I am mostly through a major revision to one work-in-progress (wip), and facing something similar in another. I’ve been talking about this revision for – like, I don’t know, five years now. I have probably gone over and revised the same material the standard dozen times, and I still don’t have it quite right.
Problem – in part – is that I’m having to add new material. What that means is that I have to create the new character/storyline/words to add this to the story, THEN I have to figure out where to fit it in, including bits and pieces scattered throughout the existing writing. It’s HARD!
I don’t care how much better it will make the story (well, yes I do) but IT IS HARD!
The other aspect of this is that I have to go back and cut as many words as I can. This consists of eliminating unnecessary words as well as getting rid of any information dumps (okay, exposition) that is unattractive and uninspiring for the reader. They want the story, but they want to be entertained while learning about the character’s past love affair or the minor childhood incident that changed a lifetime.
There are only two ways I know to go about this revision, and it still is tedious, time-consuming, and , well, HARD. I’m referring to Smuggle and Stitch.
Smuggle is a term some writers use to explain how to present certain information about the story, especially the characters, to the reader. The idea is that rather than dump a whole pile of information in straight exposition (even if it comes via a character’s dialogue), bits and pieces of information should be dropped simply into the narrative along the way. This builds the reader’s knowledge of the character gradually and allows them to draw on it in an organic way when things come to a head.
My cardinal rule of thumb is that you don’t want anything to break the reader from the story. Jarring notes such as misinformation, eg, Alaska is located on the North American continent at a latitude lower than that of Hawaii; speech patterns inconsistent with the character’s previously demonstrated patterns; an off description, such as unexplained inconsistencies about the protagonist’s hair style and color.. Other ‘sins’ can include inconsistent or inaccurate locale description, historical gaffes, out-of-date slang, or even anachronisms such as a cell phone in the 1890s. (short of a time travel story). The point is, anything that even momentarily makes the reader stop reading and think “Hey wait, that can’t be right!” qualifies here.
Also in the bucket are long paragraphs or scenes of exposition, description, or the phenomenon called ‘talking heads’: characters doing nothing but sitting around talking about what is happening, has happened, or will happen. These are absolute ‘no-nos’, because nothing will throw your reader out of a story faster than boring passages, even if the information conveyed is necessary to the story.
You, the writer, are here to entertain. Inform, too, but in an entertaining way. Allowing your story to feature passages that throw the writer unceremoniously out of their reverie, out of the world you have spent precious time creating is at least counterproductive to reaching this reader or getting them to read your work again.
Writing is sometimes like a quilt, patches sewn together with tiny – preferably invisible – stitches to make a complete and cozy blanket to enshroud the reader in a new world. Adding new material to a blanket already completed is no small feat, but it must be done so as to be undetectable in order to make the quilt good as new.
So it is with new material being added to a story. Some patches, or scenes go in wholesale, between other rows of patches. To keep the pattern consistent, however, a writer must work in individual ones here and there, or adjust an existing patch with a stitch or two. Some quilts even require added stitching all over to unify the design properly. To make the story come out reading as if it were never any other way is artistry. Also, hard).
My next blogposts, published within a day or two, will have specific examples of the smuggling and stitching I practiced while revising my current wip.