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.