Monday, June 14, 2010

REVISION: Nothing is Sacred (Except For The Stuff That Is)

Okay. Revision week. I got so many questions about revision last week that I decided to do a series of posts on it this week, culminating in me actually picking apart a piece of Real Maggie Writing as an example. The first post in the series, summarizing revision, is here.

As I was trying to figure out how to go from broad to narrow with this topic, I started scouring the questions for clues on what I ought to talk about next. And I found a bunch of questions that all sort of have the same answer.

“What kind of reasons did they give you for needing to cut something from the book? And how difficult is it for you to accept these requests? Do you ever have the ability to say no, this must stay? Or is a -change it or forget it- kind of scenario?”

“I teach my students to revise short pieces, but where do you even begin with a novel?”

“When you revise, based on the helpful advice from your crit partners, do you ever worry about losing your individual voice along the way? And if so, how do you not do that?”

“So my much crit is too much crit?”

So. There are shades of difference to these questions, but I think they all have the same answer (well, partial answer). My number one ground rule for revision is this:



Core is what your novel is. It’s not what your novel is about. It’s the thing that made you want to tell this story and no other. It’s the theme, or the character, or the setting that made you love it. You have to know what the specific core of your novel is, because that’s all that you’re going to consider sacred. Everything else is negotiable. I am quite happy to tear down a novel to its bare roots if I think it’ll make the literary plant healthier. And quite often, that’s what you have to do. I don’t really consider such a revision a disaster either. Dumping nearly everything you have and starting anew is not really actually starting from scratch, anyway.


When painting with oils, especially transparencies, the old masters used to take incredible care with what layers of color they put down, even if they covered them all up with another color. Why? Because if you painted a canvas orange and then painted it black, the black will look different than if you painted that black over blue instead. Layers are subtly transparent and the eye will still see the nuances of the layers beneath it.

So your manuscript is like that. Even when you tear down to the ground, you’ll still be bringing the nuances of those scenes that you wrote before to your manuscript. Nothing’s ever truly lost. Especially once you make a new document and label it “outtakes” to put all your cut material in. No, you probably won’t use that stuff that you cut out. But your biographer will have it on hand later when they write the book about you.


So when I start a revision, I need to know what matters, and it becomes untouchable. So no matter what crit partners say, editors say, my lurking evil devil self on my shoulder says, that core stays intact. For SHIVER, my core was the mood. It was to be a slow, slow build to a bittersweet end, no matter what else disappeared. I'd cut the werewolves before I cut that mood and pace. I got a lot of feedback during the editorial process that I had to sort through, and while it was great to have a chance to really hone and focus, it also meant I had to tie myself to the mast of what I wanted out of the book. I got a ton of great suggestions. And some of them would’ve changed the pace of the book considerably. Sometimes I had two editors and critique partner giving me the same advice and I had to stand on everything that I believed and wanted for the book and say, “No. I know that sounds like a great idea and it IS a great idea, but no, you have to trust me. It’s not that kind of book.”

But you only get to have one or two of those core things that cannot be stepped upon. Normally, when two readers both offer you the same advice and you disagree -- it means you’re wrong. This is where the nothing is sacred bit comes in. You have to be willing at every step of the game to ask yourself “is this wrong?” Because sometimes, when something isn’t working on page 326, it’s because you did something messily on page 12. And sometimes that something you did wrong on page 12 is buried in the most beautiful line of prose you’ve ever written. Or sometimes the reason why your pacing is  wonky is because you bantered too long in chapter four, even though that banter is the best banter ever written. You know that saying “kill your darlings”? Well, this is what it means. You don’t have to kill something because you love it too much. But you have to be willing to cut it even though you do. Nothing is sacred except the core. (Now chant that fourteen times while wearing a cloak and we'll get a proper cult going).

So. I’m off to go work cut things off the core of FOREVER. My next post is going to be more nuts and bolts of revision, so if you have any questions . . . keep ‘em coming.


Suzanne said...

I LOVE these posts! Keep them coming...

Kristi Helvig said...

Great advice--I'm working on this right now! :)

Jen the bibliophile said...

*chants nothing is sacred except the core* I wonder if a blanket counts as a cape?

That is brilliant. I love it! Really, I will be on all week with my eyes pasted to the screen....well, except for when I'm not (but that is mostly due to kids and dishes). Thanks Maggie! I love that you take time for us readers, you are awesome!

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great posts Maggie. Loving them.:)

coldfirewriter said...

*rips covers off bed* Eh, this'll have to pass as a cloak for now.

Kim said...

I find it so interesting to hear that the "core" of Shiver was the mood. The mood and the imagery of the novel were what stuck out to me immediately and they are the reason that I read it again and again. I happened to be reading Shiver for the first time as I was studying Richard Strauss' DER ROSENKAVALIER and it was so interesting because that opera is also all about mood and I remember thinking, "It's so great that I happen to be doing this simultaneously because the two totally complement one another." Then I came across this production ( and was stunned because the Act I set looked just like the cover of Shiver and it had the same mood!

So, in short, you totally accomplished what you were going for with Shiver. But I'm sure you already knew that. ;)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

That makes me really happy, Kim. Thank you. :)

And I'm sort of amazed at all the members I've gotten to join this new blanket/ cape cult.

Tia Marie said...

Thanks so much Maggie!(even though I'm not a writer) I love everything you post. You certaily inspire me!

maine character said...

Thanks for these tips – great stuff.

You mentioned trying to figure out how to describe just what you're doing, and if I can be so bold, here's an image that works for me.

Writing a rough draft is like creating one of those Japanese rock gardens. You toss all these stones out there on the white sand, all the scenes you can think of in more or less order, and when the stones reach all the way across the garden, then you begin to revise.

First you step back and take a good, fresh look and find the best, most clear, most interesting path of stepping-stones from one end of the garden to the other.

Now you get to work and toss out all the stones you don't need, straighten the ones you want to keep, and add in a few more that are perfectly sized for the gaps you found.

With that done, you carefully adjust the spacing of each stone to change the pace and so keep everyone awake and focused on each step.

And finally, with all the heavy lifting behind you, you polish each stone, pick up the rake, and brush out all signs you were ever there, so the garden seems like a natural path of beautiful stones.

To which people will say, "It's wonderful. I don't see why you needed to change it at all."

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Hahaha -- yeah, that is so true re: the rock garden analogy!

Crystal Cook said...

So, can I just say thanks for this? Because you have no idea how much it helped me. And, I LOVE the mood in Shiver, it's my favorite thing. Well. . . other than Sam :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, Crystal. :)

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