Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Bryan Russell on the Architecture of Revision

I'm busy trying not to melt in the New York City heat this week, and Bryan Rusell/Ink was kind enough to step in with this terrific post on revision. Bryan is Sheriff of the Forums, and blogs at The Alchemy of Writing. Enjoy!

A story is a house. We use words for bricks and wood, sentences to build and frame. Rhythm gives us a roof, diction a style. Plot gives us shape and form. We hammer and nail and build. We get drywall dust in our hair, blisters on our fingers.

And yet even when we’re done… we’re not done. We finish a house, maybe we even live in it awhile. But there always comes a time for revision.

We paint over poor choices and design flaws, whitewash those plotholes. We spruce it up. Drapes, a good color scheme. A nice polish on the hardwood floor. Clean windows. Who doesn’t like a good view?

And yet these are surface things. We cut those adverbs, trim the weasel words that always sneak into the first draft. We turn the wrench, tighten down each sentence. Cut those dialogue tags, add a beat here and there. Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.

But paint can only do so much. Sometimes stories need more. Sometimes they need deep revisions. That is, a re-visioning, a re-seeing of the story itself. We have to step inside and see a new house in the old one.

Yet we can’t always just tear it down and build it from scratch. We’ve invested too much, we’re running out of funds, and the parlor is really quite nice, and the brick fireplace, yes, it’s quite divine. And the view from the sunroom? Who wouldn’t want to keep that?

But there are problems. People tend to get lost. Hallways seem to go in the wrong direction. One of them ends inside a broom closet without a light, an albino raccoon hissing at you feverishly in the dimness. Where did that come from? It seemed so inspirational at the time.

Time to get out the sledge hammer. We have to break things down and rebuild. But what do we hit? Some walls can come down and some can’t. There are load-bearing walls, not to mention pipes, heating vents and electrical wiring. And the furnace is a cantankerous old thing.

We have to wind a new structure through the old. We have to see two things at once. What was, and what might be…

And what might be… and what might be… and what might be…

For there is no end, really. There are a thousand possible shapes, a million possible forms. A first version is built. We like it, but of course it’s never done. We change things one way. We change things another. The beginning is shifted forward, and then forward again, and again, and then back, and then forward. We add in one character and remove three. Plotlines diverge and remerge. They twist and then straighten and then twist again.

What we have is different stories. None ever ceases to exist, even if the original is lost to everything except memory. We are all masters of parallel universes. Masters not only of what did happen but what might happen. We can pick alternate paths through time in these strange houses we build, walking through different series of events. Timelines diverge and remerge. We have the blueprints for infinity.

They exist in our heads, the story and all the shadows of the story, the options once taken and discarded, or perhaps never taken and merely dreamed. We can see them all, transparencies laid one over another. We see the old cupboards at the same time as the new. We see the climactic scene with John cracking jokes and we see the climactic scene without John, for in this timeline John has ceased to exist. He never did exist, except in that parallel universe of the first draft, or the seventh, or the twelfth, and walks through the halls now only as a ghost.

And yet how do we find the right path, the right version? We hold to a vision of a house we can’t see but can feel. Walls come down, new ones are built. Extra windows to let in the light. Things sharpen, become more real. One version gains a little in density and the shadows thin, becoming a little harder to see. They’re still there. They’ll always be there. But the house is taking shape. The one we chose. It has the breakfast nook just like you always wanted. The gabled roof. The covered porch. The office with the view over the pond and built-in bookshelves. Dark wood everywhere. High ceilings so you don’t feel claustrophobic. And light, lots of light, the house breathing in the dawn morning and exhaling the soft shine of dusk. The whole house alive.

The ghosts whisper at times, of other lives and other possibilities, but they are friendly, familiar. Old friends come to visit, to share a story or two.


Jennifer Jones said...

This was just the post I needed today - gives me heart for the necessary revision that I've thus far been kicking and screaming to avoid.

Matthew Rush said...

Bryan: The absolute master of the writing metaphor. Just another reason why we love him so.

Melody said...

It seemed so inspirational at the time!

Glad to know I'm not the only one.

Bane of Anubis said...

I just have to say that after staining our deck this weekend, I hate paint, though it did make me think of revision and how things look prettier after all the shite-work. If I had to gut and then paint... argh.

erin said...

Thanks for this. This is where I live right now, somewhere between tearing down the doors to nowhere and questioning the window placement. Though I do believe I've finally cleared the place of albino raccoons.

Mira said...

I 'get' this. How does one know the right path, the right possilibities?

