Ask Annie: How Do I Revise?

Anne Bernays has been a mainstay of Pangyrus since our launch–and a mainstay of fiction and non-fiction writing for decades.  Co-author of What If?, one of the most enduring texts in creative writing,  she’s helped countless writers succeed. In her new column she answers your questions about writing.

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Dear Annie: How in the world do you step outside yourself to see your work objectively, and how, given all the massive amounts of opinions about writing that are out there, do you decide what problems actually exist in your manuscript, and how best to go about fixing them? How do you remain true to your voice in the face of criticism–without being oblivious to problems?

Dear Puzzled,
Somerset Maugham, one of the truly masterful—and in my opinion, underappreciated—writers of fiction said “There is one great rule for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one can remember what it is.”

If you’re saying to yourself. “I love reading novels; I must write one myself,” you’re doomed before you set your computer to WORD. That’s not the way novels are composed. Novels are stories their authors need to tell, in the same way we need to talk or exercise or drink when we’re thirsty. You should keep in mind that fiction is about sex, money, power—one, two, or all three of them; I challenge you to think of a novel in which at least one of these items does not play an important role.

But more than these abstractions, you need to have in your head a story you must tell. This has a slightly fantastic aspect to it. You’re like the Ancient Mariner who suffers agonies “until [his] ghastly tale is told” over and over again and who has no control over his need to repeat his tale. You must have a story, a”plot” that will unwind a tight spool of experience through the dialogue and actions . Each scene should follow the previous one causally. It’s true that some novelists—notably the so-called “nouvelle vague” in the fifties in France–tried to hold readers’ attention by setting their novels in one place and one time, as in a dinner party. As far as I can tell this new vogue petered out rather quickly. Readers got bored.

You need to make your readers care—above all, you must make them care about what’s happening on the page. To do this you need a consistent tone and a strong main character who must solve a problem, right a wrong, educate him- or herself, find a lost love, win something—a game or a race. The stakes must be high enough so that, once your readers are with you, they cannot leave the embrace of your words. I’ve been advised that there are only seven stories and that every novel attaches itself to one of them.

You ask how it’s possible to see your work objectively. Simple answer: you can’t. But you can achieve some objectivity if you keep working at it. To strengthen and embolden your self-editor, first read the thing out loud. Does it sound right? Do your sentences sing or, if you want them to jolt, do they jolt? Your ear is more valuable than your eye as you revise.

Second, does each word do what you want it to do? Here is the first sentence of one of Virginia Woolf’s novels: “Mrs Dalloway said she would get the flowers herself.” In nine simple words Virginia Woolf tells you a great deal about the plot, setting, and emotional tone of the novel to follow. If you remove the word “the” from the sentence the entire meaning changes. Words are powerful; don’t let yourself EVER believe that any old word will do. And your self-editor should take to heart Stephen King’s formulation of the classic advice not to get too attached to your first draft: “kill all your darlings.”

I would advise you to finish a draft of your novel before showing it to anyone. It comes straight from your heart and your spirit. It has your voice and your unique take on life. Once you have completed a draft you can show it to someone else, a person who will give you an honest, candid response. This person should have the same literary taste as you. If you write tight prose with few adjectives and adverbs and an edgy tone, don’t show it to a fan of Cormac McCarthy. Don’t show it to a relative or a roommate—they’re likely to tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. The person who reads it doesn’t have to be a writer but should be someone whose judgment you trust. Once they have responded you should you look at your manuscript with their eyes to see if you agree with them.

You say there are “so many opinions about writing.” Don’t listen! They have no idea what you’re up to. If you want to write in the grand tradition of the best novelists—Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf, Nabokov, Graham Greene, E.M. Foster, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, Joesph Conrad—you have to read and read until your eyes start to water. Good prose is infectious. So is bad prose, so don’t read junk. Stop reading a book if you don’t give a hoot about any of the characters by page 50.

Finally, you want to know how you remain true to your voice. Especially in an early draft you shouldn’t stop to think about what you’re writing. Remember, always, that you’re telling a story your readers want to hear. They want to know what’s going to happen next. Is the tiger going to kill the hunter who has dropped his rifle? Is the husband who’s been diddling his secretary going to leave his wife? Is the Secretary of the Treasury going to accept those World Series box seat tickets? Is the little boy with leukemia going to recover? There are as many stories as there are readers—a cheery notion for us novelists. Stories abound like wild horses on the range; it’s your job to catch and tame one of them.

Anne Bernays
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