Merciless Revision

Are you telling the story, or is the story telling you?

I’ve yet to meet a writer who hasn’t admitted at least once that his or her characters are the ones telling the story; that the writer is but the humble servant to the protagonist’s and antagonist’s whims. “I’m just the typist!” they claim. “The characters take over!”

Yeah, I used to think that too. Turns out I was wrong.

I used to believe my characters controlled the story, deigning to let me into their world; I was the mere vassal to their tale. This, it turns out, is crap.

You are the boss. Royalty checks are not made out in your protagonist’s name.

I’m cool with being “led by the characters” while writing a first draft. Even a second or third draft. In fact, I encourage it. That’s where the sweat and blood and viscera come from; it’s the heart of the story.  Once you enter revision, though, the game changes. Your characters cannot tell you what plot elements work; whether the dialogue is crisp; if the narrative is elegant, functional, and entertaining all at once. That’s your job.

My first novel, Party, consists of eleven chapters told by different narrators. It used to have fifteen chapters. Four were unceremoniously deleted, and that was before it got pitched to editors. This resulted in shedding great gluts of my creative arterial blood (which I used to refill my ink cartridges).

My agent at the time never said “These chapters suck!” or “I’d sooner line the bird cage with these pages!” She merely said, “These chapters don’t further the story.”

It was one of the first great lessons I learned on the road to publication.

In revision, you must be merciless. Every chapter, page, paragraph, sentence . . . every word counts, and every one must matter. Sometimes changes require a chainsaw, the wholesale slaughter of great swaths of your novel (e.g., deleting three chapters). Sometimes you need the fine-tuning of a scalpel. And sometimes, it means trashing a whole scene (or book?) and starting over. My second novel, Zero, retains the characters and plot of the original draft written in 1993, but it was completely rewritten from page one more than twice, including a switch from third-person, multiple-perspective to first-person, single-perspective. Staying married to what I thought the characters wanted would not have yielded a marketable novel. (And in fact, did not; the first version didn’t sell.)

This isn’t to say you should surrender your story to the market—or even to your editor, necessarily, though they are right more often than not.  Many changes were made to all of my novels, yes. Some changes I fought to keep, and kept; most I didn’t fight at all, because they were excellent changes. Perhaps a better word to describe the changes would be “growth.” At no point did I obliterate the fundamental premise, plot, theme, or idea of my novels. I stayed true to the story I needed to tell.

But don’t surrender your story to the characters, either. They work for you, not vice-versa. Avoid becoming a literary Pygmalion. You should love your story, of course; but don’t let it blind you to the need for well-crafted conflict, action, and dialogue.

Submit your first drafts to rigorous interrogation:

  1. Does this chapter/paragraph/line reveal character or advance the plot?
  2. Does this dialogue show the characters struggling to advance their agendas?
  3. Is the protagonist really fighting for a goal? Is the antagonist? Do their goals conflict? (Tip: They should.)
  4. Is every single character here for a purpose?

Your story will thank you. Keep writing!