Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Characters Are Dead, Long Live the Characters

by Hannah

The Land of Revision is Disney meets Hunter S. Thompson: fun-scary with the belief that eventually the story will live happily ever after, blended with surreal, bitter truth-telling moments. When I presented Draft One to the Group earlier this year, I knew before it left my fingers it needed real work. (Draft One, by the way, was in turn the culmination of several versions along the way.) What I wanted from them was confirmation of my gut instincts on what was strong, what could be dumped; they did not disappoint, for which I am forever grateful.

Understanding a work’s weaknesses doesn’t mean one can plunge back in right away wielding a pen or ink cartridge. I spent several weeks in thought, walking around the house, driving the car, lying in bed, standing in the grocery store, and yes, with my head in the dryer. I read with no particular agenda and listened to writers.

Ideas swirled in my head like Disney bluebirds on Thompson acid. Just when I thought I'd never corral them into anything useful, they landed and I knew what I had to do. Kill Jill. Kill Aunt Pat. The problem was, I didn't know why.

As I played with the text, picking out what Jill and Pat scenes were important and considering how to keep them, other existing but weak characters stepped to the plate. One minor player appeared only in the beginning in Draft One, and the Group suggested she be dropped into backstory. By taking one of Jill's scenes from the middle and giving it to this other woman right up front, everything began to change.

Another Jill scene was taken by, of all people, an elderly gentleman merely mentioned once or twice in the first draft. I moved him from Boston to Chicago, where he stretched out and proceeded to make himself quite at home. He became more integral both to backstory and action, extending them, making them better.

Finally, without strong Aunt Pat, the weaker aunt became clearer, and -- amazingly -- her weakness was important. Again, opportunities appeared to tighten the original story and simultaneously give it more depth.

Changing this all took me quite a bit of time, as I learned not only what needed to be revised, but how to be more organized as I write and revise. I was an outliner before, but never a 3x5 card person. Now my entire story is jotted onto a stack of cards tucked into a funky plastic box from Staples. Bits and notes of my next story are already on 3x5s, ready to shuffle and roll.

Last week, Completed Draft Two went to the Group. Could it use another massage before it goes to an agent? Sure. I already have a few ideas. This time, though, it could be a matter of edits and tweaks. Rather than jumping into the fray immediately, I'm content to wait for comments. The changes I make will happen far faster, far more efficiently this time.

For the moment, I am happy to scribble down more whispers from my next protagonist, and I already have a sharper take on the key supporting characters than I did at this stage last time. I have time as well to do projects around the house I’ve been ignoring. To perhaps, for once, get ahead of the holiday shopping. For the first time in months, I'm sensing less Fear and Loathing, and more that a Happy Ending may be in sight after all.


Carleen Brice said...

Good for you! Bet the group likes this version much better.

Larramie said...

A Happy Ending indeed, despite the demise of certain characters as well as the morphing of others. In a strange way, Hannah, it sounds like child's play. ;)

Lisa said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had last week with Nick Arvin, who wrote Articles of War (Denver's OneBook pick for this year). He'd morphed the story from a 20 page short story and then it grew to 300+ pages and finally ended up at around 180 in its final version. I asked about the process and he said he didn't consider any of that revision, just really finding the story's shape. I feel like that's kind of where I am now too.

mohanley5 said...

Congrats, Hannah! Liked the head in the dryer comment...mine's in there most of the time too.

Hope the group enjoys your work.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thank you... I'll let you know, and I promise to be honest. I can take it either way, by the way, my three good friends!