesday morning, I begin my first read-aloud of this fourth revision of the novel. To be clear–I’ve printed certain chapters of this draft and read them out loud before. But I haven’t had a complete draft, beginning to end, located in the same Word document and pressed “print” for over 200 pages in quite some time. I know the last four chapters, in particular, need major attention. Even still; I’ve come this far and I’m excited!

The concentration required by this part of the revision process is visceral. I shut my office door. I disconnect the wi-fi. I pace the room and hold each page like a fragile object. Once I’ve studied its contents, that fragility fades and is replaced by one of two things. The page either starts to feel firm, finished, and ready…or it feels loose, open, and waiting. If it’s the former, I’ll set it aside. If it’s the latter, I’ll walk to the desk, hunch over the page with my blue Pilot G-2 in hand, and do the good work of sentence surgery. If several pages in a row require this level of attention to right themselves, I’ll grab my clipboard, sit in the recliner (not at the desk–this is important; if I want to think differently, I have to sit differently), and ponder what’s not working and why.

Sometimes an answer comes immediately. A few swift changes, a few cuts, or a note to myself to fix something in a later chapter–and voila, I can move on. Other times, an answer takes hours, days, or longer. A good, long walk can help. So can making a batch of homemade hummus. These things distract my mind and let the subconscious do its work. Then I can return to the same section and begin reading aloud again.

What am I listening for? Something that’s not true. Something that isn’t earned. Something that’s trying to do too much. Something that doesn’t mean what it says. There’s always a crack in these places; a muffled message, a snag in the line. If I’m careful enough, I’ll hear it. If I’ve honed my imagination enough, I’ll be able to hold these places up to the light and decipher my way through, illuminating the blind spots one syllable at a time.

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