When I was a wee tyke, at 20 years old, I already knew that to produce writing that glitters like a bowl of sugar in sunlight, you have to revise. So I revised, which in my case meant replacing one of my brilliant words with another brilliant word. Here and there. Maybe adding a comma.
Years later, when I lived in West Virginia, at an age that I mistakenly thought of as mature, I realized that “revise” means to actually change things. Ohhhh….
So I’ve been trying to do that ever since. Now I revise with abandon. Hah! Now the dark blue coat is black, and the hero is no longer, Jim, he’s James.
Actually, in the last novel I finished, I revised rather drastically at times. Two major characters disappeared entirely, though the police still call me about what could have happened to them. Two other characters appeared, and the basic structure of the book changed entirely.
In this blog post, I want to illustrate the revision process as it has occurred at one specific point in the current book. I feel both bold and anxious in doing this, as I plan to reveal some of the dumbness of my thinking. Normally only people who know me well, or who are casual acquaintances, or who have met me for a few minutes, have had occasion to see me being dumb.
What I’m showing here are the changes that I’ve gone through with a rather important plot device, of how Benedict goes into the past. Some of these changes have occurred in part from a conversation with a friend who has been reading what I’ve written. I’ll list the changes as if they were clear stages.
1. I had an idea from the beginning of the book to have things happen to Benedict in the past, so the question was how to get him there. In the first draft, I didn’t really try very hard. He simply opened the door to his apartment and—wow, look at this!—there he was, stepping into the past. Right, almost no imagination there. At that point, as I was still trying to get a draft out, I was probably thinking more about just having him go back in time than about how to make it happen.
2. If I had sent him into the past only once, his apartment door might have been OK, not great, but tolerable, but I wanted to repeat the movement between times, back and forth. If the door to his apartment was my device for doing this, it could be limiting, too random and even kind of weird. What if he just wanted to go out and buy a sixpack of beer, except suddenly he’s in 1880? So I kept the door idea, but moved to another door, somewhere else in town. That also seemed to give me more control as a writer.
3. To add another element that might be interesting, and to increase Benedict’s apparent control, I gave him an old key, acquired from a junk shop. Now it was the combination of this key and a particular door that would send him into the past.
4. How would he know which door? This is an embarrassing point in my little narrative here. I had someone dressed as a pantomime clown on the street lead him to the door and point it out. I even worked out the gaudy costume the clown was wearing.
5. Since that was obviously stupid, I erased the paragraph as soon as I wrote it, but I kept the idea of a silent character showing him the door. Now I made the messenger a strange little boy, dressed all in black.
6. Compared to the weird clown idea, I was now in Nobel Prize territory, but I still didn’t love it. It still seemed too theatrical, too forced. I began to want something more subtle, something Benedict would figure out on his own. I also have been considering whether to use multiple doors, and if so, how would he know them? So far, I’ve settled on a white door set into a stone wall, which is distinctive enough to recognize it.
The way he decides to try the key on the door the first time is a method I thought of a couple of nights ago. This idea came by accident (ie. by making myself continue to sit at the computer when I would have rather gone to the kitchen to get some chocolate).
When Benedict acquired the key in the junk shop, the shop owner had made a joke about the key opening a door of an Egyptian pyramid. A week after I wrote that scene, having decided that I wanted Benedict to choose the door for himself, and now having set the door into a stone wall, it occurred to me that the stone could make him think of the pyramid, as he had just had that conversation. Since he is in a playful mood, he goes over to the door, joking to himself about opening the pyramid, puts the key in the lock, and to his surprise—wow, look at this!
Now I feel like I have something I can work with, giving the character some control over what happens, and getting there is more natural, without the goofy theatrical effects.
And I think I need a hug for sharing.