Laura Stanfill Discusses the Art of Revision

Laura Stanfill is a writer and blogger who blogs about writing as well as making writers feel like part of a community.  She interviews other authors in her Seven Questions Series, talks about the things she loves and ties it back to writing in beautiful ways, as well as offers challenges to help us writers when we need it most. 

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Laura Stanfill as she discusses revising her novel BODY COPY.

When Emerald asked me to guest blog, I settled on the topic of revision. It’s a tricky art—and an incredibly necessary one to master for novel and novella writers. Revision is what makes books succeed or fail, especially in this tough economic climate. A good manuscript can be edited into a great one.

My completed newspaper novel, BODY COPY, took 12 drafts over the course of six years. The process of slogging through the same story over and over again really taught me how to revise.

Here are some of the problems I tackled while rewriting BODY COPY and how I went about solving them. If your novel suffers from similar issues, take heart! That’s the joy of revision. If you (or your critique group) can identify a problem in the text, then you can work on fixing it. Try to think of such problems as opportunities to shore up the structure of your manuscript and to bring your reader deeper into your fictive world.

PROBLEM: Your protagonist isn’t likeable.

SOLUTION: This was a serious stumbling block for me in BODY COPY, where four girls are living in a rental Victorian the year after they graduate from college. Two are popular and beautiful. The third roommate, Chloe, is a total suckup. My protagonist, Megan, considers Chloe her best friend.

It took other writers asking, “Why are they so mean to each other?” and “Why would Megan want to be friends with these girls?” for me to realize I had gone way overboard in ratcheting up the tension. So I toned down the housemates, gave them a few redeeming qualities, and allowed Megan to quit traipsing after Chloe like a sad puppydog. That swung readers back over to Megan’s side.

PROBLEM: The story feels slow.

SOLUTION: Before you start cutting scenes or rearranging pieces, which are both useful exercises, set aside some time to think about what you’re writing about. What does this story mean? What point does it try to prove? What’s its overarching theme? Lajos Egri, author of The Art of Dramatic Writing, calls this the premise.

For BODY COPY, my premise is “Exposure leads to humiliation.” Megan is a 23-year-old journalist, and she’s terrified of people knowing how little she understands about the world. Protecting her friend’s secret backfires, inadvertently causing the girl’s death. And later in the novel, Megan works on exposing a corrupt but powerful politician through her newspaper job.

Those major plot points fit with the premise, which I developed fairly late in the writing process. Once I conjured up that magic sentence, I went back and looked at my scenes to make sure they worked with the exposure theme. When something didn’t fit, I tweaked or cut it.

I can’t say anyone reading BODY COPY would say, “Hey, this is about exposure leading to humilation!” but hanging onto that key phrase allowed me to give the manuscript a kind of cohesion and clarity that it was missing before. And it gave me a consistent framework for my editing and chopping.

PROBLEM: Your flashbacks aren’t working.

SOLUTION: Look closely at the stories you’re telling within the flashbacks. Do they fit with your story’s premise? Do they add something significant? If so, is there a way you can convey that same information in real-time?

For me, in BODY COPY, the solution was much more cloudy. I chose to tell two stories—the present tense narrative, where my protagonist moves to the Oregon coast and doesn’t want to befriend anyone, and a parallel back story about her roommates. One story informs the other, and they both move forward together, so therefore they’re not really flashbacks, but dual-track narratives. That being said, I needed to rework a lot of those back story chunks so they fit more seamlessly into the present-tense narrative. Each one had to reveal a certain amount about the plot and characters, but not too much, or there was a flattening effect. It took a few years to finesse all that.

PROBLEM: The protagonist is too full of grief (or fear or fill in the blank). In fact, he/she is nearly incapacitated.

SOLUTION: It’s important to show real emotions on the page, but in the case of a character stunted by grief, or another big emotion, tread carefully. You want the reader to remain sympathetic, and if your protagonist goes around moaning or cringing, the reader will lose interest.

Set up the grief, or the fear, or whatever, and then get the story rolling so the protagonist can do something active with those emotions. The wallowing needs to be a springboard to the rest of the story, not the whole story. It’s worth working this out, although it was probably the hardest issue I tackled in BODY COPY.

PROBLEM: You’re holding too much back.

SOLUTION: I’ve attempted slow reveals about big plot points in my previous two novels and really studied what works and what doesn’t. There’s a lot to be said for letting the reader hang on for another tantalizing clue about what really happened, but at the same time, there’s a limit. In BODY COPY, I played around with where to place the true circumstances surrounding Megan’s friend’s death. Ultimately, I decided that scene should go pretty near the front, because even though Megan is hiding the truth from her friends (and the police), she knows what happened, and it’s her story. She wouldn’t hide it from herself, and the story’s first-person, present tense, so it didn’t work to withhold that scene. But I did withhold a big moment related to the friend’s secret, because Megan discovered it late. That one worked and it’s probably the most unnerving moment in the novel.

There’s a phrase that goes something like this: if you’re going to make your reader push a Volkswagon up a hill, there better be something amazing on the other side.

Thanks for letting me guest blog today, Emerald!