Maybe when I'm more experienced the 'ghosts' will be friendly. Right now, they make me very nervous.

I guess it's a process of letting go. Evenutally I just have to trust that I am on the right path. But the idea that I chose the wrong one still niggles at me.

Cool post, Bryan.

Alyson Greene said...

This is great and so true! I love the raccoon at the end of the hall closet.

So many people think of revising as editing. The good stuff comes when, like you said, you bust out the sledge hammer.

maine character said...

Not only a great post, but it reads like poetry.

We can pick alternate paths
through time in these strange houses
we build, walking through
different series of events. We have

the blueprints for infinity.

And light, lots of light, the house
breathing in
the dawn morning
and exhaling the soft shine of dusk.

Barbara's Spot on the Blog said...

This is exactly where I'm at with my novel. But I'm liking this stage and I can see much more clearly where I'm going.

Robert pace said...

In truth it seems we all write ghost stories, irrespective of what we might actually call them.

Krista V. said...

Lovely, shining words, Ink.

Tessa Quin said...

So poetic ;)

My manuscript is so close - but still not quite there. I keep making revisions and it seems like an endless process. Every time I read it, I make changes. It makes me think about Tolkien and how he kept scribbling changes to the manuscript to the day he died (or so I read).

I wonder if I'll ever feel it's really ready, but I'll have to let go at some point. That point was supposed to be two days from now, but I might postpone it for a week.

Matthew Rush said...

Also ... it helps to have another pair of eyes or three. Your spouse, your children, your contractor, the neighbor. Sometimes you get stuck inside and can't get an angle on the roof. Sometimes you get stuck in a room, staring at the walls, and can't remember the smell of wind.

Then someday (I imagine, because I'm not there yet) you're ready to open the doors and windows and invite the world in.

Hollie Sessoms said...

Thanks for that! I always hate the delete key at first, but wind up loving the new structure it creates.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Lovely, lyrical, and always right on target. Very nice!

I think being the master architect requires that sure hand and confidence that you spoke of before, about Voice.

Like any craft, it takes time and patience, and a willingness to break something. :)

Carol Riggs said...

I can SO relate. I tend to polish and paint to the detriment of the structural stuff that needs rebuilding. Btw, one helpful thing I do for those "ghosts" is have a Deleted Scenes document, where I throw stuff that I'm hesitant to outright delete. I find I never add those things back in, and when I look them over later on, they sound pretty bad or unnecessary. But it IS a way to save your "babies" until you're absolutely sure you want to make those changes.

Movies do that too--ever watch those deleted Scenes on DVDs? Usually they're not worth watching, and the scenes or bits of dialogue wouldn't have added anything to the plot anyway!

Scott said...

Ah, the two writing blogs most worth reading on the entire net, with their powers combined! What a great idea. Nathan and Bryan, please consider merging your two blogs into a single blog-piphany. No wait, don't, I also love the individuality of each.

Laurel said...

Thanks, Ink! Great analogy.

Draven Ames said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giles Hash said...

It's hard to start over from scratch, but I think it's harder to start over from the basic framework of the stories I've invested myself into.

Stephen Prosapio said...

OMG. This is hilariously appropriate. I was talking with my sis-in-law about my 9 year old niece who's always asserted that she doesn't need to revise something because as soon as she's finished writing it. "It's done!"

ali said...

This was MOST AWESOME Bryan, thank you.

John Jack said...

Bill Roorbach's Writing Life Stories most meaningful point for me involved scaffolding, the temporary structure obscuring the fabric of a story while under construction. Scaffolding provides access to the superstructure of a story. Removing scaffolding after it's no longer needed forms the crux of construction completion.

Sarah said...

This is beautiful. It resonates with me... thank you. Tearing down and building back up is just a part of the journey.

Mike said...

Great post Bryan
I would like to digress from the theme and ask you a few questions about how you structure paragraphs. You use sentence fragments very effectively. I love the way the paragraphs flow and much of that has to do with how you break the rules.

We paint over poor choices and design flaws, whitewash those plotholes. We spruce it up. Drapes, a good color scheme. A nice polish on the hardwood floor. Clean windows. Who doesn’t like a good view?

The above paragraph is structured in a very creative and non-standard way. As a reader, I’m willing to overlook the deviations and embrace the emotional connection and flow that come at the expense of grammatical rules.

Do you have any advice on how aspiring authors can break the rules, like you have, and not immediately arouse the rejection reflex of agents and publishers? How can I understand your reasons so that I may utilize them?

