I am currently revising a very long novel. I briefly discussed this as part of a post back in March (https://thewomenofletters.com/2022/03/11/%EF%BF%BCrandom-thoughts-reflections-and-musings/) but would like to take a little more time to discuss it.
The process of revision in fiction is endlessly complex and surprising, whether it be a story or a novel. Stories have to be more tightly written: things must fit together with fewer loose ends. In the novel, the challenge is that there is so much going on that the writer needs to remember everything, maintain the narrative tension, ensure that the protagonists have a narrative arc, etc. Both forms of fiction have their challenges. But mine right now is the novel, which I think is a harder undertaking when it comes to revision.
In revising my novel, I expected to have to cut a lot of material. The proverbial “kill your darlings” adage is imperative when working with a long text. I do believe we need to put down on the page whatever is our first impulse in our first draft; not doing so will shut us down, leave us subject to the crippling demon of perfectionism. The task of revision after this is to indeed kill our darlings. Why did we repeat something over and over? Why did we describe something in detail that is really a minor point? Why is there a scene that describes something not crucial to the thrust of the narrative? And do we really need that character? We ask ourselves if there is a briefer way to explain something that can be told within a shorter space. Why go on and on when something can be shown very easily in a few words? These are extremely difficult questions to implement when revising. It is very hard to kill our darlings sometimes, not only because we have a personal emotional attachment to it, but because we want the reader to feel as deeply as we do about a certain idea, scene, or character.
However, sometimes revising a long work such as a novel (or even a novella or long story) requires adding new material. Ironically, this can make the piece more “efficient”: putting in some key scenes early on can help cut material later. This really took me by surprise, especially since my manuscript is very long and my goal was to cut it down by a couple hundred pages. But just as we have cut a lot of unnecessary detail or scenes, we can add things that serve the purpose of the narrative and make for a richer or tighter or more engaging read. For example, what was a character’s backstory? Maybe a character’s narrative arc feels thin, but when we add the backstory, we understand his motivations even more. Maybe we want to understand a married couple’s dynamics through more than hearsay, not just what the wife is telling her sister, and so we need to insert a scene to see the couple interacting. Sometimes we need to create a new character, or give a character more time on the page, because that character is an agent in driving the narrative forward and increasing the stakes. These are all things I have had to do in my revision, because I felt a lack in certain areas.
The hardest thing about writing a novel is understanding the “architecture” as I call it. What is the underlying structure? What are the girders and beams and walls supporting it? Where is it weak? Do we need another beam in the opening chapters? What about that saggy middle where things seem to droop like the cables between the towers on a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge? Can we strengthen the foundation at the beginning of part three? It is a lot to keep in mind, and even for those who meticulously map out everything on paper or make drawings, creating the structure of a novel is not easy. One can find “lesser” works from the most decorated writers and Nobel laureates that lag, sag, and droop because there is no exact science to writing a literary fiction novel. As a side note, I think there is a lot literary fiction writers can learn from what are condescendingly called “potboiler” or “airport novel” (really, plot-driven) writers, because they know how to tell a damn good story and keep a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages with a juicy plot.
Countless books and theories and suggestions exist for revising, and it is up the writer to take what she needs from this plethora of information. At the end of the day, though, it is just you with the page on a laptop, trying to work everything out for yourself, a unique task which is both exasperating and marvelous.