On Revision: A Useful Tool for Deciding What to Keep, Rework and Cut

When my fingers were tip-tapping out words by the hundreds or thousands each day last year, I didn’t think about what needed to happen to get from that first draft to final. Between production and proofreading, there is a Schumpeterian-type (bless you) world of destruction and creation. But what do I destroy? What do I (re)create? How would I know?

Before I decided to get professional help, I had been planning to add and subtract things based on what I hadn’t had time to do while writing, as well as feedback from beta readers. Then I bought a self-help e-book and put myself in the hands of an expert. As I wrote before, a few chapters in, I complained that the method hadn’t led me to change a single word in my narrative (yet). I had wanted to go into delete-button delight, then rewrite and rewrite.

About halfway through the method, I realized just how big a threat my initial pantser-style revision plan had been to my novel. My poor baby would be a writhing, overgrown, artistic splat on .docx. Exercising restraint has turned out to be a blessing. Going through my draft N times (where N is a relatively large number) without touching a word helped me understand what I wrote in the first place so that I would know where to go next.

Chris Baty, the founder of the NaNoWriMo experience, says,

A novel rough draft is like bread dough; you need to beat the crap out of it for it to rise.

And I discovered that my First Draft was full of specific types of crap. First Draft:

  1. Is where my personal dreams and nightmares make too many useless cameos. I was going through quite a difficult period in my life, and of that stuff seemed to seep into the story.
  2. Is the soapbox from which I broadcast my philosophy about society, the world, its future and the kitchen sink.
  3. Had passages that were basically me figuring out as I wrote the story how the SFT world worked.

This makes sense because to write my draft, I went the forge-ahead-and-don’t-look-back-until-you’re-done way – with minimal planning because of my personal situation at the time. Naturally, what came out on the other side was a steady stream of consciousness that happened to have a beginning, middle and end.

But the novel I intend to publish is not meant to be an extremely long, whiny and fanciful diary entry to myself (some novels are, and that’s okay). Not this one, not for me. As my freshman year philosophy professor said, reading a book is having a dialogue with the author. I want to have a sensible dialogue with my readers.

How did I know what kind of crap my manuscript contained? How did I come to the three realizations enumerated above? And how did I even begin to decide what to cut, what to rework and what to keep?

I used a crapdar.

I made this particular crapdar out of a big, black dot, four concentric circles and my Just One Thing.

The Target

Stuart Horwitz, the author of the method I’m using to revise my draft, calls it a “target”, and so, too, will I.

To begin deciding which bits to kill or keep (assuming you’ve already got a main theme),

First, construct a target and put your Just One Thing in the bull’s eye.

Going by the illustrations in Mr. Horwitz’s book, targets are typically drawn and populated on large sheets of paper. Since I was travelling a lot and therefore quite sick of lugging things around at the time of the crime, I decided to bend the rules a bit and use PowerPoint to make my target more portable.* I made separate targets for characters, places, scenes and series because I wasn’t working with flip chart or butcher paper. Here’s the generic one:

A specific type of crapdar: The Target
A specific type of crapdar: The Target

The rings are not all the same width since I eyeballed it. If you can get over that, you can use it if you want.

Then, plot each narrative element closer or further away from the bull’s eye based on how relevant the element is to your Just One Thing.

A narrative element is a character, a place, a scene, or a series (a theme, in Mr. Horwitz’s terminology, to separate it from The Theme – the Just One Thing). I numbered all of my elements and shot the numbers at my targets instead of writing the names out on Post-It notes or bits of paper as I had seen in the book.

Finally, identify the outliers.

What things were at the fringes of the target? Off the board altogether? I circled them. We all knew that they were in for something special later on.

Making an Ambiguous Process Work for Me

My problem with Mr. Horwitz’s method is that despite some really good guidance, it sometimes leaves me baffled as to how, exactly, I’m meant to approach an action step. I’m too broke and too far away to take one of his workshops, so had to sort two problems out myself before I could continue.

The biggest issue I faced was distance to bull’s eye. What made one element more or less relevant to the Just One Thing? Mr. Horwitz was great at giving examples from real clients, but for this particular exercise, none of them resonated with me. I didn’t know what to do for my First Draft.