Rehman said...

Nathan! Thanks for this guest blog.

swampfox said...

It's like the three pigs. If you can build a house that can't be blown down, you've got a winner.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


That's a good question, but not one that's easy to answer! Part of it is instinct, but that instinct is rooted in having read and written a lot of words. A lot lot lot of words. That's the foundation of it, reading and writing across a wide spectrum of forms and styles to find what does and doesn't work.

And one thing I often think of is something Virginia Woolf once said (and I'm paraphrasing): Once I figured out that it was all about rhythm, the rest was easy.

I think there's something in that, in feeling the rhythm and cadence of the words and of how the sentences flow and connect. Sentence fragments have their own rhtyhm. How do they flow when balanced against each other? How to mix a long line and a short line? You have to find the sounds and flow that pull the reader through, sounds that lead words together rather than jar the reader to a stop.

And part of it is voice. The paragraph you picked slips into a voice that's almost like dialogue. Cuts it down to the simplest level. It creates a certain sound, I think, a sort of vocal familiarity that helps pull the reader through the paragraph. The prose is almost a character there.

There's a bit of risk, of course. The casualness of cutting in with "Drapes, a good colour scheme"... well, it's a bit sharp. You might lose someone in that transition. So I always look for clarity. One of the biggest things about sentence fragments is the transition into and out of them. Often it's not the sentence fragment itself that's the problem, but how it's juxtaposed against the prior or following sentence. In context it can be jarring or confusing.

Hope that helps a bit! If you want me to jabber on further, let me know. :)

Off to clean up tornado debris. It's been an interesting weekend!

Marjorie said...

I do not really revise. I improvise.

I was inspired to dream up new and creative ways to seriously publicize my project. I am 63, and time is of the essence.

I printed out a handful of cartoons and rode the subways. I handed out my cartoons with the blog address attached.

At 59th Street, a group of dudes laughed hysterically. I guess it was the visual of my shtik following the doo wop group... it couldn't be the toons. They are mediocre at best. Maybe it was the twirl I did after I handed out 3 toons. I would cartwheel out that subway door if I could.

Find new ways to pick yourself up and get back in the race.

Erica75 said...

Six years ago, my husband and I built a house. Hardwood floors. Clean windows. A home we could be proud of.

Now? One leak in the roof. Bugs infiltrating from places we can't find. A window screen is missing.

Perfect? No. Pretty good? Yes. Fixable? You bet your ass.

(Oh yeah, I wrote a book, too :)

Kristi Helvig said...

Awesome post! It helps to have wonderful critique partners who have the guts to say "I'm not feeling the hot pink color scheme of your guest bedroom."

After tearing down and re-building too many times to count, I think my house is almost ready for company. :)

Children's Champ said...

Mike left an interesting post in my view-

Great post Bryan
I would like to digress from the theme and ask you a few questions about how you structure paragraphs. You use sentence fragments very effectively. I love the way the paragraphs flow and much of that has to do with how you break the rules.

We paint over poor choices and design flaws, whitewash those plotholes. We spruce it up. Drapes, a good color scheme. A nice polish on the hardwood floor. Clean windows. Who doesn’t like a good view?

The above paragraph is structured in a very creative and non-standard way. As a reader, I’m willing to overlook the deviations and embrace the emotional connection and flow that come at the expense of grammatical rules.

Do you have any advice on how aspiring authors can break the rules, like you have, and not immediately arouse the rejection reflex of agents and publishers? How can I understand your reasons so that I may utilize them?

I assume that this takes years of practice and knowing the rules so well that it is like a career criminal who never does hard time caught.

Mike said...

Thanks Bryan:

I’m sure you already understand that it’s hard to develop a voice. Sometimes I think that I am falling into the paint-by-numbers method of writing, following a strict set of rules, and as a result I sound like everybody else. If I don’t write that way my work will never make it out of the slush pile.

Is your style of pacing (working the edges of the grammatical plate) something you grew into once you were published, perhaps with the guidance of an agent or editor, or was it in place when you made your first submission? If so, how was your work initially received?

Do you feel the fragmentary style is more appropriate for certain types of work?

D. G. Hudson said...

I'm revising my fiction novel right now, so I appreciate the timeliness of your post, Bryan (INK). I'm on the third draft and things are going well.

I like the idea of the novel as a house, but I tend to think of my novel as a road map from here to there. Each chapter takes me further down the road.

Revision is necessary for most of us, so I do it.

Deb Salisbury said...

