True success in art is about revision. No master paints without the aide of a sketch and the secret there is not a single sketch but a thousand. Hour upon hour of retracing the same eye, the same throat, the same shaft of light. Again and again. It works that way, building gestures until they become rote and then executed perfectly like a ballerina on stage twisting effortlessly.
An artist has heavy-handed methods too. They might shade too much, connect to many lines. Yet, their art is such that it supports this framework of precise imprecision. The lines, just a few, capture what all the other fiddle faddle does not. The words fail me here, but in a torrent I might say that a great waterfall of prose would be required to describe a woman’s neck, to place it in the proper context.
Begin by describing a scene in the park with people all around. Their picnics, their games, their bodies in the Sun. The park itself with trees and pools and flowers. Describe them all with words, draw it in an ever tightening circle until the focus falls softly on the neck of a woman, but then in passing. The phrasing must be such so as to draw attention to that line, that single curve of beauty that marks the mind and causes a man to pause on his way towards death. That little spark of life that makes a moment calm, cool, infused with passion but only for an instant, then settles in the heart like coal in the hearth – to smolder.
You will find that the most direct route is closed. You cannot simply write the scene complete in one sitting and draw forth the emotional power needed to cause the reader to swoon.
As you blast out the sentences, you may feel yourself welling up with all the emotion you are trying to control. Focus. Be patient. Jot down notes on what you are feeling, but not so many that you disturb the flow.
Now, step back and look at the canvas. Flaws may not be apparent at first. You may need to set it aside for awhile and come back. When you do return, there may be an immediate urge to destroy what you have written. Imperfection, especially in emotional issues, is infuriating, but don’t despair.
Notes Are The Key
Look to your notes. What is it you were trying to say?
Oh wait, you don’t have notes?
So many writing books tell you to stay focused and blast away. The intent is good, but they do not explain why you are blasting away. The purpose is to get beyond yourself and become a servant to the story. Yet, in crafting intense prose, you need to have intent and this is where the notes come in. Redundant but true.
I realize that this may seem overly complicated, but when I went through my first novel rewrite 12 years ago I found myself scratching my head and wondering exactly what I had been getting on about. What seemed so clear at the time of composition was now mush and I had no guide aside from my own intuition to figure out what to do next.
When I take notes, I usually sketch them on note cards. I put the date on each card, and since I date my drafts I can match them up easily. Some writing programs (like Scrivener) give you a place to keep notes on a document. I like that too, but sometimes it just feels good to pick up the pen.
How many times should I revise?
“It Depends” is possibly the worst answer you can get to this question, although “As Many As It Takes” is a close second. I’m not sure why writing coaches can’t get more specific. Stephen King did in On Writing, and I happen to agree with him.
I find that if I go beyond two revisions, I lose the intent of the scene (notes or not). This may not happen to you, but my mind is a mess of many to many relationships and given too much room it will roam far and wide. Still, it goes back to the old saw, “If you shake it more than two times, it’s a sin.”
Keeping the Energy Local
Before you take on that second revision, ask yourself whether you’ve managed to keep the energy local. By this, I mean focus on the moment and the characters involved in the scene. It is so tempting to widen the net, to make a meaningful exchange cosmic in importance. Resist the urge.
Keep in mind that you are working to keep the material from stretching too thin. This means overworking the prose of course but also stretching it too far. It doesn’t take much to stretch an emotional scene beyond its scope. When you’ve done that you’ve lost the power.
- Use notes to give context to the process of revision.
- Don’t revise more than two times.
- Keep the focus and energy local.
Remember, a novel is a long journey and the power in the form is not in individual scenes but in the culmination of the whole.