What you are afraid to do is a clear indication of the next thing you need to do.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Revision is a process of discovery, determination, elation, and acute embarrassment. Sometimes all at once.
I’m in the process of revising one of my novel manuscripts. Last time I touched this story was about two years ago. Chronologically, it’s the second major story in the series, but it’s also the first novel I ever attempted to write, therefore I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it right. Pressure is good, every diamond needs pressure to form, but too much pressure at the wrong time is damaging. Another post on that later, most likely…
Reading the old manuscript brings up so many emotions. Embarrassment tops the list. I have to keep reminding myself that when I set the manuscript aside, I’d done the best I could do at the time. Now, with much more experience, it’s my job to make it better. Not an easy task. Not always obvious.
Sometimes revising a scene means lining up the constables.
A slight digression so I can make my point. IMO, the quintessential performance of the traditional Sherlock Holmes is by Jeremy Brett. His mannerisms and delivery were brilliant, and finally, we got a chance to see an intelligent Watson. In the episode “The Norwood Builder”, Holmes & co. are searching the murder victim’s house. At one point, it’s obvious that Holmes has had a revelation, but in true Holmes-ian fashion, he doesn’t explain. He asks Lestrade whether the constables on site are “large men with powerful voices”, then has Lestrade bring the constables, a bundle of straw, and a bucket of water to the upper story of the house.
Here’s where the brilliance of Brett’s performance comes in. Holmes sets up a smoky fire with the straw, then asks everyone to join him in a chorus of “Fire!” By this point, everyone thinks he’s insane. Holmes counts to three and shouts, “Fire!” One constable shouts with him, the others are a beat or two late, and Lestrade is silent. Without pausing, Holmes regards all of them with a look of utter disappointment and says, “Gentlemen, we can do better than that. One, two, three, fire!” And this time everyone shouts with him in unison.
“Gentlemen, we can do better than that.”
That line, that particular image of Holmes scolding the constables, keeps going through my head as I read my older work. Why is Holmes disappointed? Because the constables didn’t trust him enough to shout along with him the first time. Why am I disappointed with the scene I’m revising? Because the story elements haven’t lined up in unison to truly support the story. I need to line up the constables.
Within the old writing are snippets I can use now. Perfect turns of phrase, imagery that captures the sense of place, glimpses of the thread of the storyline. Problem is, all those usable pieces, my “constables”, are shouting at the wrong time. A proper scene has a sense of momentum to it. In one way, it’s a sense of trust. A reader has to trust that the author will deliver a story worth reading. If the words are on the page, the reader has to trust that they’re there for a reason. And until all the constables line up and shout the proper message at the proper time, that sense of trust is lacking.
So as I’m revising, I’m playing Holmes and discovering the story buried within the older writing. I’m identifying the constables and what messages they have to say, then assigning them to their proper place in the chorus. I’m firing the constables who aren’t paying attention or who are distracting, and recruiting new constables to fill in the gaps.
In the end, all of my constables should be lined up to shout, “Story!”