DISCLAIMER: I don’t believe in rules. But I do believe in certain practical applications that make the craft of writing if not easier, possible. Having said, that here are some rules. Notice how some resemble a construction site. —MJH
RULES FOR EXCAVATING AND REVISING
by Melodie Johnson Howe
1. Ruthlessness: Do not a fall in love with your work. Scrutinize it as if it were a lover you’re really seeing for the first time. The passion is over. The lust has left. But the creature remains. Can you really live with a man whose sideburns meet under his lower lip? No. Changes must be made.
2. Renovate: Okay, you put the bathroom in the kitchen. You had a good reason at the time (probably artistic, even daring), but now your characters have to walk around or through the bathroom to get on with their story. (Maybe it was an artistic scatological reason.) “But I need the bathroom”, you say. “It’s important to the plot, besides being a major clue.” Fine. Put the bathroom where it belongs down the hallway or off the master bedroom. The reader will find it because it is logically placed. And because it is, the reader will be surprised that it’s more than just a loo. But don’t forget the toilet paper. Verisimilitude is very important.
3. Redecorate: When did you begin your draft? A year ago? Six months ago? How well did you know you characters then? You decorated their rooms but does that décor really fit them now? At the beginning of your novel you gave your antihero an expensive but cold modern leather sofa. But somewhere in the middle of your draft you decided to turn him into a slob. Does the sleek sofa reflect him now? Look around his rooms. Does a slob live there? Or does a meticulous man?
4. Reflect: You have your character going down the dark basement stairs. We all know that danger awaits her there. So why does she do it? “Because I have to get my character in the basement,” you say. Not a good enough reason. This is where you should pause to reflect. Don’t think about all the exterior forces that have propelled her to this moment. The readers should know these at this point in the story; if not you have more revisions to do. Focus on the interior of your character. Go back and check out those sub-plots you created for her, that gave life to her. The answer is there. And if it isn’t, you need to put it there. For instance, maybe she once committed an act of cowardice that harmed someone she loved and this has brought her to the top of the stairs. Confronting the danger is her moment to atone. Or maybe she has lost everything important to her in her search for the killer, including her own sense of self-worth. Maybe she doesn’t care if she dies down in that basement. Reflect and dig deep. Then let your character have her moment. Make the connection to her past before she plunges into the darkness. “But it will break the tension,” you say. Breaking and prolonging are not the same thing, especially if your readers can understand why this usually intelligent capable woman is rushing to what could be her death.
5. Re-arrange: You started out with a great opening scene, but then the book slows. “Yes,” you say. “It’s because I‘ve re-read this draft so many times, no wonder it seems slow.” Sorry, but that’s not a reason. It’s slow because it’s slow. So what do you do? Re-arrange your chapters. “But it won’t make sense.” Yes it will. But you have to be brave enough to demolish and rebuild. Let’s say the dead body appears in chapter five. If you put it in chapter three it will pick up the pace of your book and force your characters into action. “But what about Chapter Four? I have important information in there.” Reduce that information to its most significant elements and weave them into Chapter Two using dialogue and narrative. Then Chapter Five can become Chapter Three. Remember that at this point you’re not just a writer, but a carpenter. Your job is to find the problem, knock down the beams that don’t hold anything up, reconnect the wiring, and hammer down the nails. There are times you may also need a bulldozer when revising.
6. Revelation: Revelation happens when you least expect it. Be ready for it and trust it when it does. I have a scene in my book where Diana Poole needs to look into her dead husband’s home office. The reader must see this room. In essence we’re back at the top of the basement stairs but in a less dramatic fashion. She peers into the room, feels great loss, and then closes the door. Then I had revised and condensed the previous chapters bringing into focus the death of Diana’s husband and the recent death of her mother, Nora Poole. Now the revised version is she stares at husband’s empty desk chair and says to the man who is not there. “Nora died.” Then she closes the door. Her aloneness is complete and her word words foreshadow discoveries to come. I was elated. I was beside myself with joy. The builder/excavator and the writer had come together at that moment.