Beautifully written! I love the analogies. Cheers!

Claire Dawn said...


And what might be...

I feel that. Sometimes you get so caught up in the possibilities, you don't have time to make any of them reality. And what a shame that would be, because noone else can see the fantastic house you've built in your mind.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Part of the equation is what Children's Champ said. If you study and write enough the rules are all internalized and you stop thinking about them so much. That knowledge becomes sort of like a springboard for you to jump off.

It's a bit like learning any difficult skill, really, or even a sport. Repetition, repetition, repetition... becomes muscle memory and ingrained knowledge. When you first start playing you're slow, because you try to think through everything. Play long enough, though, and you stop thinking and simply react. Instinct takes over. Except it's not really instinct, but simply that your brain is processing a complex set of equations very quickly, so quickly that it seems almost a subconscious process. Writing's not really that different. The voice comes out. Maybe it only emerges in bits and pieces at first, but it's there.

And style shapes this. The fragmentary voice is useful for some things, less useful for others. Mastering different styles allows you to shape your voice, to bend it to different needs. Cormac McCarthy, for example, has changed his style over the course of his writing career. His early work is full of long sentences and dense descriptive writing. His later stuff is abrupt, cut short, sawn off at the ends. And yet there is a haunting uniqueness to his rhythms and word choice that shows through, that is uniquely his.

For me, it's been a matter of reading and writing and studying. And, of course, good critique, from all sorts of sources. The style is variable... and yet hopefully there is something in my voice that is uniquely me. Oddly, one of the things that helped most was learning to emulate other writers. I studied a number of writers and would write stories in their style. Not so much fan fiction... the characters, events, ideas and themes were all original. But I'd write them out of other writers styles. It made me hyper-conscious of rhythm, of how different writers put together sentences. It's a study of flow.

And you can't do just one. That will limit you. Study a bunch, though, and absorb them... and they become the rich soil for your own voice. That's what I've found. And the same goes for reading. You need rich soil, and reading good books is like pouring in nutrients.

And just keeping my ears open, too. I had someone point out a writerly tic of mine recently that had escaped dozens of crit partners and workshop groups. But there it was.

The best thing about writing is that there is no end. The road goes ever on and on, as Tolkien once wrote.

Adam Heine said...

But I can't get rid of the albino raccoon. HE'S THE SECRET BEHIND ALL OF IT!

Holy crap, this was a good post. Well done, Bryan. Well done.

Mike said...

Excellent advice Bryan. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly.

Renee Sweet said...

Bryan--beautiful and true.


Anonymous said...

Living in a house under construction and up to my elbows in revisions. There is NO escape.

Very well done. Thanks, Bryan.

swampfox said...

Improvise, eh? Sounds like a former 6th Grade teacher to me!
And I love your cartoons. Nice reference to Old Blue Eyes, too.

Marjorie said...

awwwwwww, thanks swampfox! That was very kind of you to post. Your words helped me find my smile tonight.

Nancy said...

I love the concept of "re-vision." I just put the last coat of paint on a major story remodel today, and I can testify that this is exactly what happens. Sometimes during the messy parts it's hard to see exactly what you're doing to the story--I imagine it's like standing in the middle of the kitchen right after the cabinets have been torn out and your family wants to know what's for dinner. However, when the last nail is in place and everything sparkles... well, there's really no better feeling in the world.

Steppe said...

I've scooted over to your blog from here a few times. The main comment I could make is the old folk-writers injunction "No one should write a book until at least the age of forty." Saved your exposition: The story as a house, to a reread folder in key-style docs; well done.

I measured this out to not run long it is in a similar vain but more laser like between executioner and victim.

Temple Of Five Bridges.
Youthful Time Travel Master to Client.

“Pardon this indulgence it’s the standard echoes eternally blown around in my mind concerning artistic endeavors... Small talk if you will.
Steele was not unused to Mr. Eights breaking into a long rambling spontaneous soliloquy; but would have cut the monologue
short under other circumstances if he was not in dire need.
Steele lowered his shoulders extending his hands as if holding a loaf of bread by its outer ends to avoid the heat of the center.

