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Revision: The Magic We Have
I’m deep into revising my next novel, TRASHLANDS, which will be published in October 2021. I’m doing content edits, which is the first stage in the official process of getting a book ready for publication. This means thinking deeply about structure and plot, adding scenes or rearranging them. It looks like a newspaper article, from far into the book, might be moved up to the beginning, for example. It looks like I have to write new scenes about a market in a junkyard, about a violent temper, about love.
I like revision, and people always ask me why. It’s true the pressure of revising a book slated for publication is different than say, revising a new manuscript no one knows about (which is my reward for finishing TRASHLANDS: yet another book…).
But what I like so much about revision is the discovery. Revision is magic. To create something out of—in the case of my draft—trash. To make the unworkable work. To stitch together some dream you had, or something somebody once said, or an image.
People asked me, on virtual tour for my last book, what inspired it. That’s a difficult question. It’s everything and nothing. It’s many different things. But at this point in the writing stage, it’s alive—and it tells me what to do.
Bound manuscript with questions, in this case: do I need more details of the dead mall? I think yes.
I like revision because things fall in line. Your brain knows what to do, is something I tell my high school writing students. Your brain is smarter than you know. You’ve planted something in there that’s going to come back. I have found some random detail I stuck in a first draft may end up being essential in the next. Three years ago, I made a character in TRASHLANDS nearsighted. I don’t know why. Now, eleven months till publication, it’s an important plot point involving a journey, an injury, a trade for antibiotics in a strip mall lit only by skylights.
How do you revise? That’s another question I get a lot. I think, like drafting a book and creating in general, it’s different for every person—and every project. The book teaches you how to write it. I tend to print a copy out with my editor’s comments, bind the manuscript in cardboard covers, and use a red pen to write in questions of my own. I note where I need to write more or notes to myself to think more deeply about. What contradicts itself? What doesn’t add up or needs to be intensified?
More junky! More trashy! are actual notes I wrote in my latest draft.
I ask a lot of questions of myself in the revision process. Then I try to answer them. I just went through and made a reverse outline—reverse because it’s being done after the book is written—where I noted the main ideas of each chapter. Also, because this novel has multiple points of view and memories, I marked where in time we are.
Main ideas and timeline of a chapter.
Magic happens at the last minute. If you’ve put in the work on a project, it will reward you with answers. And that’s one of the most supernatural things about revision: you summon it.
In TRASHLANDS, the main character needs to make a big decision near the end of the book, in a scene I haven’t written yet. I’ll figure out what to do, I said to my editor when we talked. I know it’ll come to me.
And on Christmas Eve, fueled by eggnog and Kentucky Bourbon Breakfast Stout and a lot of thinking, years of thinking, it did.