I tried starting with one element, then comparing the next relative to that. Here’s Scene One. Scene Two is less relevant, so it goes further out than Scene One. Scene Three is between One and Two, so I’ll just move the other two boxes and… This stopped working after Scene five of many, and it was too chaotic for my brain.

What did work was thinking about my target in terms of five categories. I had four fat rings and a whitespace. They represented degree of relevance to the Just One Thing. From the innermost ring around the bull’s eye (I didn’t want to write over my Just One Thing) to the outermost ring, the categories were based on relevance to the central theme. They went from “very high” to “not”, where “not” meant that the narrative arrows missed the target completely (that one was the easy one).

So I overcame my Ubernerd Inner Complicator and figured out what closer to and further from the bull’s eye meant, at least enough for me to plot my elements linearly. But the target was round. How was I supposed to arrange the elements across this space?

I tried a few options: Use two dimensions along the x and y axes, e.g. poor at the bottom, rich on top, then love to the right and hate to the left? Cluster things by character group, e.g. government here, corporate folks there? Cluster things by scene? I gave each option about ten minutes of thought or trial, but these potential solutions would have made the problem more complicated.

In the end, I went with location, then series to the extent possible. This was the most elegant and workable solution because I only have three broad locations, and the trial run seemed to be working. So I went with it. And it went well.

Things that took place in New York went in the top half of the circle, DC went bottom right and Seattle bottom left. Within those sections I clustered, for example, narrative elements that followed the main character’s storyline. Some things were ambiguous and some things intersected with other elements further away. I put these things where there was space and where it made my brain happy. In this case, my Ubernerd Inner Complicator clearly prevailed, but I had fun.

It all finally made enough sense for me to be able to use the tool and tee myself up for deliberation. I have no idea whether what I did was correct, but it worked for me.

Here’s my Character Target:

Voilà - My Character Target, all shot up.
Voilà – My Character Target, all shot up.

Judgment Days

What I like about Mr. Horwitz’s method is that it’s a method, not a formula. It gives each author the freedom to decide what works best for her needs and way of thinking, yet ensures that she is strategic rather than willy-nilly about revising her work.

I make the decisions about where I want to take the story (or maybe where the story wants to take me). If I cut something that’s irrelevant to my Just One Thing, I do it after careful consideration with my main theme in mind. If I keep something that has nothing to do with my Just One Thing, I do so with a clear and sensible purpose.

I’ve found that using a good crapdar (in my case, Horwitz’s target) anchored by one main theme is an excellent tool to understand what I should think about cutting, reworking and keeping.

The next and very important part of the process is to make decisions. Many, many decisions. Those I leave for another post.

* I’ve since made a target on Excel which is much cooler – using trigonometry! (It’s a beta version.) I never thought I’d see the day I would use trigonometry to write a novel. Anyway, I have a row for each narrative element. After defining some parameters (manually, unfortunately), all you have to do is type into the adjacent cell whether the element is what its relevance level is with respect to the main theme, and the points appear on the target automatically. But it’s very awkward. There must be a better way to do this target digitally.

4 thoughts on “On Revision: A Useful Tool for Deciding What to Keep, Rework and Cut

  1. I love this post Jax.You make it seem like the brain dump is the easy part!

    I’m going to do Nanowrimo as my november challenge.

    Anyway, I have a vague idea of what to write about, but no idea how to go about doing it. Do I just write out whatever’s in my head for 30 days? Do you plot it out in advance? Did you know what kind of story you wanted to write all along?

    Any guidance would be helpful! Rosanna

    1. Thanks Rosanna! Scarily enough, the brain dump WAS the easy part…! Then again, I won NaNo only on the third try.

      What worked for me was to make a VERY rough outline and rough character sketches before Nov 1st. I had a vague idea about the story, but it kind of wrote itself. I did know exactly how I wanted it to end, though.

      The 2 years before, when I didn’t plot anything out and just wrote my neurons, I didn’t get past 20K words (also I had been working…).

      Bottom line though is that it depends on how your brain ticks: do you fly by the seat of your pants or plan?

      NaNoWriMo basics refresh is my next post! I’ll collect my thoughts and give more details then 🙂

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