Teaching and Revising
I’m leading a fiction workshop this week—a good warmup for another academic year about to begin—and it occurs to me that the way I approach the discussion about a manuscript may offer a useful scheme for those interested in strategies for revising a first draft.
My custom is to first consider—and to invite my workshop participants to consider—what the draft seems to be interested in. What are its obsessions? To what does it devote the most space? What lies at its heart? Answering such questions inevitability leads to an articulation of the center of the piece. Such intimate knowledge is necessary for our deeper dive into the relevant technical aspects of the manuscript. We have to know the intentions of the piece before we can think about the artistic choices the writer made, either consciously or unconsciously, and the effect those choices created.
It’s also valuable to ask ourselves to consider the movement of the piece—the way the plot proceeds and the characters’ emotional arcs beneath the narrative arc. We have to articulate the important plot events, and we also have to know how those events affect the main characters. Who was your main character when the narrative began? What actions did he or she take that created the plot? How is the narrative about a portion of the character’s life unlike any other? Narratives are about things that demand the telling, those days that are extraordinary. Please note that this doesn’t necessarily mean events that are grand or sensational. I’ve often talked about the Richard Bausch story, “The Fireman’s Wife,” a story about a marriage in trouble, but also a story that ends with the wife realizing she’s closing the door to the bedroom where her injured husband sleeps the way one would if one didn’t want to disturb a loved one. This simple action of closing a door brings to the surface a reawakening of affection, even if it does prove to be temporary. The close observation of a simple act can speak volumes.
It’s crucial to look closely at the end of a narrative to see what rises up through the events the main character sets into motion. That turn at the end where something surprising, and yet inevitable, rises is how we fully understand the intention of the draft. At this point, either in our workshop discussion or in our revision process, we can begin to think about the choices made in characterization, structure, detail, point of view, and language that have either prepared the way for the final turn of the narrative or else have inhibited it. We can rethink any choice. We can modify it, eliminate it, enhance it. Sometimes we have to let it go completely to make room for choices we may have not considered in the first draft but now become necessary to our deeper understanding of the way the narrative wants to move.
We can ask ourselves quite simply what rises in the narrative at the end, what choices have made that turn possible, what choices need to go, and what other choices need to be made. That’s how I lead a fiction workshop, and if my method proves to be useful to your revision process, I’m only too glad to share it.
Lee, your words of wisdom resonate with me and are key to the work I do. I see now where it’s possible to apply this to scenes and chapters within larger works as well.
Yup! It applies equally as well to scenes and chapters. It’s a good way to judge whether a scene or a chapter contributes to the intent of the piece.
I wish I could attend this workshop.
Heidi, I’d love to work with you. These days, I’m teaching a novel workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts every August and this low-residency gig at Miami of Ohio.