“Nothing really exists except stories and descriptions. Take money for example and all the problems the world is usually experiencing over the money storyline. What is money?
Money is a promise.
What is a promise?
A promise is a trust.
What is a trust?
A trust is an agreement.”
Stephan tapped on a leather bound copy of “Paradise Lost” on the shelf drawing a curious glance from Pierce scanning the
entire shelf.
“...What is an agreement?
An agreement is a negotiation.
What is a negotiation?
A negotiation is a discussion.
What is a discussion?
A series of descriptions.
What is a series of descriptions?
A story.
What is a story?
Money is a story.
Why can it be said in the form of rhetorical questions that money is story without engaging in an act of pedantic pedagogy?”
The small albino boy drew his long white hair into a pony tail using a leather string he withdrew from his pocket; tying it off and allowing the improvised snow white lash to fall under
his denim jacket’s collar between the coat and shirt.
Steele growing impatient with Eight’s recitation of an obviously memorized sequence of information noticed the movement over his left shoulder in the direction of the bookcase on his side of the fireplace.
“...Money doesn't really exist. It is a promise of trust, in an agreement negotiated through a discussion of descriptions, in a series of ongoing stories. What does it all mean and imply?
Trust is the only thing that’s real.
Everything else is an artifact of perception.
Trust is an act of will, an act of volition.
Trust is a form of momentum that competes with other forms of momentum. A lot of things can be said about trust.
So I'll leave off there.”
Wondering if Eight was finished with his dissertation on the ever difficult conundrum of exchange rates between players,
based on their own level of personal integrity, he moved to lean forward to take a sip of water from a glass he had poured during the main body of his colleagues over indulgence in long winded
verbose wordiness. His forward progress deterred by a soft cord.

Mister Fweem said...

At what point though, does revision become distraction from declaring, "I have, at this point, completed something"?

CFD Trade said...

Would it be better if you had an architect and a concrete vision of what you want your house to be so that you won't end up breaking the whole thing and wasting so much time? I guess that's the importance of planning first on what you really want to convey in your story rather than just randomly write.

Lucy said...

That was neat; I enjoyed reading that.

And inspiration has struck: Reed N. Lurk's next masterpiece will be titled Architect Space Monkeys Meet the Albino Raccoon.


P said...

I Love this metaphor-- albino blind raccoon and all!


Reesha said...

I really need to learn to stop listening to all those ghosts. They beg and threaten to be put back into the story because, after-all, I put so much time into them.

I hope this isn't what all those reviewers mean when they say certain books are "hauntingly beautiful."

Griffin Mudd said...

Wow, the author certainly got some mileage out of that metaphor. Some might call that beating a dead horse. Other than to demonstrate the author's cleverness, what is the purpose of this post? To show that writers revise things? Good call!

Donna Hole said...

Bryan, you always have the best metaphors. This was exquisite. Thanks for guest posting.


Donald V. Phillips said...

I'm a building inspector that happens to write. This metaphor kicks some serious writerly butt! Althought the topic is a familiar one, it presents a fresh perspective on how to renovate a story and has given me a definite direction for revamps.

Jessica said...

Great comparison, especially considering how much DIY work is done in our house. Plus the fact that I find myself doing these things constantly.

Owldreamer said...

Well said.Thank you for expressing what I feel and couldn't.

Chuck H. said...

Damn, that boy can write!

I had a flashback to ten years ago when we were building the house I'm sitting in right now and that one window upstairs that we had to tear out and rebuild three times. Sort of like some of my WIP.

Thanks, Nathan and Bryan.

Anonymous said...
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Levonne said...

Good analogy. Thanks.

Imani said...

Great blog, Bryan! I love the way you use metaphors to get your point across. Very inspirational!

Anonymous said...
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J. T. Shea said...

So THAT'S what that big white 'cat' in my broom closet really is!

Rachel Starr Thomson said...

This is absolutely marvelous.

Going back to my revisions now ...

Natalie and Rick Nuttall said...

I recently had to tear down the walls of my story and rebuild them. Then those walls looked so good (chapters 1 and 2) that the rest of the house looked old and dingy and now I'm having to go through and clean the whole thing, repaint, tear down some more walls (cut out a chapter here, delete a character there).

When I first started writing the book, it was just fun to get my ideas on paper. Had I known then how much work it would be, I doubt I would have kept going.

Too bad I can't just hire a contractor to come in and do the remodeling for me. :)


Other Lisa said...

This is so funny! Not the post; it's lovely. But I've often thought of the process of novel-writing as building a house, and when I read other peoples' work, that's how I've approached the critique as well. This window's too small, you need more light here.

But please do keep the albino raccoon!

Andrea Dale said...

This "Revision" posting reminded me of what's most important about my work as a marketing coach and writer for executive, business and life coaches...

It's all about the stories we tell ourselves and which ones we *choose* to believe.

Thank you!

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